LA FINQUITA FARMERS: Natania Schaumburg and Cliff Brown.
Flexibility is a key quality to cultivate if you want to get into serious eating. You may intend to hunt down one food, but the landscape is strewn with more edible surprises and distractions than you could possibly imagine. Put another way, sometimes you go looking for sweet potatoes, and what you find instead is yacón.
To the untrained eye, yacón can look an awful lot like a common ipomoea batatas (sweet potato), so its initial impact is somewhat blunted. But when you cut into it, you’ll discover something crisp and sweet that will make you shift your frame of reference to jicama. In fact, the yacón is more closely related to the sunchoke. And much like some hardy, leafy greens that you’d otherwise think have no place in the discussion, yacón’s sweetness and flavor improve after it has weathered a few frosts.
Which is why Cliff Brown was out in the chilly November daybreak last week — well after most local dabblers conceded to autumn and yanked any shriveled plant remains from their beds — harvesting yacón at its peak from a plot at the corner of Master and Lawrence streets in Old Kensington. The spot may sound unlikely if you’re not from around there, but La Finquita (the “Little Farm”) has been a part of this landscape for more than 25 years.
Over the past three of those years, Brown has been working with partners Natania Schaumburg and Zach Prazak to expand the potential of the small urban farm. Under their direction, the cultivated space has doubled, and they’ve won grants and recognition from groups like Philly Stake and the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society’s Growers Alliance.
Brown says that about two-thirds of the space is devoted to “traditional community-garden plots” that are tended by neighbors who span several generations. Brown and a growing number of volunteers manage the final third.
The produce pulled from the plots feeds the community and funds the organization. In addition to providing the organizers, growers and volunteers with plenty of food to take home, the farm makes regular food-pantry donations. From May to the first week in November, La Finquita runs a farm stand on Sundays that’s open to the public.
When the farm stand closes for the season, the land still has more to give. Crops like kale, sunchokes and, of course, yacón continue to thrive even after most people’s weekend plans shift away farmers-market jaunts. This year, Brown says he and his partners plan to sell some of their remaining fall produce to markets or restaurants. As with all of their sales, “the proceeds go back to Finquita and help with our operational expenses,” he explains.
Wherever it finds its way onto local plates, yacón won’t enjoy quite the same familiarity as most other late-harvest local crops. This is Brown’s second year harvesting the tuber, and while he personally provided some cuttings to a grower who planted them in Lancaster, he doesn’t know of any other Philly farms that grow it.
Although the plant grows well here, it might test the patience: The yacón plants at La Finquita originated with Brown’s father, Nick, who grew them from seeds and didn’t get any tubers right away. After being transplanted to La Finquita’s plots, those plants produced a crop of tubers only in their second year.
Once you have some tubers, Brown explains, things get easier. Though tricky to grow from seeds, cuttings from the root stock are usually more successful. The plants won’t survive a Philly winter left exposed, but Brown has had success placing his yacón “moms” in cold storage to be planted in the spring.
If you don’t have the land or time to give it a shot yourself, it’s worth seeking out the tubers. Despite yacón’s visual and textual similarities to sweet potatoes and other veggies, it’s got an appeal all its own. Asked how he describes the taste to the uninitiated, Brown called it “sweet and mildly astringent, with a watery and crunchy texture like a perfect apple, only with a finer grain.”
He prefers it raw (either as a snack or in a salad), but says it’s also a good addition to a stir-fry — just add it toward the end to preserve its best qualities.
The tuber also takes very well to pickling, and while La Finquita composts their yacón greens, the leaves can be used to make tea. (You can also find yacón tea and yacón syrup stocked at health-food stores, where they’ve found popularity with dieters and diabetics alike thanks to their naturally low-calorie sweetness and purported probiotic qualities.)
Most years, if you visit the Little Farm stand looking for sweet potatoes, you won’t be called upon to exercise any flexibility — the old standards will be there. But as anyone who’s tried to nurture so much as a windowsill basil plant knows, there are no guarantees in nature. This year, La Finquita lost its entire crop of sweet potatoes. But if you approach the farm stand with an open mind, a new find like yacón makes for a killer consolation prize.
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