The sunchoke paradox: Philly chefs lust after them, Philly gardeners can't give them away

At the Sunday farm stand at La Finquita in South Kensington, the week’s produce is priced to sell. After all, the goal at this volunteer-run urban farm is to share fresh food with the community.

But Cliff Brown, a longtime farmer there, said supply didn’t always match demand.

“At the end of the season every year, we would have sunchokes available and sell them for a dollar a pound. They wouldn’t sell. So we’d say, ‘Maybe we just need to charge 50 cents a pound.’ And they still wouldn’t sell.”

They ended up giving away boxes of them -- to a food pantry, to a soup kitchen, and to high-end Philadelphia restaurants, where chefs are already accustomed to using sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, in soups, pastas, salads, and even in desserts.

This winter brought yet another bumper crop. (These root vegetables are hardy and self-propagating, so plant a few in your garden and you’re likely to have an abundance of them, more or less in perpetuity.) The farmers decided to run a giveaway and cooking demo -- and take the chance to preach the sunchoke gospel to the neighbors of South Kensington.

On a recent Saturday morning, 10 neighbors gathered at the farm to swap recipe ideas, sample some sunchoke soup, and haul home a bag of tubers to cook or plant in their own gardens.

Jessica Noon, a La Finquita volunteer, relayed the history of sunchoke cultivation and of this particular sunchoke patch, a tranquil, green corner in South Kensington that these days echos with the noise of construction workers clearing away post-industrial blight and replacing it with loft apartments and boxy new rowhouses.

The fields, now sprouting garlic, kale, and fava beans, are on the site of an old tire factory and have been farmed by community members, along with the nonprofit Philadelphia Catholic Worker, for close to three decades.

“There's a lot of history at this place, and we're in the middle of fighting a battle to preserve it,” Noon said.

A developer bought the property last year from a descendant of the long-absent property owner, but the gardeners are claiming adverse possession, a rarely used legal channel for longtime squatters to obtain formal ownership.

For now, despite some unfortunate side effects (in the confusion, the city cut down eight of their fruit trees, including hardy kiwi and elderberry, apple and pear, as part of a vacant-lot cleaning program), the gardeners are back for another season.

So are the sunchokes.

Noon argues they are underrated.

“The sunchoke has a very low glycemic value. It has fiber. It’s really great for people with blood-sugar disorders,” she said. “It's one of those things you tell people about and they're like, 'OK, great, but what am I going to do with it?' ”

Camera icon Ari Steinhardt / For the Inquirer
Jessica Noon holds a handful of Jerusalem artichokes at La Finquita.

So she handed out a sheaf of recipes: sunchoke chips, beef-sunchoke stew, cream of sunchoke soup, sunchoke carpaccio.

Or, of course, you can pickle them. Amanda Feifer, the South Philadelphia fermentation expert and author of the cookbook Ferment Your Vegetables, stopped by to claim some sunchokes for that purpose.

“I do enjoy the flavor of sunchokes a lot,” she said. “I used to do a low-carb diet and they are a staple to replace potatoes in the low-carb community. They do have an interesting side effect, which has earned them their nickname.”

That’s the “fartichoke.” Feifer suggests fermenting them in saltwater for a couple of weeks to cut the gas.

Several attendees said it was their first time sampling a sunchoke.

Sara Weiss of South Kensington said she’d pickle her haul or use them in soup.

“They're really good and nutty. I would totally cook with them,” she said. “Anything I can use that's a new ingredient and has health benefits, I’m interested in.”

More area chefs are having the same sunchoke awakening.

The humble tubers are elevated on the menu at the South Philadelphia restaurant Noord Eetcafe, where brunch brings a sunchoke frittata, with pear, leeks, and sour cream. You’ll find them in a shaved salad at Barbuzzo, alongside a venison entree at Townsend, and fermented with lamb ragu and potato gnocchi at Fork.

Camera icon clem murray / Staff Photographer
The sunchoke, leek, and pear frittata at Noord Eetcafe.

The most daring treatment comes in the form of desserts from Sam Kincaid, the pastry chef at Fork and High Street on Market in Old City, and a sunchoke aficionado ever since she first encountered them at farmers’ markets when she was living in Madison, Wis. Her most popular dessert this winter was an upside-down, caramelized apple bread pudding made with a roasted-sunchoke mousse.

“You wouldn't think they would be used in a sweet context, but they’re actually really kind of perfect for it,” she said. “When you roast sunchokes for a long, long time, they basically turn to caramel.”

To attempt this at home, she advises, treat your sunchokes like you would pumpkin for pumpkin pie. First bake them in a water bath, then roast them until they turn a deep golden brown, press them through a fine-mesh strainer, and then bake into your favorite custardy dessert -- perhaps with cream, egg yolk, maple syrup, and salt.

At home, though, Kincaid likes her sunchokes shaved thin in salads, to provide a water-chestnutlike crunch.

Her view is: Either really, really cook your Jerusalem artichokes, or don’t cook them at all.

“Anything in between heavily roasted and raw,” she said, “is a poor expression of the sunchoke.”


Roasted Jerusalem Artichokes and Brussels Sprout Leaves

Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS

5 large sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes

3½ tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 clove garlic, smashed

1 small sprig rosemary

1 tablespoon butter

3 cups Brussels sprout leaves (from about 1 pound whole)

1 shallot, minced

Fresh lemon juice

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Using a paring knife, cut the knobs off the Jerusalem artichokes. This helps them cook evenly. Cook the smaller cut-off pieces in the same pan with the large pieces and remove them when they're soft.

 2. Heat a tablespoon of the oil in a medium ovenproof skillet over medium high heat. Add the large sunchokes, salt, and pepper, and cook until brown all over, about 6 minutes. Pop the pan into the oven and roast until the sunchokes are tender, about 30 minutes. Roll them around every 10 minutes or so, for even roasting and browning.

3. Remove the skillet from the oven and put it on a burner over medium heat. Add the garlic, rosemary, and butter and, using a spoon, baste the sunchokes until they are lightly glazed and light brown all over, tilting the pan so the liquid pools at the bottom edge. Transfer to a cutting board and thickly slice crosswise.

4. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the Brussels sprout leaves, salt, and pepper, and cook for about a minute, stirring constantly. Add the shallots and cook for another minute, stirring. Add the roasted artichokes and cook until the Brussels sprout leaves are brown in places and crisp-tender, about another minute. Season with lemon juice and stir in the remaining ½ tablespoon oil.

V is for Vegetable by Michael Anthony (Little Brown, 2015)

Per serving: 242 calories; 8 grams protein; 24 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 16 grams fat; 8 milligrams cholesterol; 317 milligrams sodium; 12 grams dietary fiber.


Jerusalem Artichoke Chowder With Monkfish

Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, 2 minced, 1 smashed

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

12 medium sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and chopped

4 cups dashi, vegetable stock, or water

Salt

1¼ pounds monkfish or other firm white fish, cut into large pieces

1 pound maitake or other locally cultivated mushrooms, cut into large pieces

Pepper

1 tablespoon butter

Handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

DIRECTIONS

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, minced garlic, and 2 teaspoons of the ginger and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the sunchokes and dashi, vegetable stock, or water and simmer until the artichokes are tender, about 12 minutes.

2. Transfer the mixture to a blender, add 2 tablespoons of the oil, and season with salt. Process until smooth, then pour through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium saucepan. Straining makes the chowder silkier and more refined. The chowder base should be the consistency of light cream; thin it with a little water if needed. Bring the base to a simmer, add the fish and poach at just  below a simmer until just cooked through -- for monkfish, about 3½ minutes.

3. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, salt, and pepper, and brown for about 5 minutes. Add the smashed garlic, remaining teaspoon ginger, and butter, and, using a spoon, baste the mushrooms until they are lightly glazed, tilting the pan so the liquid pools at the bottom edge. Serve the chowder in bowls topped with the mushrooms and parsley.

 

-- V Is For Vegetables by Michael Anthony (Little Brown, 2015)

Per serving: 632 calories, 44 grams protein, 60 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 26 grams fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 587 milligrams sodium, 27 grams dietary fiber.


Sliced Raw Jerusalem Artichoke Salad

Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS

1 ripe avocado, pitted and peeled

3 tablespoons yogurt

Fresh lime juice

Salt and pepper

8 sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and cut paper-thin

Olive oil

2 large handfuls baby salad greens

¼ cup toasted sunflower seeds

DIRECTIONS

1. Mash the avocado in a small bowl with the yogurt and a splash of lime juice until smooth. Add salt and pepper.

2. Lightly season the sunchokes in a medium bowl with oil, lime juice, salt, and pepper.

3. In another bowl, season the salad greens the same way. Spread the mashed avocado on plates, alternate layers of sunchokes and salad greens on top, and sprinkle with the sunflower seeds.

-- V Is for Vegetables by Michael Anthony (Little Brown, 2015)

Per serving: 399 calories, 15 grams protein, 52 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 1 milligram cholesterol, 495 milligrams sodium, 25 grams dietary fiber.