The Most Amazing Sweet Potatoes Ever

Last week, after recovering from my last disastrously costly expedition into Whole Lotta Cash Foods, I mustered up the courage and the funds to go back. Cradling my tiny, sorely-depleted-from-having-a-house-that-won’t-sell purse tenderly in my arms, I was determined to get JUST A FEW things, chief among them cream, bacon, a chicken, and some wine (to help me cope with the stress of spending all my money at Whole Foods). I revelled in my newly-acquired sense of frugality, even as I taxed the limits of my mathematical skills, as I added up each item in my head as I went along.

When I got to the counter, the total was a few dollars more than I’d imagined. No surprise there–after all, I am the woman who bounced fifteen checks in a few memorable days in 1987, one for 78 cents, in part because I had accidentally added my bank balance in as a deposit. But still, as I put my bags in the car, I thought I’d better take a look at the receipt, just to be sure.

And there it was: The bacon was EIGHT DOLLARS A POUND. I’d read the wrong label on the shelf, and the two half-pound packages I’d picked up were FOUR DOLLARS EACH.

So I took them back. “What’s the reason for the return?” the clerk asked.

“I didn’t realize they were eight dollars a pound,” I said, silently adding, “and of course only crazy people pay eight dollars a pound for bacon even if it is organic and the pigs slept on silk cushions and were hand-fed truffles their entire piggy lives.”

The clerk’s look said it all: “Don’t I know it,” he seemed to say, “but lady, save my time and get your sorry poor self over to the Food Lion next time.”

Still, some good things came out of this trip. The best turned out to be the beautiful organic Garnett sweet potatoes, which I baked a couple of nights ago and turned into sweet potato pancakes tonight.

There are a zillion different kinds of sweet potatoes, if you can figure out the difference between sweet potatoes, yams, boniato, and the thousands of other starchy tubers from around the world. (The link to Garnett sweet potatoes offers a pretty good guide.) But these Garnetts were exceptionally sweet and flavorful, and I would even dare enter WF again to get them.

My version of the sweet potato pancake is a remake of the potato pancakes my mother made for us growing up. They were made from leftover mashed potatoes rather than from raw grated potato–but the recipe for those will have to wait.

Sweet Potato Pancakes (makes 6 medium-sized pancakes)

NOTE: Cook your sweet potatoes any time–it requires practically no effort. Just cut one end off each potato (Garnett if you can get them) and bake on a cookie sheet in 375 degree for about 1 hour. That’s right: Turn on oven, cut the end off the potato, put it on a cookie sheet, and cook it. You can store the cooked, unskinned potatoes in refrigerator for several days.

2 large baked sweet potatoes, peeled
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp. curry powder (or more to taste)
1 tsp. cayenne (more or less to taste)
2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup flour
Oil for frying

Place sweet potatoes in large bowl and mash with fork or potato masher. Heat olive oil in skillet on medium heat. Saute onions in large skillet until translucent. Add garlic and spices and continue to cook for 1 minute. Turn off heat. Add eggs to sweet potatoes and mix. Add onion mixture and flour and stir until blended. The mixture should be just slightly thinner than mashed potatoes–it’s better if they are too thick rather than too thin. Coat bottom of skillet used to saute onions with oil and heat on medium high heat until a small bit of mixture dropped in skillet sizzles gently. Spoon mixture into skillet to make 4 – 5″ diameter pancakes. Cook for about 4 minutes on each side, checking frequently to avoid burning. Place on plate covered with paper towels to drain before serving.

Soupy Comfort, Take 2

And now to finish yesterday’s post interrupted by unknown forces of evil* living inside my computer:

Lately I dream of change. Last night, for instance, I was driving down the Red Hill Road. This is the road that runs just south of our farm, through other farms that don’t have the misfortune to be located on a major trucking route. My father used to take me on “driving lessons” there most Sunday mornings while I was a teenager (a happy journey for me, a heart-stopping, dry-mouthed ordeal of terror for him). And so the route reminds me of security and good conversations with my dad (as he clung helplesslessly to the armrest, his foot pressing futilely on the invisible, utterly useless passenger-side brake).

Anyway, in my dream the Red Hill Road was a scene of devastation brought about by “progress”–forested areas blackened from fire in preparation for housing developments that were coming in and bright new gas stations with inky, freshly paved parking lots. Everything we grew up with was gone–the old schoolhouse from my grandfather’s generation, the McKay farm, the little cemetary next to the tiny Methodist church. Naturally I was distressed, but I don’t remember much else except that I tried to turn around in one of the gas station parking lots to go back to a part of the road that had not changed. I don’t know if I got back or not.

Even the cats could interpret that one–fear of the change involved in moving, fear that change will be destructive, desire to go back to the way things were. But even in the dream it was obvious that the change wasn’t going to stop and that I had to accept it–and that at least there was a place to stop for gas on the Red Hill Road.

At 42, I might, just might, be starting to grow up. But not so much that I don’t love potato soup.

When I was a child, long before I terrified my poor father behind the wheel of a 1972 Ford Galaxy 500, potato soup was a favorite comfort food–Campbell’s potato soup, that is. My grandmother, a fabulous cook who grew, canned, and preserved nearly everything the family ate, was also possessed by a strange post-Depression fascination with highly processed, heavily marketed foods. Pouring through the local newspaper, Mammaw loved nothing better than to try a new recipe that involved mixing together multiple canned products or adding Cool Whip, even as milk from our cow sat curdling in the churn, waiting for her to make butter. (Anyone who’s ever churned butter or canned green beans or cut corn from a cob will understand the attraction of such a recipe.)

At any rate, Campbell’s soup, especially potato, was one of those foods, and I shared her love for it. I begged for it nearly every day, sometimes more than once. I loved the creamy texture and the tiny bits of potato-like substances that floated in a sea of milky glory. I wanted nothing more in life than to have Campbell’s potato soup every single day.

And then I hit a wall. One day Mammaw opened up the can and heated it up as usual. I cannot remember how many meals in a row had involved potato soup, but it was many. And when the bowl was put in front of me, it was suddenly transformed into a gluey, fake-tasting, disgusting mess. Such is the five-year-old appetite. I have not eaten Campbell’s potato soup since.

I have a vague memory that my disgust with Campbell’s was the result of Mammaw making homemade potato soup one day, which spoiled me for anything else. Whether that’s true or not, it’s definitely the case that Campbell’s fall from grace did not put me off potato soup altogether. Potato soup remains a favorite comfort food, one that reminds me of a time when someone was making homemade butter and Cool Whip-infused desserts just for me. And what better time to make it when you are traveling down a new road with blackened trees and new gas stations that nevertheless holds the promise of something just a bit better beyond the curve.

Potato Soup with Bacon

8 slices bacon, sliced into 1″ pieces
1 large onion, chopped
6 medium Yukon gold or russet potato
Water to cover potatoes
About 1/2 c half and half
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste

Saute bacon on medium heat in large pot, stirring frequently, until it just begins to crisp around the edges. Add onion and saute until translucent, stirring frequently. Add potatoes, bay leaves, salt and pepper, and just enough water to cover. Cover pot and cook on medium heat for about 3o minutes or until potatoes are tender. Add half and half–more or less depending on how thick you would like the soup.

Variation: Add 1 – 2 cups chopped cabbage for the last 10 minutes of cooking.

*There was an article in the New York Times Magazine recently that claimed the word “evil” was dropping out of colloquial use. That person clearly does not use a computer.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi, or, I’m Not Quite as Clever as I Like to Think I Am

Several years ago, in a cooperative spirit no doubt bourne out of the short-lived vegetarianism described in my last post, I bought a share in a community garden. This meant that during the months that pass for spring and summer in Wisconsin–that period between mid-May and August when temperatures most likely won’t dip very far below freezing and in all probability won’t creep above 95 for more than a week–I got a box of produce once a week. In that box, one happy day, were some butternut squash. And it just so happens that I was trying to make gnocchi for the first time, and that I thought I would spice things up a bit by using something other than what the recipe called for (in this case potatoes) and there were those butternut squash. And boy did I feel brilliant. How many people would figure out to do that–you know, substitute one starchy vegetable for another, then know how to adjust spices, then make a sauce that worked?

About 136,000, it turns out. At least that’s how many hits you get if you type in “butternut squash gnocchi” into Google. Then you have to add the 505,000 people who came up with sweet potato gnocchi, and the 398,000 who thought pumpkin gnocchi was a good idea.

This glut of squashy thinking means there’s not a whole lot to add to the conversation, but since no one else seems to be bothered by this fact, I won’t be either. One thing I have noticed: Gnocchi recipes involving squash of some kind tend to use a cream or butter sauce. This is fine, but the variation I like best is a spicy, garlicky tomato sauce, which makes a wonderful contrast with the sweetness of the squash. So here is a recipe.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Tomato Sauce


1 butternut squash
1 egg, beaten
A lot of flour

Cut buternut squash in half, scoop out seeds, and baste halves in olive oil. Roast at 350 for at least half and hour or until very soft. Scoop out flesh into bowl and let cool. Can do this several days ahead–just refrigerate squash until ready to use.

For gnocchi, add egg, about 1 tsp or so salt, and a cup or so of flour to the squash. Keep adding flour until you have a soft but not sticky dough. Knead dough for a couple of minutes. Cut into quarters and roll out into a log. Cut log into 1/2″ pieces and shape as desired. Cook in small batches in boiling water immediately before serving.

Tomato Sauce

Saute 1 large chopped onion in olive oil on medium heat until translucent. Reduce heat and add 3 cloves minced garlic, then stir. Add crushed red pepper to taste. Add 1 can (not the big one, just that ordinary size) tomatoes (crushed, pureed, or sauce) and salt to taste. Cook on low heat for about 20 minutes. Add a little cream if desired and serve over gnocchi. Garnish with grated Parmesan cheese.