Samara Elaine González, MSN, is the current Fresh Express Mobile Market Community Liaison at the Tacoma Farmer’s Market through Americorps VISTA. In Samara’s early days with Tacoma Farmers Market in April 2021, she attended as many Fresh Express markets as she could to get a better sense of the community and their needs. The heartening experiences of connecting with people at the mobile markets is something she’ll never forget. Those connections with the community drive her passion for the work she does in capacity building.
The first time Samara encountered sunchokes, also named “Jerusalem Artichokes”, was at a Fresh Express Mobile Market site. She had never seen them before and couldn’t answer anyone’s questions about them. After taking some home for cooking experiments, she came back to the markets better equipped to explain these oddly shaped, knobby vegetables.
There’s no doubt about it, sunchokes are a little funny-looking. They get quite a few sideways glances and puzzled furrowed brows. Like potatoes, sunchokes are a starchy root vegetable that grow under the soil. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes but tend to come out of the ground very knobby or bulbous. Many people, upon encountering these veggies in the basket at the Fresh Express Market, ask if they are ginger. Sunchokes appear with pink skin as well as brown. But even brown-skinned sunchokes can vary in colour and are rounder than ginger. As with other root vegetables, sunchokes are firm to the touch and have smooth skin. They also have “eyes” just like a potato which can be cut off when preparing.
Where do they come from? And how can I get them?
As delicious as they are, sunchokes are still a rare sight in a general grocery store. These starchy root vegetables have not made it to mass production like potatoes and carrots, so if you want to find them, you may have to search for local farmers in your area that grow them. Supporting your local farmers also wins you a heap of good karma points!
Where do they grow? Can I grow them?
Luckily, sunchokes are quite hardy and can grow in many climates and soil temperatures. Here in Washington state, sunchokes can start producing in fall and into spring, creating a solid food source through the chilly winter. Samara even reports that she was able to grow them in a medium sized planting pot!
Sunchokes are native to Central America and are considered an “evergreen perennial,” meaning they’re able to produce for multiple growing seasons (reference: Home Guides, link below). Interestingly, sunchokes happen to be in the same family as sunflowers and similarly grow with tall stalks (reference: Nutrition and You, link below). If you place a sunchoke in a cool, dark spot (for a week or so) it can start to grow some roots or shoots. Following that, can be planted in just about any container or spot in your yard with lots of sun. They grow easily and slowly, but be careful because sunchokes are invasive and can end up taking over any area that they are planted in. If it’s your intention to produce a lot of sunchokes, by all means plant them in the ground, however be mindful of native vegetation that could be overrun or outgrown by sunchokes.
How do they taste?
Sunchokes can be eaten raw or cooked! Chop them up and add to salads or eat them like an apple. Without any preparation, sunchokes have a mild and sweet flavour and a satisfying crunchy texture. Depending on the method of cooking, sunchokes can be tender and soft or mashed into fluffy goodness. As far as taste, they are similar to potatoes but nuttier. When cooking with sunchokes, be mindful that they can take on the flavour of whatever else you have in the pan with them, similar to some of the more common store-bought varieties of mushrooms. Sunchokes pair well with many things including leafy greens, beets, onions, and mushrooms. As a result of their malleable flavour, they taste great with a variety of spices including cumin, oregano, and turmeric.
Sunchokes are root vegetables which is a category of vegetables that are usually high in fibre, potassium, folate (a B vitamin), and other vitamins (WebMD). Potassium is a very important mineral that helps to regulate blood pressure by balancing the water content of our cells (Nutrition and You). Sunchokes are also a great source of iron, providing over 40% of our daily requirements (42.5% RDA) in one serving (USDA).
One of Samara’s favourite things about sunchokes is that they make a great potato replacement because of taste and texture but also because they are a low carb food! This is great news for anyone with diabetes or just looking to cut back on carbs. One important note for anyone with a sensitive stomach; sunchokes are naturally high in inulin, a type of fibre, which can cause bloating or discomfort. The solution to this would be to limit the amount you’re consuming.
Eating a diet high in vegetables and fruits provides many benefits to overall health. Most of the necessary vitamins and minerals needed to stimulate and support our bodies systems are provided by fruits and vegetables. The most important part of eating fruits and vegetables is that they remain “whole,” meaning that they are processed as little as possible so that we consume as much of the original plant as possible. That said, if you’re new to eating vegetables or you’re trying to include more in your diet (firstly, well done!), just prepare them how you like to entice the taste buds of you and your family. It will be easier to include it in your diet if it’s appetizing!
How do I cook them?
Select sunchokes that are firm with smooth skin and without any soft spots or bruises. If you’d prefer to not worry about scrubbing in between the knobby parts, you can select sunchokes that have less knobs and are rounder.
How quickly you want to use them will determine how to store them. Sunchokes can be stored in the refrigerator or on the countertop in a cool, dry place. Best practice is to just put them in the fridge, but it’s okay to leave them out on the counter for a couple of days if you plan on using them right away.
Whether you find these funny, knobby veggies at your grocery store, you bought them directly from a farmer, or you’ve started to grow them yourself, you’ll likely have to do a bit of cleaning before cooking them. Sunchokes can trap dirt in between their knobby appendage-like growths. So, whether you’re eating them raw or cooked, always rinse and scrub the outside. The skin on sunchokes is relatively thin and doesn’t detract from the flavour of the meal so go ahead and leave it on. The skin of most produce contains an abundance of vitamins and minerals anyway. One thing you may want to get rid of is the “eyes” of the sunchoke just as you might with a potato.
Here’s a guideline that Samara uses when stir-frying with sunchokes: cook everything up as usual but throw the sunchokes in with some oil/butter about 5 minutes before anything else. Close the lid and stir them once every 2 minutes to avoid sticking. Once they’ve reached a softer consistency where you could stick a fork through the thickest piece with some effort, it’s safe to toss the rest of the veggies in. In Samara’s experience, sunchokes take about 5 minutes longer to cook than potatoes depending on the cooking method used and the difference in heat and pressure.
Summary: Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Toss the halved sunchokes in oil and salt and lay face down in a pan to cook on the stovetop. Remove and sprinkle with pepper and desired spices. Transfer to the oven on a baking sheet and bake for 42 minutes.
Summary: Cut sunchokes into ¼ inch slices. Heat oil in a pan over medium-high heat and toss in sunchokes with salt and spices. Sauté until tender and brown. Heat butter and lemon separately and pour over sunchokes.
Jerusalem artichoke soup
Summary: Roughly chop sunchokes and potatoes. Heat oil in medium pot over medium heat, add minced onions and bay leaf until onions are clear. Toss in sunchokes and potatoes, then water and thyme. Bring to a boil, stir, reduce to simmer and cook until veggies are tender. Allow to cool and blend with immersion or stick blender or transfer to counter-top blender. Puree soup and strain, bring to boil, then simmer and add cream and spices.
Home guides (Nathalie Alonso, 18 Oct 2021): https://homeguides.sfgate.com/list-evergreen-perennials-64154.html
Nutrition and You (Dr. Umesh Rudrappa and colleagues): https://www.nutrition-and-you.com/jerusalem-artichoke.html
USDA Food Data Central: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/169236/nutrients