Monday, November 24, 2008

Sweet Potatoes with Soul

Down South, sweet potatoes are a standard part of the Thanksgiving dinner. There are lots of way to cook them and my family always did the cook and mash with butter, brown sugar and OJ and cover with mini marshmallows and bake routine. They are fine and still bring the same memories as the old bean casserole(not a fave).

Being a good southern boy, and as is typical of my generation, my brothers and I were raised, in large part, by a black maid. In my case her name was Hattie Mae and she was the spitting image of the woman depicted on the old Aunt Jemima pancake syrup bottle. Big and jolly and amazingly good natured when you consider the raw deal life had dealt her and her race in pre-sixties America. She cooked a lot of the meals for us and while not fancy she made the most of her ingredients.

Anyhow, she had a way of cooking sweet potatoes that I still use today when I want to do something other than just bake them in their jackets and it is simple and oh so good. You wouldn't know it from looking at at one but sweet potatoes contain quite a bit of moisture and that is the trick behind this method of cooking. You can use this method to cook a few or a whole pile of just have to adjust the other ingredients to the amount of potatoes you are cooking.

You'll need a nice heavy bottomed sauce pan or dutch oven type pan. This is important because you cook the potatoes in their own juice and it takes a while for this to develop. A thin bottomed pan will cause them to burn before they release enough juice to cook.

I usually use the rule of one good sized sweet potato for every person at the table plus one for the pot. Peel them and cut them crosswise into about 3/8 inch slices. Layer the slices in the pan and then cover with plain white sugar. For 4 or 5 largish sweet potatoes I usually use about a half a cup or so. On top of the sugar put some pats of salted butter or if you want margarine. Again, this is by eye but I would say I use about a stick(1/4 pound) for 5 large potatoes. Cover the pot and put it on the stove over low heat for about 45 minutes or a little longer(depends on what low means to you). You don't have to stir them or anything. After about 45 minutes check on them and you should find that they have cooked and exuded their moisture which has combined with the sugar and butter to form a nice sweet sauce. The potatoes should be tender and almost falling apart done but not already fallen apart. These will keep in a warm oven for quite a while with no harm or they can even be made ahead and reheated without harm. Just be careful not to stir them much or they will fall apart into mush. If you are going to cook them ahead then don't cook them all the way done and let the reheating finish the job. To serve them, put them in your serving bowl using a slotted spoon and then pour the juice over the top. Again, depending how how long they have cooked you need to be careful not to break them up. You still want to be able to see the slices of potato.

This is a really simple and old fashioned way to cook sweet potatoes but it is so simple that it really brings out the best of a good Southern grown sweet potato. The nice thing is they look so fancy and taste so good people won't believe you when you tell them how they are made.

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