<< Front page Commentary April 9, 2004

That obscure tuber of desire

There was a two-week period last month during which I spent an unprecedented amount of time online gazing, slack-faced, at jeans. Jeans. Really expensive ones from clothing companies I had never heard of. My eye came to recognize the design details that slyly confirm authenticity. These little stitches, patches, and dye-washes came to take on a significance that makes no sense out of context. If I could afford to buy a pair of these jeans, I would be riding high in the saddle for probably about six months before my newfound jeans connoisseurship would backfire. I would realize that these jeans were over, that their little signs were faded and on the verge of revealing the worst kind of fashion faux-pas: The concerted effort at coolness that, despite rigorous attention to detail, fails.

There is no reason to be hard on oneself for being compelled by superficial ephemera. Few people transcend the thirst for the new. The cutting edge in food is just as quixotic as in fashion, if not more so. However, whereas fashion has few objective standards — not even “it has to cover your body”, food does have to adhere to a framework wherein taste is an inconvertible priority.

Right now, chefs and gardeners all over the U.S. and Europe are feeling the yearning, burning itch for a long-forgotten little root vegetable called crosnes, which is delightfully pronounced “crones”. Crosnes were originally grown in Japan, and are not uncommon in Japanese cuisine. In 1882 crosnes were brought to France and grown by an eccentric horticulturalist in the town of Crosnes, which is how the root got its present-day name.

According to England’s Royal Horticultural Society, crosnes were very popular until the 1920s, after which they became unfashionable and were largely forgotten by the culinary trenderati - not unlike the renaissance of the cache of Burberry plaid. The crosnes has been breathlessly described as “nature’s quirkiest and most elusive vegetable” (The New York Times, February 25 2004) as well as being “unsightly and difficult to grow”.

What is so irresistible about the unforgiving 15 dollar-per-pound crosnes? The reasons are about as hard-and-fast as my reasons for finding Von Dutch brand jeans so deliciously incomparable. Crosnes are a member of the mint family, which I guess is sexy in the way that Von Dutch jeans are a side-project of a custom motorcycle designer. Crosnes’ leaves resemble mint leaves in all ways but their lack of fragrance.

The money shot of crosnes is the root, which has been likened to a Jerusalem artichoke or an apple-y potato. They are usually about the size of a queen chesspiece, and once you manage to get the dirt off of them (which requires rigorous soaking in saltwater) they are a pearly shade of white. Their tight twisted shape is reminiscent of fusilli pasta or bloated caterpillars.

This is not a vegetable that stands alone in a dish. Bryce Whittlesey, the chef at the Wheatleigh Hotel restaurant in Lenox, Massachusetts, includes crosnes in his 21-vegetable casserole. Is a 21-vegetable casserole really necessary, under any conceivable circumstances? What could possibly justify such an exaggerated exercise in self-indulgence? Perhaps the crosnes are what make the whole thing worth it — the vegetable that pushes the casserole to the max. Certainly there are no other vegetables more expensive. Victoria’s Secret makes a diamond-encrusted “million dollar Miracle Bra”—there’s a reason they don’t encrust it in cubic zirconium, you follow?

Like a carrot, crosnes are juicy and vaguely sweet eaten raw from the ground.

Here is a simple and traditional French crosnes recipe courtesy of eGullet.com (yes really). Usually I try to include recipes that use ingredients that are available in the Oberlin area, but since crosnes themselves are virtually impossible to come by in these parts, and none of you can afford them anyway, I am going right ahead with this recipe whose ingredients are all prohibitive. Think of yourselves as I was, poring over jeans I could never own.

Crosnes as prepared at the (evidently quite swank) London restaurant Le Champignon Sauvage
(Like almost every crosnes recipe I could find, this one is for a garnish to the vegetable side dish.)
–150g small crosnes
–50g duck fat

Throw the crosnes into a pot of boiling water for about 3 minutes, until they’re blanched.

Toss them into a pan of duck fat and enjoy the sheer improbability of it all. Season with salt and pepper, and serve in tiny, precious portions.


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