by Mike Gioscia
For the average gardener, the life-journey of a backyard ingredient is easily seen, whether it’s a seed that produces a tomato that ends up in a homemade salsa, or a returning stem of asparagus eaten right from the dirt. We know what to do with these things. But there are hundreds; thousands upon thousands really, of wonderful ingredients growing all around us that can be used in our favorite dishes. So, how does one of these obscure local vegetables end up on our local menus? I asked local South Coast chef Chris Cronin to give me an example of this journey.
“There’s a way to make anything delicious, it’s all in the technique,” says Chris, Executive Chef at the newly opened Farm & Coast Market (previously of Little Moss) in Padanaram Village (part of South Dartmouth).
The Journey Begins
Chris and I walk around one of the South Coast’s most magical places, Eva’s Garden. Run by the fabulous Eva Sommaripa (see summer eSS&SC 2016), we are flanked by rows and rows of organic produce both in fields, and overflowing from greenhouses. Chris relocated from Boston to South Dartmouth to run Farm & Coast Market but has been linked with Eva for almost 15 years.
“When I worked in the kitchen at Davio’s Restaurant in Boston I used to answer the phone in the kitchen, and Eva would always be calling to report on what she had available. Later, when I ran my first kitchen as a chef, she was the first person I called” Chris explained. “When it comes to produce around here, all roads lead to Eva” he added.
Eva talks excitedly about the ‘Sunchoke’ (or ‘Jerusalem Artichoke’), in particular, its wonderful uses and local abundance. Chris chimes in that he used to make an ice cream using sunchokes when he worked as Executive Chef at Little Moss (across the street from the Market). Vegetable ice cream I wonder? “It’s amazing, we’d sell out all the time” Chris bragged. OK, I’m sold, I want some! I ask Chris if he can whip some up for us, and he obliges.
The Sunchoke is a species of Sunflower that developed in Eastern North America, a Native American crop dating back to Cape Cod circa 1600. Like a sunflower, it can grow 10 feet tall with small yellow flowers with a taste Chris says is “between a potato and a sunflower seed”. At Eva’s they mow the stalks down after they peak in October, but then dig out the Sunchoke root as needed during the Winter and Spring.
According to author Will Bonsall (Guide To Radical, Self Reliant Gardening), the Sunchoke has seen some systematic natural breeding improvements in recent decades. The Sunchoke sends out long runners with ‘tubers’ at the end, extending the plants vegetative offspring to new habitat.
“We have not replanted them for decades, they propagate from the tubers,” Eva said.
“There are plenty left behind after winter harvest that sprout into the new ones. A few may come up as volunteers from seed, but the tubers are what keep them abundant and invasive,” she added.
Searching and Unearthing
We are joined by farm manager Brett Maley, for a walk around and further discussion about tracking down local ingredients in not so obvious places, specifically sunchokes. To walk around with Eva and Brett is to taste just about every plant you walk by, a stem here, a leaf there, a flower, chickweed, you name it, it’s all for the tasting right out of the soil.
We walk to a very non-descript patch of field on the beautiful property, covered by some leaves and showing some early Spring green poking out here and there. Eva & Brett agree it’s a ‘good place for sunchokes’. With only a few of last year’s old stalks seen laying on top of the rows, it wouldn’t catch your eye as a place that was hiding ice cream ingredients!
With a shovel and a rake Eva, Brett, and Chris gently turn the black soil, looking for the fleshy roots of the sunchokes (the size of ping-pong balls to baseballs), “like mining for gold” Eva says. Indeed. After just a few minutes they find quite a few pounds worth, collect them, cover up the holes they made, then we head to Eva’s kitchen to see how Chris will transform these dirty little clumps into a tasty dessert.
Chris talks more about the local food revolution happening on the South Coast as he scrubs about three pounds of sunchokes. “When I was at Little Moss, my goal was to be as close to a zero waste sustainable kitchen as possible, and that’s what the Market will strive for as well. People are interested in learning where their food is coming from” he says. “I can walk the farm here in the morning, and be serving these ingredients this afternoon, picked just hours before, that’s really special” he adds.
Chris also brings the entire staff from the market for tours of Eva’s as well. “If they connect with the food and the care taken to grow it, they are less inclined to waste it,” he says. And they’ll learn what a sunchoke is and where it comes from too.
“It’s all about respecting the food, using the whole plant or the whole animal with minimal waste”. “The most valuable kitchen tool I have is communication with the farmers like Eva and Brett. It makes all the difference in local fresh cooking,” he says. “We’ll make sunchoke ice cream just like this at the Market”.
A Tasty Transformation
The scrubbed sunchokes go into a pot with cream to simmer with cinnamon, lemon zest, and blade mace (the outer shell of the nutmeg fruit, available ground like any other spice), which will be strained to make a sunchoke ‘puree’, bringing a nutty flavor to the ice cream. He’s obviously done this many times, seemingly paying little attention to the details as he talks.
“Instead of constructing a menu first and then looking for ingredients to satisfy it, I like to ask what’s available of the farmers and make the menu from there. I went an entire year at Little Moss only using produce from three local sources; Eva, Bill Braun’s Ivory Silo, and Apponagansett Farm, also in Dartmouth.” Brett says that the sunchokes are “one of the crops that sustain people working on the farm in winter” while Chris added, “having them on the menu sustains a need, which in turn sustains the crop and the people taking care of it”. This is a truly local economy at work. “And their shoots are edible too!” Eva says excitingly, giving me one to eat. Once Eva knows something is edible, the entire world will know it as well!
Chris makes a quick liaison of egg yolks (from Eva’s chickens) and sugar, tempers it, and adds it to milk and cream over medium heat, cooking until thickened to become a crème anglaise (or custard-like base). “You have to pay attention here, there’s a fine line between custard and scrambled eggs” Chris warns. The sunchoke puree is folded in at the end. Usually, the crème anglaise would chill overnight in the fridge before being spun in the ice cream maker, but this writer demanded we skip that step so we can eat some ice cream (you would have done the same thing!) The ice cream spins. We all think about the virtues of ‘ice cream for lunch’.
Eva raves more about the sunchoke. “They are perfect for the home gardener, they’re hardy, and once you plant it will keep coming back, just choose the proper spot, because you’ll also never get rid of them!” she muses.
The ice cream is ready and we all dig in eagerly. The taste is sublime, smooth, creamy, and nutty. “I purposely leave some chunks of the vegetable intact. If you make vegetable ice cream you want it to stand out, not be hidden,” Chris says. I nod, too busy savoring to comment.
Vegetable Ice Cream still sounds odd, not something you’d think you’d crave, but this taste is sooooo good, like a maple walnut variety, and made right here in front of me, direct from Eva’s organic garden. And those sunchokes, which just an hour or so before were hidden under a blanket of garden compost and dirt, have been transformed into the highlight of a delicious South Coast style treat. Wow, what an amazing journey from the soil to our spoons. Chris Cronin is right; it’s certainly all in the technique.
See You at The Market!
The Farm & Coast Market serves the most local food possible at 28 seats for breakfast and lunch, and also features a full-service butcher shop, a bakery, cheeses, retail beer and wine, and maybe if you’re lucky on the day you go, some sunchoke ice cream!
“We’re helping bring food back to the way it used to be, when people connected to it, before we got lost with convenience. Besides serving food, we’ll be educating people how to cook this great local product” Chris says in conclusion. “Savory ice cream is the future” Eva exclaims excitedly, licking the last of this batch of ice cream off a large spoon like a little kid. It’s hard to believe what we dug out of the dirt ends up being such a delicious dessert. And thus, the sunchoke’s journey ends…or does it?
Farm & Coast Market
7 Bridge Street
South Dartmouth, MA 02748
Little Moss Restaurant
6 Bridge Street
South Dartmouth, MA 02748
105 Jordan Road
Dartmouth, MA 02747
Mike Gioscia aka ‘The Green Dad’ is a filmmaker, writer, DJ, and drummer. He can always be talked into leading an excursion at the 125-acre Soule Homestead in Middleboro, where he is Vice-President.