Does any food evoke an image of the Deep South like the sweet potato?
We bake it for Christmas and Thanksgiving. We turn it into something sweet by adding marshmallows, nuts and maple syrup or, if you're real down-home, you might use sorghum molasses.
Some of us insist it's the only thing to eat with barbecue. If you are of a certain age you might have eaten cold baked sweet potatoes as your after-school snack.
But let's make one thing clear to our friends in northern climes, it's not a yam. The yam is a delicious tuber that came to us from Africa, but it's no sweet "tater."
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The sweet potato is another of the super foods the New World gave to us, and it is believed it has been cultivated there for at least 8,000 years. The sweet potato has proven so popular it is now raised all over the world, including Japan, New Zealand and the Cook Islands.
A baked sweet potato goes well with collard or turnip greens, a fried pork chop is its natural companion and mashed with a bit of sweet butter they are a wonder. But, they also are good in more unconvention
al ways; try them as a filling for ravioli or shells, make fries of them and serve with garlic mayonnaise or turn them into gnocchi or a gratin.
They make wonderful pasta if you have the time and the pasta machine to roll them out with. And don't forget to cube them and serve them in hearty stews and soups just as you would a regular potato.
The sweet potato may be Old South to many people, but innovative chefs in the New South are putting a different spin on this tuber and turning heads with their creations around the world. It's not just a "tater"; it's a delicious vegetable that holds hands with a large variety of other ingredients, such as roasted pork or beef and no gourmand would forget that it is the perfect accompaniment to baked possum.
SWEET POTATO GRATIN
3-4 large sweet potatoes
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups cream (use heavy cream if you like)
Salt and pepper to taste, a pinch of cayenne if you like it spicy
2-3 tablespoons butter
Oil a ramekin or other baking dish. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Slice the sweet potatoes long wise, use a mandolin slicer if you are lucky enough to have one. Alternate layers of potato with cheese in the baking dish, combine the cream and spices and pour over the potatoes, dot with the butter. Cover with foil and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. When done let stand a few minutes before serving. Garnish with a little more cheese if you like.
SWEET POTATO RAVIOLI WITH BROWN BUTTER SAUCE
1-2 sweet potatoes
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 pinch nutmeg
2 egg whites
Salt and pepper
1/2 stick butter
1- 1/2 tablespoons
1 good pinch chopped fresh thyme
Roast the sweet potatoes in a hot oven until soft, about 45 minutes. Allow to cool, then scoop out the flesh and combine with the sugar and nutmeg, season to taste with salt and pepper. Whisk the egg whites until frothy, brush each wonton with the whites, add a scoop of the sweet potato mixture and seal firmly with your fingers. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and drop the ravioli one by one in and simmer for about 3 minutes. Remove and drain. Alternatively, the ravioli can be sautéed in a little butter until well browned and done. For the sauce, melt the butter in a sauté pan until it starts to brown, about 4 minutes and then mix in the vinegar and thyme. Stir until well incorporated. Toss the ravioli in the sauce and serve immediately. Garnish with a sprig of sage and dust with a little Parmesan if you like.
BAKED SWEET POTATO FRIES WITH GARLIC MAYONNAISE
2-3 large sweet potatoes
1/4 cup of good olive oil
1-2 tablespoons Tony Chachere's or substitute Chinese five spice
1 cup best quality mayonnaise
3-4 cloves of garlic
Juice of 1 lemon
Small bunch cilantro
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Combine the oil and spices. Slice the sweet potatoes into the thickness you prefer and place on an oiled sheet pan. Bake for 15 minutes then turn and finish baking, about 5 to 10 minutes more. To make the mayonnaise add the lemon juice, garlic and cilantro in a food processor and pulse to combine, add the mayonnaise and incorporate completely. Add a bit of hot sauce if you like. Serve the baked sweet potatoes in a large bowl with a side of the mayonnaise and plenty of napkins.