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?' ”
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.
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.”