In the past three days, I’ve had three separate conversations about sweet potatoes. I don’t know if there is an upper limit on how many times sensible people ought to discuss these roots; whatever it is, I don’t feel that I have come close.
No shade. This is not because sweet potatoes themselves are especially interesting. They have a typical New World backstory: Originally from northern South America, they were brought to Europe by Columbus and within a century had become a staple vegetable in China and the Philippines.
Botanically they are roots, not tubers. Dietetically, they are better for your blood sugar than regular potatoes. Economically, they are the seventh-most-important agricultural crop in the world, which, I admit, is kind of surprising.
But it’s conversationally that they really shine. No, not because they can talk, but because they are so comforting to talk about. And it takes a human being with a memory rich in years to do them justice.
You know how in literature, there are only a handful of basic plots — rags to riches, hero’s journey, confronting the beast, etc.? Well, food lore also has its signature plots, and the one that sweet potatoes most often turn up in is structured like this: I used to hate X because it was always made with Y, but then I tried it Z-style and now I love X!
It never gets old.
Today’s Y was crushed pineapple and marshmallows. Yesterday’s was canned cherries. In both cases, Z — the hero who saved the day — was plain old roasting, with olive oil, salt, and pepper; but a few days ago, the heroic Z was microwaving.
Why do I love these little dramas so much? I suppose because they remind me of one of the great blessings of food: No matter how well you think you know it, food can still surprise you.
You don’t even need to spend your life sampling new cuisines and ingredients to experience this phenomenon. You can simply revisit familiar dishes with a fresh eye or a new twist, or you can revive old ones you’d forgotten you once loved. And even the most routine recipe never turns out the same way twice, because you’re a person, not a machine. Cooking is a never-ending journey into the familiar.
So it makes sense that this week’s recipe is a rethink of three of my favorite fall dishes, recipes I’ve been making for years (all three have appeared in this column). I spend a lot of my downtime imagining new recipes, and that’s how this one came to life, as I contemplated various tweaks and adjustments. Then, because I almost like dried cranberries, I marinated some in sherry vinegar and added them to the mix.
Then I went out on a walk and talked about it with one of my favorite people in the whole world. Which reminded me of something else I’d almost forgotten: That the table isn’t the only place you can connect with people you love over food.
Sweet Potatoes with Candied Pepitas and Pickled Cranberries
This recipe works well at room temperature, and can be served with or without the kale.
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- ¼ teaspoon each cayenne, smoked paprika and cinnamon
- 2 pounds sweet potatoes (see note 1)
- Olive oil
- Salt & pepper
- ½ cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
- 2 teaspoons butter
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- ⅓ cup dried cranberries
- ½ small shallot, thinly sliced
- Kale salad, for serving (see note 2)
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a nonstick pad.
In a small bowl, combine the cumin, cayenne, cinnamon and smoked paprika; divide into 2 portions and set aside.
Scrub the sweet potatoes and trim off any soft spots. Cut into 1½-inch chunks. Transfer to a medium bowl and toss with just enough olive oil to coat, plus salt, pepper and half the spice mixture. Spread on the prepared baking sheet and place in the oven. Roast 25-30 minutes, rotating pan halfway through.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet over a medium flame, heat the butter. When it foams, add the pepitas and sugar. Toss to coat, then cook about 1 minute. Add the other half of the spice mixture and continue to cook until the pepitas start to pop and turn light gold in places, watching carefully, about 1 minute more. Transfer to a plate to let cool. (You’ll need about half of these for the salad; save the rest in an airtight container and use for snacking!)
Wipe out the skillet, add the sherry vinegar and cranberries, and heat to a simmer for about 30 seconds then remove from heat and add the sliced shallot and a pinch of salt and pepper. Toss well and set aside.
When the sweet potatoes are tender and golden brown, remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Toss with the cranberry mixture and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Mix with the pepitas just before serving, over kale salad if desired.
Note 1: I like this recipe best with Japanese sweet potatoes, which have a firmer texture and a less-sweet flavor than traditional sweet potatoes but look best with a combination. Note that you might need to roast the varieties separately, as the orange ones cook slightly faster.
Note 2: For the kale salad, remove the ribs from a bunch of kale. Slice thinly crosswise and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Set aside, tossing from time to time, to soften the kale. Before serving, taste a few shreds and add a little more vinegar or lemon juice if needed.
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