The first time someone served me sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes), it was pureed - a sort of creamy mash with a nutty flavor. The next time I ate them, they were served as creamy sunchoke mush... and the next, well, I think you get the point. What do you do with a little root that looks like a potato or a piece of ginger, and is sold as an "artichok" (see below)? Apparently, you mash it with butter. Don't get me wrong, I love things mashed with butter. It's one of my favorite ways to eat, well, anything, but it also seems a shame to mask the interesting shape and flavor of this relative of the sunflower by treating it like a potato with an identity crisis.
I wanted to branch out a bit, so I pickled mine! I'm not going to claim this was complete ingenuity - people have been making sunchoke relish and pickles for centuries, but I was pleased to make something fresh and crisp from the oft-mashed veggie.
It seems that the culinary world is a bit confused by this tuber, and if you look at its history, you shouldn't be surprised. The sunchoke is one of the few tubers native to this part of the world - indigenous peoples of America have been growing and eating sunchokes for centuries. Apparently, the Europeans were subject to rumors that the plant was dangerous if eaten. Some brave soul decided to try one anyway (maybe in a game of truth or dare), and figured out that it was mighty tasty. After this, the story goes that some French explorer took some plants back to an Italian friend, who, upon remarking that its flavor resembled an artichoke, named the tuber "girasole articicco," meaning, "sunflower artichoke."
Like a game of telephone gone goofy, English speakers flubbed up the name and called in a Jerusalem Artichoke - though they have absolutely no connection to the holy city. Ah, but the name stuck, and perhaps the early myths of the danger have survived through history, because these tasty guys are still on the fringes of the culinary world. Don't worry, they are only myths. The sunchoke is the root of the Helianthus tuberosus, which looks like a mini sunflower. Also, they seem to be a good starch alternative for diabetics, because the substance that allows the tuber to make it through the winter, inulin (not insulin), breaks down into fructose instead of glucose during digestion. Sunchokes are completely safe, even if they won't be winning any beauty contests.
It was pretty empowering to make a batch of pickles, even if they were simply refrigerator pickles that didn't require any special sterilization or months of waiting. My roommates weren't too happy that I made the house smell like vinegar and spices, but by now they are used to my kitchen escapades and didn't complain. Much. A week in the fridge, and these pickles were ready for eating. They are so good, I've thrown in a bunch of veggies to the juice to pickle-ify them. The sunchokes themselves taste a bit like artichokes with the texture of jicama. A great way to try the weird looking tubers from the farmers market, with no danger at all. Well, except that vinegar smell.
Good luck, and Eat Well!
Oakley's Sunchoke Pickles
2 pounds sunchokes
1 red bell pepper
1 quart water, plus 1 cup
4 tablespoons salt, divided in half
3 cups cider vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
Cut the sunchokes and bell peppers into thick slices (about 1/4 inch), and combine with the water and 2 tablespoons of salt. Let soak overnight in the fridge. Drain and rinse well.
Bring the cider vinegar, 1 cup of water, the remaining 2 tablespoons of salt, sugar, and all the spices to a boil for 6 minutes. Plug your nose and alert your roommates.
Pack a jar (or jars) with sunchokes and peppers, and pour the hot vinegar mixture over the veggies up to 1/2 inch below the neck. Place any remaining spices in the pot into the jars. Allow to cool, cover, and store in the refrigerator for a week before eating. These will keep for about 4 weeks in the refrigerator. Enjoy!