The first time I met this vegetable it was referred to as a Jerusalem Artichoke. Now it is more commonly known as the Sunchoke. Both names are derived from the fact that it is a member of the Sunflower family. The Italian word girasole is translated into English as sunflower. The Jerusalem in Jerusalem Artichoke is considered to be a bastardization of girasole. The moniker of artichoke was added on to denote the flavor profile of the plant, which does taste remarkably like an artichoke heart.
During my first introduction to this vegetable it was peeled and diced, cooked down with heavy cream, pureed with butter and strained to make a silken, dreamy spoonful. It can be served as a rich potage in small cups, garnished with shavings of white truffle as a special treat on a snowy evening. Or it can be left a little bit thicker and snuggled up alongside a crackling slice of roast pig with a scattering of mushrooms and winter savory. It can be slow poached in milk and then whizzed in a blender and poured over an equal weight of white chocolate chunks to melt into a sweetly savory ganache. It can be scrubbed, sliced and pickled in a blend of hot vinegar, chili peppers, herbs and agave syrup to create delicately crunchy condiment. It can be mashed or hashed or roasted in a hot oven with butter and garlic for a molten side dish to a perfectly roasted chicken. It can be sliced, fried and dusted with sugar or salt for to create an addictively crunchy taste sensation.
Sunchokes can be found in the market seasonally from October to March. They should be plump and heavy with basically unblemished skins and an almost translucent shiny patina, much like good ginger root. Once they start to look dry and withered they are well past their prime and should be avoided. As with most produce, if it doesn't look healthy and appetizing on the shelf, it probably won't improve itself in your kitchen. They are best stored wrapped in a couple of paper towels in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator. Jerusalem Artichokes can be used peeled or unpeeled, depending upon your preferences. Although recipes for raw sunchokes abound, be careful, they are know to cause flatulence and some sources recommend blanching the vegetables before consuming them. They do oxidize, so when their skins are removed hold them in acidulated water until they're ready to be cooked. Also they cook relatively quickly so if you're playing with them for the first time, keep a sharp eye on the process. Treat them like your favorite root vegetable (with a slightly shorter cooking time) and you will quickly discover the versatility and deliciousness of this humble tuber.