Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sweet Potato Mania

I've been on a serious sweet potato soup kick recently. It started when I invented my own sweet potato and apple soup last spring, which I submitted it to Cooking Light for their reader recipe contest. I guess it wasn't a winner (in their book), although in their Thanksgiving issue there was a nearly-identical recipe. So I made it--it was fine, but I think mine is better. Then, last week Mark Bittman, who writes an excellent column for the NYTimes called "The Minimalist," had 101 suggestions for fairly easy Thanksgiving side dishes. One that caught my eye immediately was a Thai-style squash soup, which I just made, but substituting sweet potatoes for the squash. I really like Bittman's food philosophy and he has great ideas (check out his book Food Matters if you get a chance--it will change the way you eat.) However, he's definitely not a hand-holder when it comes to instruction. To illustrate this, I give you Thai Squash Soup:

"Simmer cubed winter squash, minced garlic, chili and ginger in coconut milk, plus stock or water to cover, until soft. Purée if you like. Just before serving, add chopped cilantro, lime juice and zest, and toasted chopped peanuts."

Quantities, you ask? No need! (Mark Bittman trusts our competence, apparently.) But, if you're the kind of cook that likes to have a little more direction, here were my quantities:

* 6 sweet potatoes (4.7 lbs, according to my grocery store receipt)
* 5 large garlic cloves
* 1 piece of ginger, slightly smaller than my thumb
* 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded (but in retrospect I could have left the seeds in, or used 2 peppers, to give it more heat. My soup didn't turn out spicy, just has a subtle jalapeno flavor. For more authenticity I might suggest some kind of Thai chili (see here), but in the Nantucket Stop n Shop, a jalapeno was the best I could do
* 1 can light coconut milk (found in the international aisle--A Taste of Thai and Thai Kitchen are 2 good brands, also Trader Joe's has their own store brand).
* The dregs of a carton of chicken stock--about 1/2 a cup. I would have used more if I had it
* Water--enough to cover the sweet potato
* Juice & zest of 1 lime
* About 1/4 loosely packed cup of cilantro

And there you have it. Just peeled and chopped the sweet potatoes, gave the garlic, ginger and jalapeno a rough chop, covered with liquid and simmered until the potatoes were soft. I would definitely suggest pureeing, because the coconut milk kind of separates and forms a weird foam on top when it simmers. Once it's all pureed together it's wonderfully smooth and can be seasoned to taste. Pureeing is also great because you can cut the potato (or squash) in large, uneven chucks and you don't have to waste time mincing the garlic and ginger. Once it's all pureed the texture and flavors will all be evenly distributed. And while we're talking about pureeing, let me put in my plug for using a real blender instead of an immersion blender. While the immersion blender is nice because you don't have to transfer soup and make multiple pots and bowls dirty, I just don't think it gives nearly as smooth & rich a texture as the blender can. But hey, that's just me.

For the other 100 great ideas, click here.

While Bittman's soup is great, I wouldn't serve it on Thanksgiving, because the flavors don't totally mesh with many traditional dishes. However, my own Sweet Potato & Apple Soup would be perfect for Thanksgiving, or whenever. It is as follows:

Sweet Potato & Apple Soup (by Macy)
Makes about 8 cups of soup 

* 3 medium-large sweet potatoes (about 3 pounds)
* 2 Tablespoons olive oil
* 1 medium-large white onion
* 3 medium-large Granny Smith apples (about 1 ¼ pounds)
* ½ teaspoon cinnamon, or to taste
* 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, or to taste
* 1 32 oz. carton of chicken stock (or vegetable stock, for vegetarians)
* ¾ cup half and half (optional)
* ½ teaspoon Kosher salt and ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste

Preheat oven to 400°F. Scrub the sweet potatoes and poke each one several times with a fork. Bake potatoes in the middle of the oven on a foil-lined cookie sheet for one hour or until they are very soft and can easily be pierced with a knife. When the potatoes are cooked, remove from the oven and slice each one in half lengthwise and cool for a few minutes.

While the potatoes are baking, chop the onion to a medium dice. Heat the olive oil in a 3-quart sauce pan on medium heat. Add the diced onion, and sauté, stirring frequently until the onion is very soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, peel and core the apples and chop to a large dice. When the onions are translucent, add the apples, cinnamon and nutmeg and stir a few times until the apples start to brown, just a few minutes.

Add the carton of chicken broth to the saucepan. Cover the saucepan and bring the broth to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 8 minutes or until the apples are very soft. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

Place approximately 1/3 of the broth mixture and one of the potatoes (remove skins first) into a blender. The potato skins should be quite loose and you can squeeze the potato flesh right out. Puree ingredients to a smooth consistency. Transfer the pureed soup to a mixing bowl and repeat until all the ingredients are pureed. If the ingredients are still quite hot when you are doing this step, remove the center piece of the blender lid and cover with a dish cloth while you're pureeing to avoid too much pressure build up/explosions.

Transfer the soup back to the saucepan and reheat if necessary. Season with salt and, pepper. If desired, stir in half & half, heating the soup gently until it is warm.

While Thanksgiving is always the time that I think most about sweet potatoes, these soups will warm you all winter long. Enjoy!

Friday, November 20, 2009


I don't have anything to blog about right now, but I did want to reiterate that it is cranberry season. And unlike many other fruits & veggies that have "seasons" (Tomatoes = summer, root veggies = winter, asparagus = spring, etc.) but can be found all year, cranberries really do only appear in the fall, since they're not exactly a greenhouse crop. This being Thanksgiving week, they're more obvious than ever in your grocery stores (and probably on sale, too!) So, if you love cranberries and cooking/baking with cranberries as much as I do, might I suggest that while you're out buying ingredients to make your own easy & delicious homemade cranberry sauce in the next few days, pick up an extra bag or two of these delicious berries and freeze them for use throughout the year. Freezing berries is so easy, and if you buy them in season & on sale, it can be more economical than buying packaged frozen ones. This is also a great trick in the summer with blueberries. (When they dropped to only $1.50/pint in June I stocked up and have been tossing them in pancakes, smoothies, you name it!)

The technique for freezing both of these berries is the same: rinse and dry the berries, then spread them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Place the sheet in the freezer until the berries are solid, a few hours. When they're frozen, transfer the berries to a Ziploc bag and keep them in the freezer. Thaw the necessary quantities as you enjoy cranberry breads, sauces, & more until next fall!