Sunday 1 March 2009

The Sweet Potato Challenge

"Yams, and Clams, and Human Hands, washed down with Coconut Wine...the taste of which was filthy, but the after-effect divine!" pretty much sums up my attitude to sweet potato (all apart from the 'divine' bit). This is not a vegetable I would hurry to include on any menu, having as it does a one-dimensional flavour and a tendency to dissolve into soggy pap if you aren't careful. However, since the good people of North Carolina are in search of ways of dealing with the things, then who am I to deny them in their hour of need? ( "We are having a contest sponsored by the North Carolina Sweet Potato commission......")

I engaged in some research: Patience Grey was interestingly literary; Elizabeth Schneider, in her excellent and practically biblical tome on vegetables of all shapes and forms, had much to say on the subject; Jane Grigson waxed lyrical about their supposed aphrodisiac qualities; and James Peterson explained at length the precise difference between yams and sweet potatoes (before going on to talk of the latter being served smothered in 'melted marshmallows'...the very idea of which should be enough to make strong men shudder!)

The common thread running through all of this is that in order to make anything worthwhile of sweet potato you need to mix with it some assertive flavours in order to cut the sweetness, to give the dish another dimension, and to rescue it from the realm of nursery food. Many of the asian ways of treating the vegetable include pretty aggressive flavours like chili peppers and galangal, which have the effect of reducing the 'sweet' quality to an interesting undertone. And in Shakespearian England, it appears that the normal way of serving sweet potato was to smother it in dry sherry once it had been cooked. It was this that gave me the clue that in fact Sweet Potato is actually not unlike parsnip, and for best results it should be treated in the same way. Hence, the following: puréed and then mixed with sherry and walnuts, which act as the perfect foil to the sweet potato's natural flavours:

Excellent with any roast meat, the last stage in cooking the sweet potatoes also fits with this combination, as the finished dish can just go into the oven for the last twenty minutes of roasting time, enough to heat the sweet potatoes through and to brown the walnuts.

For four.

Ingredients: 2 large-ish Sweet Potatoes; 4 fl oz Cream; 2 fl oz medium Sherry; half a teaspoon of ground Nutmeg; Salt & Pepper, to taste; 2 oz Butter; 2 oz Walnut pieces.


1. Steam the Sweet Potatoes for twenty minutes or so, until tender (you could equally cook them in water, I suppose, if you don't have a steamer). Leave to cool for ten minutes or so
, then peel them and cut into pieces.

2. Once cool enough to handle, process the cooked Sweet Potatoes along with all of the other ingredients apart from the Walnut pieces. Turn o
ut into a greased ovenproof dish, and level the surface.

3. Sprinkle the Walnut pieces evenly over the surface of the Sweet Potato purée, and place into the lower part of a hot oven for fifteen to twenty minutes. (The Walnut pieces should each be no larger than a pine-nut - if they're larger,
before sprinkling them, break them up by crushing gently between your hands.)


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