“S is for Sad… And for the mysterious appetite that often surges in us when our hearts seem about to break and our lives seem too bleakly empty. Like every other physical phenomenon, there is always good reason for this hunger if we are blunt enough to recognize it.”
M.F.K Fisher, An Alphabet for Gourmets
S is for sweet potato. And the alphabet is made richer for its inclusion. There is no sorrow in the letter S when it’s a tuber with parched, rust-tinged skin, uneven in shape and unassuming in appearance. But underneath that blotchy exterior lies flesh saturated with a nut-like sweetness and bright orange vibrancy.
It was man’s inquisitiveness (and most certainly the pangs of hunger) that led to the discovery of what nature tried so hard to hide. The tubers of the sweet potato vine, buried secretively among roots and earthworms, were no match for man’s primal driving force… Hunger. As a cook, I am indebted to the eager gourmet who, armed with sticks for digging, pried this edible treasure from the clutches of the earth.
This member of the morning glory family originated in South America and was spread through the New World by Christopher Columbus. Sweet potato tastes even sweeter when heat and flame turn the tuber into candied yam deliciousness.
I love to prepare this side dish as part of a big Sunday dinner spread; it brings back childhood memories. Sunday meant helping my mom make crispy roast chicken with homemade barbecue sauce… rice and peas flavored with coconut milk and thyme… buttery mashed potatoes… cheesy macaroni and cheese… deep-fried sweet plantains… creamy coleslaw.
And then there was her cinnamon- and brown sugar-flavored sweet potato casserole, seasoned with nostalgia of breezy Sunday afternoons. That time I spent with my mom around the stove is still ingrained in my psyche. And in New Orleans, at Grandma Davis’s table with a generous serving of candied yams, I am twelve years old again.
When this humble tuber is baked in a pie shell, it assaults the mouth with a velvety smoothness reminiscent of toasted almonds. Try these recipes at home, to wake the jaded palate, inebriated by microwave meals and fast-food cookery.
Peel one large sweet potato (about 1 lb.), and cut into a ½-inch dice. Measure 2 quarts water, add 2 tsp. salt, and pour into a suitably sized pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes.
Rule of thumb for cooks: Vegetables above ground should be cooked in salted water at a rolling boil: i.e., asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini. Start root vegetables in cold salted water, bring to a boil, and let simmer till done: i.e., potatoes, turnips, beets, parsnips.
The sweet potatoes should be halfway done and offer some resistance when pierced with a fork. Save 1/2 cup of the cooking water; drain and discard the rest, leaving the sweet potato in the pot. Add 1/2 cup of your saved liquid, 1/4 cup of good salted butter, 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, a drop of vanilla and a pinch of cinnamon and return to the stove. Let simmer on low heat for another 12 minutes, stirring carefully every few minutes. Butter melts, liquid reduces, sugar dissolves to create a light caramel glaze, enhanced with cinnamon and vanilla – and it is done! Enjoy your candied yams!!
Sweet Potato Pie
Dinner has been served; the meal is at an end. In that moment of sated relaxation, when friends and family reminisce on the pleasures of a sumptuous meal; sweeten the ending with a slice of sweet potato pie. Have a store-bought 9 inch pie shell ready; it works well for this recipe. Bring to a boil then let simmer for 25 minutes, 1 lb. of sweet potato cut into a ½-inch dice. Drain and place the hot and steaming sweet potatoes into a large mixing bowl.
Add 6 Tbsp. granulated sugar, 8 oz. evaporated milk, 3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour, 4 oz. of good salted butter, ½ tsp. cinnamon, ¼ tsp. nutmeg, 1 Tbsp. vanilla, 1 tsp. salt. Blend everything together with a cake mixer until smooth and creamy. Mixture should be slightly thick. Pour into pie shell and bake in a 350 degree oven until golden brown, (about 30 minutes). The aroma of fresh baked sweet potato pie fills the room like no other. Resist the urge and wait for it to cool. Cut a slice, and indulge your sweet tooth with the taste of Grandma Davis’s New Orleans sweet potato pie.