- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The caller to the New York radio show I was on sounded perplexed. Health professionals had recently said that sweet potato fries are a far healthier snack than McDonald’s type french fries, she said. She had half a dozen sweet potatoes on hand but wasn’t exactly sure what to do.

“Do I peel, drop in hot oil or fry in the oven?” she asked. “The kids are waiting for me to get this show on the road.”

I recited my favorite recipe for oven-fried sweet potatoes, filled with memories.

Years ago in rural Alabama, we enjoyed sweet potatoes baked syrupy and delicious straight from the oven, or sliced and pan-fried, deep-fried and salted for fleetingly sweet and briny fries.

During the holiday season, the potatoes were candied with sugar and spices, mashed for fluffy pies and stirred into biscuit batter and quick breads for a Sunday-morning treat. Often there was sweet potato cake on the table for dessert — or, perhaps my favorite of all, sweet potato pone, which is actually a pudding resembling a pan of bread.

Even today at many gatherings across the country — from Black History Month celebrations to church revivals — a sweet potato pie or two graces the table.

Our collective history probably explains why we dig this ancient root. The sweet potato is similar in appearance to an indigenous African root known as “nyami,” which gave birth to the word “yams,” although the two don’t belong to the same plant family. Botanically speaking, sweet potatoes are indigenous to the Americas and are members of the morning glory or Ipomoea batatas family, while yams are Old World and belong to the lily or Dioscorea family. Yams, which are actually tubers, are favored in the West Indies and in Latin America and usually have a dark brown nubby skin and a white or beige, chalky texture. Sweet potatoes range in color from pale yellow to orange-red to deep purple and are always sweet and delicious.

There are dozens of varieties of sweet potatoes on the market, with names such as Beauregard, Jersey, jewel, garnet, Hannah sweets, Nancy Hall, excel, centennial and Carolina bunch, in honor of the state of North Carolina, the leading producer.

It was the work and discoveries of George Washington Carver, the great botanist and chemist, that brought world attention to sweet potatoes. In 1896, the “plant doctor,” as he was called, joined the staff of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama as director of the research and experiment station.

For more than 50 years, Carver taught local farmers, including my ancestors, how to grow a variety of crops, including sweet potatoes, peanuts, pecans and soybeans, instead of only King Cotton, which was depleting the soil. He also discovered hundreds of uses for the peanut and the sweet potato, now considered among the most nutritious vegetables — one reason for all the recent interest.

Sweet potatoes are loaded with vitamin A, or beta carotene. They also contain fiber, plus vitamin C, B6 and potassium.

During Black History Month, sweet potatoes reign evocative of history. In my kitchen all year, they reign evocative of wonderful flavors and the memories of my ancestors.

Oven-fried sweet potatoes

If serving a crowd, double the recipe and use two large pans.

4 medium sweet potatoes, about 2 pounds

3 or 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, such as canola, grapeseed, peanut or corn

About ½ teaspoon coarse salt

Scrub and rinse potatoes. Cut away blemishes or sprouts. Peel potatoes and cut into ½-inch-thick slices lengthwise, and cut again into about 3/4-inch-wide strips or spears, as for french fries.

Pour oil into a 12-inch cast iron skillet and heat on lower shelf of preheated 400-degree oven for about 5 minutes, or until oil is rippling and hot. Carefully remove pan from oven and add potatoes, trying not to crowd the pan so that potatoes do not cook by steaming.

Return skillet to oven and bake potatoes 20 minutes, then turn over with a metal spatula and roast for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden all over and edges are browned, turning again, if necessary, to prevent burning.

If you want potatoes that are slightly caramelized, bake a few minutes more. Sprinkle fries with a little coarse salt, if desired, and keep warm until serving. Makes 4 servings.

Sweet potato spice bread

Butter for greasing pans

2 pounds small sweet potatoes for 2 cups mashed

Water

2 teaspoons ground ginger

2 teaspoons ground allspice

2 to 3 teaspoons crushed coriander seeds

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1½ cups sugar

4 large eggs

3/4 cup vegetable oil, such as canola, grapeseed or peanut

1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

3½ cups all-purpose flour, divided

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

2/3 cup apple or pineapple juice

2 tablespoons crystallized sugar, optional

Butter two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans and set aside.

Wash and scrub sweet potatoes, then cut away blemishes. Place potatoes in top of a steamer and cook over boiling water for 20 to 30 minutes, or until tender.

Peel cooked sweet potatoes, mash with a fork and measure out 2 cups. (Add any leftover mashed potatoes to pancake or biscuit batter, or simply eat with a little butter.) Place potatoes in a large bowl or in bowl of a standing mixer. Add ginger, allspice, crushed coriander seed, lemon juice and sugar. With a mixer, beat potatoes until soft and fluffy, stirring often, for 3 to 4 minutes. Beat in eggs and oil and stir to blend well.

Sprinkle nuts with a generous tablespoon flour and set aside. Sift together remaining flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using a wooden spoon, add a heaping cup of flour mixture to sweet potato, then add little of the apple or pineapple juice.

Continue adding flour mixture and juice in this way, beginning and ending with flour and mixing well (but not overbeating) after each addition.

Stir floured nuts into batter and mix thoroughly. Pour batter into two prepared pans, dividing evenly between pans. Shake pans gently to level batter. Sprinkle tops with crystallized sugar, if desired. Place loaves on lower shelf of preheated 350-degree oven, making sure pans don’t touch.

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, or until loaves are golden brown and puffed and a knife inserted into center comes out clean, shifting the position of the pans midway through baking. Remove loaves from oven and cool in pans on wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pans and place upright on rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes about 10 servings.

Sweet potato pone

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus butter for greasing pan

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs, at room temperature

½ cup mild-flavor dark molasses or 1/3 cup dark brown sugar

1 cup buttermilk

4 cups finely grated uncooked sweet potato, about 2½ pounds

4 tablespoons flour

1½ teaspoons ground ginger, or more if desired

½ teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

Butter a shallow 2-quart baking pan. Set aside. In a large bowl, combine 6 tablespoons softened butter with sugar. Using a hand-held electric mixer, beat until light and fluffy. Add eggs and beat 2 or 3 minutes longer. Stir in molasses or brown sugar, buttermilk and grated sweet potato.

In a separate bowl, mix together flour, ginger, baking soda and salt, and stir into batter, mixing well.

Pour batter into the buttered baking dish. Set dish on middle shelf of preheated 325-degree oven. Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until pone is crusty and a knife inserted into center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack.

Serve at room temperature or chill and serve cold, the best way.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Sweet potato praline pie

Pastry dough for 1 single-crust pie

1 egg white, lightly beaten

2 pounds sweet potatoes (4 or 5 small)

Water

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 cup granulated sugar, or to taste

2 medium eggs

½ teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground allspice

2 tablespoons dark rum or brandy

½ cup evaporated milk or half-and-half

TOPPING:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons brown sugar, preferably crystallized sugar

½ to 2/3 cup coarsely chopped pecans

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Sweetened whipped cream, optional

Prepare and partially bake (only until crust is just starting to color) a 9-inch pie crust according to recipe or package directions. Brush crust with egg white and set aside. Scrub and rinse sweet potatoes. Cut away any blemishes but do not peel. Place unpeeled sweet potatoes in top of a steamer and cook over boiling water for about 30 minutes, or until tender. Remove cooked potatoes from pan and drain. Peel while still warm. Force potatoes through a sieve or strainer, pressing hard with a rubber spatula.

Measure 2 cups mashed sweet potato into a mixing bowl and beat on low speed until light and fluffy. (Add any leftover mashed potatoes to pancake or biscuit batter, or simply eat with a little butter.)

Add butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, ginger, allspice, and rum or brandy. Beat on medium high for 2 or 3 minutes, or until filling is smooth and creamy. Add evaporated milk or half-and-half, and beat on low speed until well-blended. Pour filling into pie shell and spread evenly with a knife or spatula. Set pie on bottom shelf of preheated 350-degree oven and bake for 25 minutes. (Cover pie crust rim with foil if crust starts to brown too much.)

Prepare praline topping. In a small saucepan, combine butter and sugar. Place over medium-low heat and heat, stirring, until butter melts and mixture is well combined. Stir in pecans and vanilla, mix well and remove from heat.

Carefully remove pie from oven and set on a wire rack. Sprinkle nuts over top and then spoon syrup in pan over nuts and top of pie. Return pie to oven and bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until pie is lightly browned around edges and a knife inserted into center comes out clean. Don’t overbake. Cool pie on wire rack before serving.

Chill pie 30 to 40 minutes. Many sweet potato pie lovers prefer it at room temperature. Serve with sweetened whipped cream, if desired. Makes 6 servings.

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