Surprise! Sunchokes, Week Ending 11/17/2019

I didn’t plan to write about sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus), aka Jerusalem artichokes, this week.

If I did, I would have taken better photos! So apologies in advance; these pictures fail to convey just how amazing sunchokes really are.

Oh, why am I calling them sunchokes? They aren’t from Jerusalem, and they are not artichokes so the most common name is far from perfect. The “sun” part of “sunchoke” communicates how they are still part of the sunflower family, and the choke part … well, maybe sunchoke isn’t a perfect name either!

Sunchokes are a great fall and winter foraging food because the edible part, the tuber, is still available in the ground long past the time when most wild edibles have succumbed to the cold. As long as you know how to find the roots, and the ground isn’t terribly frozen, you can forage a truly delicious vegetable.

Once the aerial (i.e., above ground) parts of the sunchoke have died, the spiky remains of the flowers can still help identify the plant.

Dead sunchoke flowers marking tasty treasures below
Dead sunchoke flowers marking tasty treasures below

The reddish stalks also have a furry texture from the hairs which previously covered the stems, and some of the leaves still cling to the plant as well.

Sunchoke leaves, stems and flowers after a cold spell
Sunchoke leaves, stems and flowers after a cold spell

You could say that I “cheated” this year, because the local wild sunchokes are found in places where, let’s face it, it would be uncool for me to dig. These are wild, natural areas situated alongside a creek near my home. But not actually on my property. It’s one thing to scoop up nuts or fruits off the ground as you are walking through the woods, and something else entirely to take a shovel to it. 

So I planted my own sunchokes in my backyard. This is part of my reverse foraging / edible landscaping / permaculture strategy for my tiny little homestead. And the best part is, once you plant sunchokes once you have them FOREVER. It is impossible to harvest every tiny piece of tuber, and like so many wild edibles (pokeberry, Japanese knotweed, and dandelions, for example) any remaining piece can lead to a whole new plant the following year. Apparently they can be considered weeds or invasive due to this characteristic. However, since permaculture seeks to create sustainable systems that renew each year with minimal human intervention, perennials like sunchokes are a great addition to any permaculture project.

Interestingly enough, sunchokes also seem to benefit from human foraging. If no tubers are harvested from the patch, the plants will eventually overcrowd the area and die out. This is a win-win situation where both plants and people benefit.

Plus, sunchokes are delicious.

Although they do come with some, ah, dietary challenges.

I hadn’t planned to harvest sunchokes this early in the fall, but we’ve had over a week of bitter cold weather here in central Maryland. The sub-freezing temperatures encourage the starches in the tubers to change to sugars, resulting in even tastier food. Oh and the cold also reduces the amount of inulin, an insoluble fiber which, er, our digestive tracts aren’t terribly accustomed to. But I needed to cut down the dead stalks because the wind was blowing them over, raising the tubers up out of the ground. (I may have planted them too shallowly originally.) Since I was there anyway, I pulled up on some dead stalks to see what came up with them.

Surprise! A side dish for dinner!

As I removed the dead stalks, I left a few inches of stem to mark the location of each plant so it would be easier to find the sunchokes later in the year.

Sunchoke stems mark the spot where the tubers lie in wait
Sunchoke stems mark the spot where the tubers lie in wait

You can see in the photo below the long ropy roots that spread in every direction, and the tasty tubers attached to them. One clump of sunchoke plants produced enough tubers for my husband and I to enjoy with dinner. A few pieces had turned black but they were easy enough to remove and discard. 

Edible sunchoke tubers attached to the ropy roots
Edible sunchoke tubers attached to the ropy roots

The most common approach to cooking sunchokes is to roast them; one website suggested that a low temperature for a long time – 350 degrees for an hour or more – would help further reduce the, um, unfortunate side effects of eating sunchokes. Other cooking options for sunchokes include leaving them raw, sliced thin and garnishing salads. I found some soup recipes as well. But roasting seemed like the best bet.

I should have taken a better photo because this does NOT look appetizing. But the results were amazing.

A terrible photo of a delicious roasted sunchoke side dish
A terrible photo of a delicious roasted sunchoke side dish

I stirred the sunchokes about 30 minutes in, and I added balsamic vinegar and dried rosemary near the end (no measurements, just whatever “looked right”). I only roasted them for an hour total. The result was delicious caramelized crunchiness that we devoured entirely.

Much to our chagrin the next day. What a surprise that was!

Note: Do NOT eat sunchokes the day before any important meetings or occasions when you might be trapped with a lot of people in a small area (mass transit, road trips, family reunions, etc). The cold weather and slow roasting did NOT sufficiently reduce the inulin for our unaccustomed guts, and the following day was very, very noisy. 

According to some authors, your gut biota will eventually adjust to inulin with repeated exposure and produce a less “windy” reaction. I’ve also read that peeling the sunchokes can help with this, ahem, problem, so I may try that next time. Because believe you me, there WILL be a next time. Even if I must rearrange my entire social calendar to make it happen. Sunchokes are just too good to pass up!

Have you found any amazing forage this late in the year? Or cultivated any wild plants to make sure you could? Share your experiences below!

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