The Search for SunchokesDan Avakian
It’s 3:30 in the morning, and I’m pulling my truck into the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market to make the daily purchases for my new Central Avenue shop, Dan’s Fresh Produce. The market is a bustling, brightly lit city: Coffee cups placed on top of boxes, in hands and creatively attached to forklifts, send up signals of steam against the frigid morning. Buyers and sellers haggle over prices as the porters with hand trucks and pallet jacks scramble along the docks filling trucks. Boxes of fresh produce line the stalls like a city skyline, awaiting the orders of Bay Area stores and restaurants. Another season has arrived.
As I find a spot to park my truck and begin the walk from stall to stall to check out the merchandise, I think to myself, “Why did I get back into this? Long hours, hard work … well, anyway, here I go. A quality check here, a price check there. OK, I’ve seen what’s here. Now it’s time to re-walk the market and make my buys.”
In addition to my standard list, I am searching for the new crop of sunchokes, an edible root from the sunflower family that is a favorite of mine as well several of my customers. In the past, sunchokes were marketed as Jerusalem artichokes, a name that isn’t quite accurate since they are neither from Jerusalem nor a member of the artichoke family. In fact, sunchokes are native to North America and can be found growing in cool climates along the eastern seaboard from Nova Scotia to the southern states of the United States and Central California, Washington and Minnesota.
Grown by American Indians who called them “sun roots,” sunchokes made their way to France in the 1600s via explorer Samuel de Champlain and eventually to Italy, where they got their name. The Italian word for sunflower is girasole, which means “turning toward the sun.” Somehow, some way, girasole became Jerusalem, and because Champlain insisted that they tasted like artichokes, Jerusalem and artichoke were combined. (In Champlain’s defense, it should be noted that the flavor of a sunchoke does resemble that of an artichoke heart with an earthy, sweet and nutty taste.)
The more realistic and appealing name, sunchoke, finally came into existence in the late 1980s when growers were looking to re-popularize their crop with a younger generation that was unfamiliar with the root. The resurgence of sunchokes was also encouraged by a slew of up-and-coming young chefs and clever marketing practices.
Although sunchokes are pretty much available year round, their season is November through March. When selecting sunchokes in the store, look for firm, full-colored tubers and keep away from green, sprouting, slimy or flabby, wrinkled roots. (Uneven and knobby roots are normal.) At home, scrub them with a vegetable brush to remove any soil. (Remember, they are roots.) Then, deep fry, steam, dice, sauté, bake or slice the root and toss into a salad or stir-fry.
Today, I decide to buy some pre-packaged sunchokes. They’re the last item on the list. “Hey guys, let’s get these sunchokes on my truck so I can get out of here!” As my truck is loaded, I look at the early morning sky; dawn is breaking over the wholesale market, the bustling is getting heavier and the fruit and vegetable boxes are dwindling. “It’s beautiful,” I think to myself. I love it. I’m happy to have gotten back into the game.