During my evening walks through the New York City's food mecca, Chelsea Market, I find plenty new things to see, whether it's a bunch of delicate pea shoots, a jar of spicy pickled carrots, or tourists trying to eat whole, fire truck-red lobsters in a single sitting.
A few weeks ago I came upon these knobby roots sitting in a tub of water. As it turns out, it's a type of vegetable that's in its peak season during the fall and winter. Any guesses as to what it is? Check out the answer, after the jump.
They turned out to be sunchokes - humble tubers with a history that resembles a sad episode of VH1 Behind the Music.
You might know sunchokes by their former name, the Jerusalem artichoke--a total misnomer since sunchokes are native to North America. (Some historians believe that the Jerusalem part came from a corruption of the word girasola, the Italian word for sunflower, because sunchokes grow from the roots of bright yellow flowers.) But being unattractive and suffering an identity crisis was just the beginning of its problems.
After the sunchoke was introduced to the Europeans, it was named a cause of leprosy, and later it was just "a poor man's vegetable" during World War II. Then in the 1980s, a pyramid scheme promised American farmers would reap the rewards of planting large amounts of sunchokes when the crop would appear on the commodities market; it never did, and sunchokes were seen as a nasty, invasive weed.
In what is maybe one of the better comeback stories in the produce world, sunchokes are now not only included in a slew of contemporary recipes, but they're also appearing on many restaurants menus from Los Angeles to Atlanta.
Taste-wise, sunchokes have been described as a cross between a potato and a water chestnut with a subtle, earthy sweetness.The sunchokes above are stored in water to prevent their high inulin content from being converted to fructose too rapidly and to ward off any undesired browning, however they can be stored in the refrigerator for up the a week if they're wrapped in paper or plastic wrap. Sunchokes can be eaten raw or cooked, peeled or unpeeled, and in a variety of dishes, including sunchoke relish, a common condiment in the South.
Try sunchokes for yourself with these Martha Stewart recipes: