Sweet Potato and Black Bean Soup

This recipe comes with deepest apologies to the pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian Church. Last Sunday, as Fred and I sat dutifully in worship, I wrote out a new recipe for a sweet potato and black bean soup on the church bulletin instead of thinking about Mark 6:45-56 and Jesus walking on water.

Some might say I should apologize to God instead of the minister for this kind of behavior. But God knows better than anyone that while you can always get a copy of the sermon, you can’t always remember a good recipe idea.

And if you want proof that God favors those who care about food, I discovered the North Carolina Sweet Potato recipe contest while I was doing a little online research for this blog posting, just in time to enter the contest before tomorrow’s deadline. Frankly, I don’t see how the judges can NOT pick a recipe that was originally written out on a church bulletin (even if that bulletin serves as proof that the recipe creator was not paying very much attention to the sermon).

The idea for the dish was not actually triggered by anything in the service but by a recent potluck dinner, where one of the guests brought a dish with sweet potatoes, black beans, rice and chicken. I had been wanting to make something interesting with the Carolina Ruby sweet potatoes sitting on my counter, the only ones from Whole Foods that were under $2 a pound.

My constant carping about Whole Foods and their prices aside, our unit on Ninth Street is certainly a friend to North Carolina’s sweet potato farmers–a good thing, since the state produces forty percent of the sweet potatoes grown in the US and is the country’s number one producer. On any given day the store will feature up to five different varieties, including purple ones.
We’d already enjoyed two of the Carolina Ruby potatoes served mashed with a little butter, but the remaining two deserved a more exciting end. Here’s what I came up with–a combination based in part on the potluck dish and part on a Cuban-style black bean soup I’d tried years ago. The dish is unexpectedly but pleasantly spicy, which complements the sweetness of the potatoes. To me it’s a welcome change from our Southern tendency to smother these wonderful vegetables with sugar and pecans. After all, there’s a lot more to a sweet potato than the sweet.
Here’s hoping the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission will like this recipe as much as we did.
Sweet Potato and Black Bean Soup
Makes about 2 1/2 quarts, or 6 – 8 servings

2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)

3 large cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tbsp.)
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes (about 6 1/4 cups)
4 cups chicken broth (homemade or low-salt)

2 1/2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. thyme
2 medium-sized bay leaves
1/2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes (add more or less to taste)
2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
3 tbsp. fresh squeezed lime juice (do not substitute concentrate)
2 cans black beans, drained
1 c. crushed tomatoes
1 c. evaporated milk
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish (optional)

Heat oil on medium high heat in large pot. Saute onions until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and stir. Add sweet potatoes, broth, and spices. Cover and turn heat to high, bringing to boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until potatoes are becoming tender, about 5 minutes. With potato masher, mash potatoes briefly, crushing into smaller pieces but not pureeing–there should still be distinctive pieces of sweet potato in the soup, but crushing them will distribute the flavor throughout the dish.

Add remaining ingredients except evaporated milk. Cover and cook until potatoes are very tender, 5 – 10 more minutes. (At this point, soup can be frozen. When ready to serve, thaw and finish according to instructions.) Add evaporated milk. Cover and continue to simmer until flavors are blended, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. (The soup’s flavor continues to improve the longer it sits and is better the next day.) Correct seasonings and garnish with cilantro if desired. Let cool slightly before serving.

Roast Beef with Coffee and Red Wine

Fred and I are officially sick of this recession, but the cats are thrilled: after Louise’s recent $437 dental extravaganza we can’t take any more of them to the vet for a while. Since we can’t afford to go out much in the evenings, our laps serve as cat-warming meditation pillows, ideal for contemplating ways to destroy rolls of toilet paper or the next spot for a good hairball incident, preferably in a high-traffic area frequented by bare human feet at the darkest point of the night.

As our house in Atlanta languishes with no buyer in sight, food remains the best of comforts for the feline and human residents of the Wise household. The roast beef I made over the weekend was a great example–a relatively inexpensive cut of meat braised in coffee and (cheap) red wine. We felt like royalty carving it and serving it with the luxurious sauce. The flavor of the sauce is unusual, most closely resembling a rich, smoky, thick au jus, with just the slightest hint of sweetness from the molasses.

The recipe is a modified version of an Italian dish. (I know it only as beef braised in coffee.) The sauce in the original version was lopsided to me when I first made it, lacking depth, so I added chili powder, cloves, molasses, a tiny bit of garlic, and a little tomato. The result was a great variation on the original, one we’ll definitely try again.

The cats also like the little bits that “fell” on the floor.

Roast Beef with Coffee and Red Wine

4 lb. rump roast, tied
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
3 tbsp. butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3/4 c. strong brewed coffee
3/4 c. red wine
1 tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. cloves
2 tbsp. molasses
3 tbsp. crushed tomatoes
1 small clove garlic, minced

Preheat oven to 325. Melt butter on medium heat in Dutch oven or oven-proof pot large enough for roast. Add onions and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. While onions are sauteeing, rub roast with generous amounts of salt and pepper. Push onions to one side of the pot. Add roast to the side of the onions, browning lightly on all sides, about 3 – 4 minutes per side.

While roast is browning, mix together remaining ingredients. Turn off heat. Turn roast so that fattiest side is on top. Pour wine/coffee mix over roast. Use tongs to move roast back to center of pot; redistribute onions evenly throughout liquid, placing some on top of the roast. Cover and bake for up to 3 hours for a well-done roast and longer if you want it falling-apart tender. If you prefer a rarer roast, cook until meat thermometer inserted in roast reads 160 degrees; begin testing after about an hour and a half.

Carbonara with Spinach

Our lives at present consist primarily of work, work, and more work. Cooking remains a source of great joy and pleasure, but I can’t seem to find the time to write about it.

But no matter how bad things are, I can always conjure up a dish of carbonara. If you too are slaving away during the hatefully termed “current economic crisis,” a big bowl of carbonara will offer more comfort than an entire case of three-buck Chuck.

The basic dish consists of pasta coated with eggs, with pork, salt, pepper, and grated Parmesan cheese added. Many recipes also include scallions, garlic, and other vegetables. In traditional Italian versions, the pork is usually guanciale or pancetta. As I’ve indicated in previous posts (found here and here), guanciale is nothing short of heaven, a symphony of pillowy fat, and makes a spectacular carbonara. Pancetta is fine as well, but it’s not quite as flavorful–and with a lower fat content, it’s not as much fun. 

Guanciale and pancetta, however, have the disadvantage of being expensive and sometimes hard to find. When this is the case, bacon will make an acceptable substitute. My Italian friend Claudia, who taught me how to make this dish when she lived in the U.S. for a year, used bacon when she made it here, so I figure it’s okay.

Secretly, of course, I love carbonara with bacon the best. In this version I’ve also added fresh spinach and mushrooms in an attempt to get some vegetables into Fred. I was pleased with the results. The spinach added a nice, slightly crunch texture to the dish, and I love the way the nutty flavor of mushrooms complement the bacon and the Parmesan.

American Carbonara with Spinach

2 large servings

1/2 pound pasta of your choice (anything except the small pastas like orzo or orecchini will work)
6 – 8 slices good quality bacon, cut into 1″ pieces
2 fresh eggs (eggs are not fully cooked in this recipe so do not use commercial–find organic, cage-free, or best of all local farm-grown eggs to keep risk of Salmonella low)
1 tbsp. cream or half and half
1 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups fresh baby spinach, washed and dried
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Extra fresh grated Paremsan for topping

Put salted water for pasta on to boil. Meanwhile, fry bacon in large skillet on medium high heat until just crisp. Turn heat down to lowest possible flame, leaving bacon in skillet.

When water comes to boil, add pasta and stir.

While pasta is cooking, separate eggs into small bowl, leaving a little bit of the white with each yolk. Whisk in cream, Parmesan cheese, salt, and a generous amount of freshly ground pepper. Measure out spinach and set aside.

When pasta is al dente (still firm when you bite down on it, not mushy), drain it. Immediately return to cooking pot. Quickly pour egg mixture over pasta and stir. Spoon out bacon from skillet (you will want to get a tablespoon or two of the bacon fat also) and add to pasta. Add spinach, stir well, and cover for 5 minutes or so, until spinach is slightly wilted.

Serve pasta in large bowls and top with additional freshly ground pepper and Parmesan.