Thursday, May 1, 2008

The truth about my favorite root veggie

I have never really been a huge fan of white potatoes. Its not that I dislike like them so much that I refuse to eat them, sometimes I actually enjoy them like when they are in a spicy curry or served au gratin with lots of cheese. When given the option of root vegetables though I much prefer a more flavorful one that does not necessarily need a lot added to it to make it tasty. Parsnips, beets even red potatoes are more appealing to my pallet than a plain old russet. My favorite though by far is the orange colored sweet potato. I first discovered I enjoyed these years ago when I was having dinner at a restaurant that served sweet potato fries. The group I was with ordered them as a starter and I thought to myself, maybe I will have a few, thinking they would come out looking like any other old pale French fry which given my lack of lust for white potatoes I have never been terribly keen on. Needless to say when the plate of peachy hued fries arrived at our table my eyes widened. Orange potato, how had I gone so long in life without tasting this!? After one bite I was sold and from that day forward every time I dined out I was always sure to check my menu to see if the restaurant happened to offer a dish with sweet potatoes.

I happily found that many restaurants incorporated sweet potatoes into their dishes and often offered them as a substitute for baked potatoes, mashed potatoes and yes in delicious fry form too. One day I decided it was high time I create something delicious with my most favorite root veggie so off to the market I went. I perused the produce section until I found the potato bins but I was bewildered when I found the box of sweet potatoes. Their skin looked awfully pale, could yummy orange potatoy goodness really be lurking under that bland looking exterior? I thought about russet and red potatoes and how dark their skin was but how once you cut them open they were pale as can be, perhaps it works the other way for sweet potatoes? I picked out three big spuds and headed to the checkout. Back home, apron on and oven set to 400 degrees I got ready to make my very first homemade sweet potato creation, baked sweet potato fries. I scrubbed my potatoes, sharpened my knife and set my first potato on the chopping block. I made my first cut exposing the not orange, not peach, not even yellowish but creamy white center of the potato. Hmmm...

I had not yet lost hope, I knew what sweet potato looked like I had been ordering it at the restaurant for months now, I read my receipt from the grocery store, “2 lbs sweet potatoes”, there must be something that happens in the cooking process that turns these pale potatoes color to a more vibrant hue. I chopped up the rest of my potatoes and then arranged them on a silpat covered baking sheet and popped them in the oven. Fifteen minutes past, I took out my fries to flip them, still pretty pale. Another fifteen minutes, I peered into the hot oven, no change in color at all. I was disappointed but like any good cook decided not to give up and see if I could make something delicious anyhow. I melted some smart balance butter, mixed in a bit of cinnamon, brownsugar and a tad of chili powder, and painted the pale fries with the spicy concoction. I popped the pan back in the oven and broiled the supposedly “sweet potato” fries on low until their skin started to twitch and turn a golden shade of brown on the edges. I intended to let the fries cool before trying them but the anticipation to find out what this mysterious white sweet potato tasted like was killing me so I grabbed a hot stick of potato straight off the pan, blew on it and then popped it in my mouth. While it did not taste anything like the sweet potato I had been eating from restaurants all those months it was actually pretty good. They were much starchier than the orange sweet potato and not nearly as sweet but the cinnamon, sugar, chili and butter added a delicious kick which made up for what they were lacking in natural flavor.

Even though in the end I felt like my potoey creation was a success I was still a bit saddened and bewildered by why my sweet potato was so different than what I had from all of those restaurants. Where on earth could I go to solve the mystery of the sweet potato???

The internet of course! Turns out that the white sweet potato I cooked was indeed a sweet potato after all and one of the first types of sweet potatoes mass produced in the United States. In addition to white there are also sweet potatoes with flesh that is yellow, red and yes orange. The orange sweet potatoes have a softer and sweeter flesh and when they were first introduced in the United States there was a need to differentiate between the two varieties. The slaves that were harvesting the potatoes at that time started calling them “yams” due to the fact that they resembled a popular edible African root known as nyami. Many years later slavery is abolished (yay!!) and orange sweet potatoes are still called yams at most American markets. So back to the market I went, straight to the potato isle and what did I find right next to the sweet potatoes? Big, plump, dark reddish brown skinned, orange fleshed yams aka orange sweet potatoes. The orange “yam” fries turned out even more delicious than my first pale batch and in the following months I would come to experiment with many different yammy dishes. Next to the classic baked yam fries this following recipe is a favorite of mine, I hope you like it too!

Baked yams with blackened chicken and sweet peppers


  • 3 big plump yams or orange sweet potatoes
  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • Around 10 mini sweet peppers (red, orange and yellow) I buy mine in bulk at Costco but they also have them in smaller amounts at Trader Joes. If you can’t find them bell pepper will work too. You want approximately 2 cups chopped peppers
  • A handfull or two of fresh cilantro
  • Spices to taste (I use one or two tablespoons of Cajun Creole seasoning and Jamaican Jerk seasoning from The Spice Hunter)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Splash of mirin (Japanese cooking rice wine) or white wine
  • Olive oil
  • A few drizzles of honey
  • Smart balance or butter

Potato preparation

Preheat your oven to 375 and line a baking sheet with heavy duty foil. Wash your yams and poke a couple times with a fork. Depending on the size of your yams they will need to cook for 1 to 1 ½ hours.

Topping preparation

Chop the mini sweet peppers into tiny bite sized pieces and set them aside. While you still have your knife handy chop up a handful or two of the cilantro leaves and set those aside as well. You don’t need too much, just enough to sprinkle atop your finished dish to give it a little color and kick.

Now you are ready to prep the chicken. Cut your chicken into small bite sized pieces, I like to use culinary scissors to speed up this process but a knife works just fine too. Put a dollop of olive oil in your cast iron skillet, swirl it in the pan and heat on high heat. Once skillet is piping hot throw the chicken in and then cover the skillet with a lid to keep it from smoking. Let this cook for 1 or 2 minutes and then using a spatula flip the chicken pieces over. The cooked side should be golden brown. Recover the skillet and let the chicken cook for another couple minutes. Stir the chicken about in the skillet, it should now be getting to be golden brown on all sides. Lower heat to medium and add to the chicken a splash or two of mirin or white wine to rehydrate the chicken a bit, let this simmer a few moments, give it a good stir and let cook for another minute or two while you gather up your veggies and spices. Position the chicken pieces in the center of your skillet and then add your peppers to the hot pan around the chicken. Sprinkle ½ of the spice mixture (Cajun, Jamaican and Cinnamon combined) atop the chicken, cover pan with the lid and let cook for a minute. Remove the lid, stir the chicken and peppers together and then sprinkle the remainder of the spice mixture onto this. Let cook without the lid for another minute or two until the chicken and peppers are done.

Putting it all together

You have two options for serving this scrumptious yammy creation, you can remove the skin from the yam, mush it up and then top with your chicken mixture or you can split the yam down the middle and stuff with the mixture. Which ever method you choose you will want to start your topping stacking by first adding a bit of butter or smart balance to your yam, then top with a generous portion of the chicken pepper mix, add a swirl of honey and lastly a sprinkling of cilantro. Delish!

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