Thursday, October 30, 2008


SWEET POTATOES are one of the Carolinas' biggest crops - NC ranks 1st in its production- and grows well in the sandy soils Down East, as well as in small mountain patches. It was a staple for early settlers, a main food source for the enslaved, and is still craved by most Southerners. Baked and served with a pat of butter is my fav, but others love that gooey mashed version topped with marshmallows. We also love to slice them as fat "French fries," coat them with olive oil and kosher salt, then roast in a hot oven. Roast chunks in olive oil with sweet peppers and onions, and that's a lovely "salad," too. I'm going to try adding some pre-cooked sweet potatoes to risotto. It works with Hubbard squash, so why not sweet potatoes? And, by the way, the microwave is an excellent way to cook just one or two. Just make sure you poke them, so that the steam will release from the skin. Otherwise, it might explode!
Sweet potatoes are natives of Central America, found in the Andes mountains of Peru and Columbia. The Incas called them "batata", and recovered pottery pieces show them growing. They've been cultivated in the South since the 16th century. And don't make the mistake of calling them "yams." Yams were from Africa, and are a white, starchy root that has a totally different texture and flavor.
Poor Man's Food is their reputation, but during the holidays, they get the royal treatment, showing up on Thanksgiving and Christmas tables. Sweet potatoes are actually a member of the morning glory family, and nutritionists love them because they're high in fiber and vitamins A and C. Four times more nutritious when eaten with the skin on? I have to admit I've never eaten the skin of a sweet potato. But experts say one cup of cooked sweet potatoes has as much beta carotene as 23 cups of broccoli. So eat up.
I simply love sweet potatoes for their inherently sweet flavor and easy prep.
In the photo, nestled in the pottery piece made by my friend Missy Manning, are some "new" old varieties. Beauregard was developed in Louisiana, and the Covington was developed at NC State (GO Wolfpack!) and accounts for half of the sweet potatoes grown in the state. Both have rose-colored skins and orange flesh and are readily available at farmers markets. The Oriental (or Japanese, as some call it at the market) has a purplish skin and a very cream-colored flesh, which is much drier than others. I found it best to steam peeled chunks, rather than baking whole. The Old Timey White Batus was also drier with a slightly different flavor, and I wondered if it were not more kin to a yam. These two are "specialties" you need to seek out. And researchers at NC State are also working on a purple-skinned variety, according to the Wall Street Journal.
By the way, the NC Sweetpotato Commission would like you to drop the space between the two words. The national growers' group, the US Sweet Potato Council, apparently realizes the ridiculousness of having the run-on words.
One Johnson County farmer I talked with said he ships about half of his crop to the UK within two weeks of getting them out of the ground. Wonder if this "poor man's food" makes it to the royal's tables?
To store sweet potatoes, do NOT refrigerate. The cold damages them. Place them instead in a cool, dark and well-ventilated place. A root cellar, anyone? Use stainless steel knives, as carbon blades will cause the flesh to darken. For recipes, 3 = 1, or 3 medium sweet potatoes are about one pound, which is about 1 1/4 cups pureed.
I'd love to hear your special way of "fixin'" this glorious root vegetable. Send your comments!

CHEESE STRAWS.........recipe below......keep reading!

SOUTHERN FOODWAYS SYMPOSIUM down in the Delta.........
I belong to a great organization that promotes keeping the good eating going in the South, the Southern Foodways Alliance. Three hundred of us met for the annual symposium down in Oxford, Miss, on the campus of Ole Miss last week. I was delighted to be able to go, as last year a lottery system was imposed because of its popularity, and my number was not called :(
The theme this year was THE LIQUID SOUTH. Translated: what did we drink, and still drink, down South? Needless to say, the sweet brown bourbon poured. So did local brews, like sweet potato beer (delicious, BTW). NC wines, including Biltmore's fine sparkling wine. And spirits, from green corn to sissyshine to fine brown whiskey.
A smaller group started the party early with a "Delta Divertissement," held in Greenwood, Miss. That's where the Viking Range is made, where Viking has a beautiful, hands-on teaching kitchen, and a gorgeous, sumptuous hotel/spa where I soaked up all the comfort I could. So that we would not drink on an empty stomach, we were fed cornbread cracklins, black-eyed pea cakes, drop dead delicious artisan breads made by Donald Bender of Mockingbird Bakery, cheese straws and a wild duck dip complete with buckshot. A favorite was Bender's hominus, a marriage of hominy and hummus, minus the chickpeas. We learned how to make a proper mint julep, a Saint Charles punch in a horse bucket, and what wines to pair with collard greens and other Southern foods from the wine guy at the famed Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn. (He suggests wines from Southern France, like the Rhones;, the NE Spanish Priorato from the southern part of Catalonia; and the Italian Nebbiolo, in the northern Piedmont. Note that all of these regions share the same latitude as our South, which means somewhat similar growing conditions - minus humidity, for sure, and minus our clay soil. But they're better bets to pair with pork and peppery greens.
The next four days had us devouring catfish, oysters and other delectables. My very favorite was from Raleigh's own Ashley Christensen, owner/chef of Poole's Diner, who did an appetizer of smoked catfish and chicken liver "rumaki" served on a corn cake. It was dynamite....and I sneaked back twice for more. Another Triangle celebrity chef, Allison Vines-Rushing of Lanterns in Chapel Hill, prepared Oysters Rockefeller Deconstructed with an Eastern flair. I was so proud to claim them! Gumbo, a boned quail stuffed with forcemeat floating in ham broth was out of this world, made by Anne Quatrano of the famed Bacchanalia in Atlanta. She started her Garden Luncheon with Pickled Eggs, Beets and Figs, then served Pickled Shrimp in small glass jars. Unlike the recipe given in THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK, hers used fennel and celery seed, with no lemon. She ended with a caramel bread pudding with a peanut sauce that was out of this world.
Degustations included more bourbon, more wine, samples of a lot of different small brews, and moonshine. I liked the Peach Moonshine, a sissyshine. One of the highlights was meeting the NC legend, Junior Johnson, who addressed his autograph to my parents, NASCAR nuts, which might guarantee me an inheritance! Introduced by Barry Hannah - yeah, that famed, sarcastic and witty writer - Junior spoke to the group, telling tales of how he best out-ran the law, how he got caught, his daddy's legacy, and how now he's making the stuff, legally.

One of the most intriguing young persons attending was Casey Gustowarrow, who is driving the craziest looking bus - a yellow school bus topped by another school bus that's sawed-off and upside down. The crazy thing is that they've got an organic veggie garden growing on top. Casey has driven this bus over 9,000 miles to get the message out that whoever winds up being our next president should plant an organic farm on the grounds of the White House, and perhaps name Alice Waters as White House chef/farmer. There's a petition you can sign online, and I encourage you to do so.

RECIPE - Mary Jackson's Cheese Straws
Elizabeth Heiskell is a caterer who also teaches at the Viking Hands-on Kitchen. She researched the life and recipes of another famed Delta caterer, a black woman named Mary Jackson, who served the white elite for over 30 years, catering right up to the day she died. Her cheese straws have a great crunch and a little bite to them.
These would be lovely with champagne, or as just a little nibble at the beginning of any party.

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 10-ounce block extra-sharp cheese
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 tsp garlic powder
1 1/2 cups sifted flour, less 1/2 Tablespoon flour
No directions were given to us, but here goes my guess:
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter or spray a baking sheet.
2. Grate the cheese.
3. Beat the butter until soft and creamy.
4. Sift together the salt, cayenne, garlic powder and flour.
5. Slowly add the flour combo to the butter and blend with a spatula, then with hands knead until dough in the bowl until it forms a ball.
6. Roll dough out on a floured surface until about 1/2- inch thick. Cut with a sharp knife into strips 5-in long, about 3/8 in wide.
7. Place on greased baking sheet and cook for about 6 minutes, or until golden.

1 comment:

Rena said...

Ha! I've never seen sweetpotato run together like that.

Have you ever tried making cheese straws with herbs? I've come across a few traditional recipes recently, and I keep thinking it would be good to tweak the recipe in the direction of herbes de provence instead of cayenne. I don't have any experience with cheese straws (other than eating them), so I'm hesitant to dive into a modification first off.