Sweet potatoes are so American. I didn’t grow up with them. As a boy in regular potato-loving central Europe, if I’d cut into a potato and found that it had deep golden or orange flesh, I’d have been shocked.
Coming to sweet potatoes for the first time as a grown-up, however, I was delighted. I loved their beautiful color, tender texture and almost honey-like flavor, all of which combine to make them an ideal accompaniment to the rich-tasting, luxurious main-course roasts people love to serve during the holiday season: turkey, ham, duck and game.
I’ve got to admit, though, that I was more than a little bit dismayed the first time someone in whose home I was a holiday guest for Thanksgiving (a day most restaurants are closed) passed me a casserole dish of sweet potatoes topped with golden brown marshmallows. When I tasted the results, however, I understood how well the sweet, gooey, and slightly crispy melted confections actually complemented the suave chunks of roasted sweet potato that lurked underneath.
When I began to prepare sweet potatoes myself to serve with squab, venison, or wild turkey that we’d put on the menu at Spago in the autumn, of course, I veered away from the marshmallows. But I kept the important element of sweetness when making sweet potato purees, by first baking the sweet potatoes long enough to caramelize some of their natural sugars, resulting in a richer, deeper flavor; and then pureeing them with butter, cream, and hints of sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.
Then it occurred to me that combining them with the tart apples that fill stores and farmers markets in autumn could also highlight the qualities of sweet potatoes. One of my favorite combinations is the sweet potato crisp recipe I share with you here.
One of the best things about this dish is how easy it is to prepare as an accompaniment for a holiday meal. You don’t even need the little individual-serving tartlet pans I call for, though they do make for a pretty presentation; but if you can’t find them, simply arrange the individual 3-inch portions free-form on a baking sheet.
You can also do most of the work several hours ahead of time, cooking the apples, forming the individual crisps and pre-baking them for about 20 minutes. Then, put them back in the oven the moment you take the main course out, finishing the baking while the roast rests before carving.
I promise that the only shock anyone at your table will experience is how delicious this side dish is, and how well it goes with your holiday meal.
SWEET POTATO CRISP WITH GRANNY SMITH APPLES
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 pound Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, quartered and cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices
1 1/4 pounds sweet potatoes or yams, peeled and cut into thinly sliced rounds about 1/8 inch thick
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Evenly butter the insides of 10 nonstick 3-inch tartlet pans.
In a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat, melt the 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the apples and saute, stirring frequently but gently, until lightly caramelized, 6 to 8 minutes.
Put the sweet potatoes in a mixing bowl and season with the salt, cinnamon and white pepper. Drizzle in half of the melted butter and mix well to coat the potatoes. In each tartlet pan, arrange a layer of potatoes in a circle, one slice overlapping the other, using about half the potatoes in all. Divide the apples equally among the tartlet pans, spreading them evenly over the potatoes. Top with the remaining sweet potatoes, arranged as before. Drizzle the remaining melted butter on top.
For easier handling, place the tartlet pans on a baking tray. Bake in the preheated oven until the potatoes are tender when pierced with the tip of a small knife, lightly browned, and crispy, 30 to 35 minutes. Using heat pads or oven gloves, carefully invert each pan onto the baking sheet, rearranging any slices that come out of place. If the undersides haven’t browned completely, return the baking sheet to the oven for about 5 minutes more.
Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores.