Sunchokes, aka Jerusalem artichokes, are this winter’s It food. Super hot Seattle restaurant Tilth is serving organic sirloin with a demiglace of sunchokes and collards; the restaurant Lark, where no one can get a table, is doing veal sweetbreads over a ‘choke puree, just to name two. The knobby little tubers are everywhere at the farmer’s market these days, so I brought some home last week.

What’s funny about the fuss is that sunchokes are old as dirt, a tuber grown for food by native Americans. White explorers sampled ‘chokes in the New World and brought them home to Europe, where they gained some measure of culinary fame, and they remained in widespread use until sometime during the last century when they suddenly vanished from the table. Quite a feat given that ‘chokes are supposed to be impossible to kill in the garden. In fact, the U.S. government urged ranchers to grow them as cattle browse during the Great Depression, since the flower stems are apparently very nutritious and bovines eat ‘em up, but nothing doing.

Anyway, back home in my kitchen, I sampled the sunchokes raw; the taste and texture was like that of water chestnuts. Cooked in a bisque, they took on the lovely and subtle taste of artichoke hearts. There would seem to be plenty of alternate ways to prepare them; Farmer Mike of Whistling Train Farm told me that some people use ‘chokes in place of potatoes because they’re lower in carbs, and he advises cooking them as you would a spud. (I can’t confirm his claim about carbs, as the USDA database doesn’t recognize the vegetable, but some say the sugar content of sunchokes correlates with storage time.) I also came across a recipe for fried sunchoke cakes which I’d like to try next time.

That still leaves the mystery of why sunchokes fell off the face of the earth for about fifty years. Maybe it’s because they’re said to cause bad gas, which I’m pleased to report wasn’t an issue for us; I wonder if pureeing them enabled digestion. A more reasonable explanation for their disappearance might be their homely looks, and their tendency to dry up without proper storage, two qualities that don’t mesh well with contemporary food distribution systems. The good news is that you can grow your own without much effort; my sources suggest cutting up live ‘chokes and planting them 6 inches down in the soil; in early summer the plants will send up 6-foot flowerstalks, and after they die down the tubers can be harvested with a pitchfork. The bad news is that ‘chokes are banned from most Seattle community garden plots because of their tendency to invade; even the smallest bits of tuber left in the soil will grow new plants the following spring.

Check out a more recent post for more on cooking with sunchokes.

Recipe: Sunchoke Bisque

1 lb sunchokes, unpeeled / 2 waxy potatoes like Yukon Gold / 1 celery rib / 1 onion / 5 cups stock or water / 1 clove garlic, minced / bay leaf / milk or cream / salt & pepper / croutons / pumpkin seeds, hazenut oil or pumpkin seed oil

Chop sunchokes, potato, celery, and onion. Toast the pumpkin seeds (if using) at 350 degrees until fragrant, 6-8 minutes, then cool. Heat vegetable oil in a soup pot, add chopped vegetables, and cook on medium-high heat until browned, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook another minute. Add stock and bay leaf and scrape the browned stuff off the bottom of the pot. Season with about 1⁄2 tsp salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then cover and cook on low for 20 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. Pour soup into a blender and puree until smooth, then return to pot and stir in milk or cream to desired consistency. Adjust seasonings. Serve with pumpkin seeds sprinkled on top or drizzled with one of the nut oils, which complement the artichoke flavor. Serves 4-6. Adapted from Deborah Madison.