A few years ago, kinda on a whim, I joined a CSA program. The acronym stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and CSA members sign up and pay a fee to get a share of a farm’s harvest. My CSA membership was with an urban farm in Montgomery, a few-acre plot on the edge of downtown. I picked up an array of fresh goodies every Wednesday afternoon. One of my favorite discoveries since becoming a CSA member has been learning that I do like sweet potatoes. Until recently, I’ve avoided this root veggie at all costs. I did not like them fried, baked or roasted, on a plane, on a train, or prepared in any way, anywhere. The vilest use of sweet potatoes in my mind was the casserole, the one made by great aunts around the holidays, packed with pecans, given extra sweetness by brown sugar and then crowned with gooey marshmallows.
As a kid, it sounded great. A vegetable that looked like dessert, had dessert ingredients, and was still approved by mom to have at dinner? Score! Until I tasted it. The sweet potatoes were thick and pasty, and their natural, subtle sweetness was completely overwhelmed by all the added sugar. One bite and my mind was made up. After that, “No, thanks—I don’t eat sweet potatoes,” was my ready response any time I was offered them in any form.
Then, a few years ago, as part of my CSA stash, I got pound after pound of them. Big, small, long, thin, fat, lumpy, and bumpy. I put them in a wooden bowl on my counter and waited for them to rot, planning to employ that as my excuse to not use them. But sweet potatoes are hardy; they don’t go bad very quickly. Soon I had too many piled up in that bowl to ignore.
And so I turned to the Internet and did a recipe search. I instantly scrolled past any that had the word casserole in the title and happened upon something that looked promising: a sweet potato hash. Today it’s one of my favorite things to eat. I changed up the recipe some but still have to give credit to Sunny Anderson of the Food Network for giving me a great framework.
The key was finding ways to complement and balance, not amplify, sweet potatoes’ sweetness. Hence the cumin, hot peppers, and the salty goodness of pork fat. I added a few regular potatoes too to give it a little variety. I’ll probably never like sweet potato casserole, but I can’t get enough of this stuff. Try it on any sweet-potato hater in your household, and I’ll bet you gain a convert.
NOT SO SWEET POTATO HASH
• 3 strips bacon, chopped
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• About a pound of sweet potatoes, peeled and 1/4-inch diced plus 1/2 pound regular potatoes, diced to the same size.
• 1/3 cup chopped red onion
• 1 tablespoon hot pepper (any kind), chopped fine
• 1.5 teaspoons ground cumin
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
First: Cook the chopped regular potatoes in salted, boiling water for three minutes and then drain on paper towels to dry.
Put a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the bacon and olive oil. When the oil heats and the bacon begins to brown, add the sweet potatoes and par-boiled regular potatoes and spread out as much as possible to allow the potatoes to rest in the pan in 1 layer.
Leave the potatoes to cook until a quick toss reveals browning on the side in contact with the pan, about 5 minutes. Continue to toss and let stand until most sides of the potatoes are golden and the bacon bits are crisp, about 3 to 5 minutes longer. Then add the onions, peppers, cumin, and season with a nice pinch of salt and a grind or two of pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes longer, until the onions are softened and just getting browned on the edges.
SWEET POTATO SOUP WITH BACON & CRISPY SHALLOTS
As stated pretty clearly above, I don’t like anything that magnifies sweet potatoes’ sweetness. But I do like this soup. Scratch that. I love this soup. Love it like if I had enough of it to fill a kiddie pool, I might just splash around in it for a while. (Or maybe not, since that would be really weird.) Anyhow, it contains a lot of the same ingredients as the Sweet Potato Hash, but its creamy texture, the pop of ginger and crispy, crunchy (porky) toppings make it a wholly different dish, one that’s warm, smooth, and so satisfying on a cold day.
• 5 cups sweet potatoes, chopped (about 3 medium potatoes)
• 5 slices of bacon, diced
• 1/2 cup diced shallots
• 1 tablespoon diced jalapeno
• 2 teaspoons chili powder
• 1/4 teaspoon cumin
• 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 3.5 cups chicken stock or broth
• 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
• 1/3 cup heavy cream
In a large, heavy pot, boil the sweet potatoes in water until fork tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside. In the same pot, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain. Add the shallots to the bacon grease and cook over medium heat until tender. Add the chopped pepper and garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add potatoes and the chicken broth and simmer for 20 minutes. Use an immersion blender to blend the mixture until creamy. If you don’t have an immersion blender, carefully transfer the mixture to a blender, blend until smooth and return to the pot. Add the chili powder, cumin, salt and ginger and cook 10 minutes. Stir in the cream and remove from heat. Serve topped with a dollop of sour cream, the bacon bits, and crispy shallots (see method below).
• 3 to 4 shallots, sliced into thin rings
• 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
In a large skillet, heat the oil on medium-low heat and add the shallots, spreading them out into one layer in the pan. Cook them slowly and stir often. Do not be tempted to turn up the heat. The shallots will burn before you know it! Once they are golden brown, place them on a paper-towel-lined plate to drain and sprinkle them with salt.
Oh, and here are a few notable nutrition facts: Sweet potatoes are good sources of fiber and excellent sources of vitamin A. One serving provides over 400 percent of the recommended daily value. Pretty sweet.