Last spring my friend Matt gave me three Jerusalem artichokes from his garden in Minnesota. Also known as sunchokes, these edible tubers come from a plant that’s a close relative of sunflowers. They taste something like a cross between a potato and a water chestnut, with a hint of sunflower resin.
As I planted Matt’s bulbs along the edge of the purple shallot patch, I was missing my sweetheart, who I had, like an idiot, dumped. I was bummed, but spring was in the air, and optimism was easy to come by, and I planted my garden with a light heart. In the coming months, Matt’s sunchokes reached for the sky. In the meantime, I somehow convinced my baby to give me another shot. But the day she came over to help with the garden, I wondered if I had made yet another mistake.
“You could weed the purple shallot patch,” I suggested, as I hunched in the pale light of my computer screen. A few minutes later I wandered outside to see how she was doing. To my horror, she had pulled two of Matt’s sunchokes and her hands were around the third. “No!” I pleaded. “Not the Jerusalem artichokes!”
“I thought they were sunflowers,” she gasped.
Sunflowers grow like weeds around my garden, and I’m too much of a pushover to yank them. But not my baby. One of the things I love about my baby is she has the balls to pull sunflowers.
“They’re useless,” she says.
Sunchokes, by comparison, are quite useful, unless they are prematurely uprooted in the heat of summer. And now, alas, my baby felt bad for screwing up. And I felt bad that she felt bad, and we both wanted somehow to undo what had been done. We replanted the sunchokes, tied them to stakes, and every day for weeks I watered them good. And soon, these two uprooted plants grew into a metaphor for our two attempts at love, past and present. As the summer progressed, we kept our eyes on the star-crossed plants, as if their ability to hang on and prosper would shed light on our future.
Sunchokes are hearty buggers—ask anyone who has ever tried to get rid of them. And true to form, the uprooted chokes would not croak. But neither did they thrive. Tiny leaves sprouted from the naked stalks, where robust leaves had once cast broad shadows.
Alas, bitter shadows descended upon my heart toward summer’s end when my baby dumped me. Perhaps Jerusalem artichokes are indeed an accurate forecaster of human love.
Meanwhile, I had more time on my hands than ever to ponder questions like, “why are they called Jerusalem artichokes?” After all, they aren’t artichokes, and they aren’t from Jerusalem.
Well, it seems that the explorer Samuel de Champlain first noticed them in a Native American garden in Cape Cod in 1605. Champlain took a liking to them, thought they tasted like artichokes and sent some home to his native France, whence they eventually found their way to Italy. The Italian word for sunflower is girasole, which means “follows the sun.” The word girasole sounds a lot like the word “Jerusalem.” And one thing led to another. The name stuck.
Even after that extensive linguistic exploration, I still had plenty of time on my hands, so I thought I would try my hand at Matt’s sunchoke soup recipe. (Luckily, they sell sunchokes at the store).
This recipe will make you want to plant a sunchoke patch of your own. And why not? They look like sunflowers and taste kind of like artichokes. Simply baked and drizzled with oil, they add an earthy sweetness to the meal. And the soup…its delicate, penetrating and creamy flavor is like nothing I’ve ever tasted.
For four servings: Scrub one pound Jerusalem artichokes under cold water, slice into 1/4 inch rounds and toss in the juice of one lemon. Melt four tablespoons butter in a pan, add one chopped leek, one chopped shallot and one carrot sliced into 1/2-inch rounds, along with the sliced chokes and lemon juice. Cover and cook over mellow heat for 20 minutes. Add three cups chicken or vegetable stock, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon crushed black pepper. Cover and simmer until everything is soft. Puree everything to a smooth consistency—ideally with a submersible blender, aka, the tool. Adjust the consistency with water, stir in 1/2 cup (or more) heavy cream or mayo and serve.
Ooh la la. I knew that with soup like this, you always have a chance. I brought my baby a bowl, and it brought a smile to her face, which brought a smile to my face. I can’t say if it was the soup, but we decided to give it one more try.
But what about the two withered plants, you ask, and their ominous forecast? I point silently to the third Jerusalem artichoke, the one my baby didn’t yank. It’s almost 10 feet tall. Obviously, it’s very happy to see us.