November 24, 2021

Blog the Forty-third: Sweet Potatoes Baked Three Ways

American Potatoes all'Italiana

“Did you know that the sweet potato is not in fact a potato? It belongs to the family of Morning Glory, whereas the potato is a member of the Nightshade family. The potato’s fruits and leaves, like those of its siblings, the tomato, the eggplant, and tobacco, are poisonous to eat. Not so the sweet potato’s, whose leaves may in fact be boiled as a vegetable.” 

That’s how I was going to start this post, until I came to my senses. It’s only that blind faith in modern science, to which we are all involuntary heirs, that made me trust Science Guy’s Wikipedia entry more than my own senses—not to mention common sense. But this is how it’s been since the inauguration of Science Guy’s experimental method in the 17th century. We’ve been trained to not trust our senses until they’ve been verified by his experiments, and he has given us to expect experimental contradictions of our sense experience regularly. So, if Science Guy tells me the earth in fact goes around the sun, then I chortle at the benighted centuries that thought the sun goes around the earth, even if that’s what I myself see every day. And if Science Guy tells me I don’t catch my colds from the cold, I educate any ingenuous friends who think so on the strength of spurious correlations of etymology or personal experience. And if Science Guy tells me that a sweet potato is not a potato, then I marvel at that fact in my blog. But is that a fact? 

What in fact is a fact? One science guy once told me that nothing is a fact until it’s been proven. At the time that seemed to me as presumptuous as preposterous, but now it seems convenient. Let us distinguish between the truth and Science Guy’s facts. Science Guy’s facts are in fact only as true as his units of measure are apt. Now there’s nothing particularly objective about a unit of measure. Granted, once that measure is selected and applied uniformly, then there’s the objectivity of that uniformity of application in the results. That’s why Science Guy gets to keep contradicting himself and calling it science. As long as his experiment was methodologically sound, he gets to call it science. But if another methodologically sound experiment comes along and draws the opposite conclusion from a better unit of measure, that’s science too. You see, science contradicting itself is just science correcting itself. In a sense, science can never go wrong, even when it’s wrong, so long as it remains objective methodologically.  So, it doesn't have to be true to be science.  Go figure.

Before measuring and in order to measure, the measurer has to make an intelligent decision both about what to measure and by what measure to measure it. In fact, his measuring will only be as intelligent as his choice of object and unit of measure. So, if you decide you want to measure the length of a thing, you could choose the meter, the King’s foot, or your own foot. If you decide to measure its weight, choose pounds, kilos, or whatnot. If you want to measure its temperature, that’s trickier; since you can’t measure it directly, you’ll have to infer it from its effect on something else you can measure, like mercury, or platinum, or its own blackbody radiation. And what if you choose the wrong unit of measure? 

A medical researcher once told me that our federal government invested a great deal of money in a study aimed at discovering why some people’s urine smells after eating asparagus, and some not. They were interested in discovering what in asparagus some livers process so quickly. In the course of the second such study, some experimenters accidentally discovered that all the reporting subjects’ urine smelled, but that some of them could smell it and some could not. All the urine in fact had the smell—for those who could smell it, that is. That personal subjectivity was a fact their scientific objectivity overlooked. 

Then there are angles and ends to consider. Let us take our sweet potato as an example. Science Guy pronounces that it is not closely related to the common potato. He neglects to mention to us his perspective, namely taxonomically speaking. Well, the taxonomer has his own reasons for arranging plants in the species and varieties he does, ends no better than the cook’s or eater's. If for the taxonomer a sweet potato has more to do with a tomato or eggplant because of the flower and leaves of the plant it comes from, that’s not a reason it shouldn’t have more to do with a potato for us cooks, for whom it’s a starchy tuber apt for a staple food. That’s a fact as objective as the taxonomer’s, and an end more common and more needful, and in fact the truth of the matter when it comes to cooking and eating food. 

Objectively speaking, Science Guy’s units and ends are no more apt than common sense’s, depending on what object you’re measuring and for what reason. If when we’re interested in kinds of food, he tells us that a sweet potato is not a potato, he is telling us a fact that misses the truth. He suppresses culinary and gustatory truths in positing his taxonomy as the objective truth, which in fact it is not, at least not when food is the object of interest. His true fact is in fact apt only in relation to his interest in organizing species of plants. That interest is not the cook’s interest, nor the eater’s, so that taxonomic unit of measure is not apt to tell us the truth we’re looking for in the kitchen or at the table. The relation not being apt, neither is the fact, which is therefore not the truth. Truth is a relation—an apt relation, in fact—apt to what you’re talking about, what you're asking about it, and why you're asking.  

Objectivity is not about getting around your subjectivity, but about getting your subjectivity in an apt relation to the object of its interest. Science Guy’s problem—which becomes ours—is that because of what he does in fact know about the objects of his interest, he thinks he knows more than he does about the truth of things. When his facts are apt, they can point us to the truth we’re looking for. But when he offers us facts that are not apt, he offers us knowledge without understanding and so sophistry in lieu of science, unwittingly. 

Science Guy boasts that his science trusts only what is sensibly verifiable in his experiments, yet he bids us to not trust our own senses. I bid you take him with a grain of salt—a.k.a. common sense. So, if it’s cold out, be sensible and put a coat on, or you’ll catch a cold. And if a sweet potato tastes like a potato to you, believe it’s like a potato. 

And as for the earth going around the sun, Science Guy has been slow to let you know that’s not quite true either. In fact, it’s no truer than thinking the sun goes around the earth—a claim which Science Guy chortled at for centuries, dubbing the millennium before his own advent the “Dark Ages” for such beliefs. Science Guy hasn’t really owned up to his boy Galileo’s being wrong too. Thinking that the earth goes around the sun is just as scientifically naïve as thinking the sun goes around the earth, according to the latest and greatest science. Turns out, everything is going around everything else, avers the Science Guy of our own day, and there’s no true center. The only sort of “center” that makes sense is the one you chose to measure from. Taking earth as the center turns out to be an apt option for an earthling , after all. So, next time you’re apt to chortle, recall what the Good Book has to say about chortling: The fool laughs at what he does not understand

Well, instead of scientific facts, how about I offer you fun facts? Like potatoes, sweet potatoes are a New World product—at least for the Europeans for whom this world and its fruits were new, beginning with Columbus. Now he and his explorers in fact named sweet potatoes patate, and this name was later extended to what we North Americans now call potatoes. English-speaking forbears of ours at first called our white-fleshed potatoes bastard potatoes, Virginia potatoes, and Irish potatoes. Sweet potatoes are in fact more nutritious than white potatoes, and both have been cultivated in Central and South America for mellenia; they are today a staple food in parts of east Asia, as they had been in parts of the southeast of the U.S., before the now wider dissemination of white potatoes worldwide. 

Though the sweet potato is also called a yam by North Americans, the taxomoner reserves the word yam for a starchy African tuber that he regards as remote from either the sweet or the white potato of the Americas. The cook might condone this taxonomic distinction to the extent that such African yams require much different cooking. However, whether African yams seem, once cooked, enough like sweet or white potatoes to the eater to be called potatoes, I leave to eaters of them to say, knowing that I myself do not know. In any case, for my intents and purposes here, and with all due disrespect to the taxonomer, I’m willing to use the name yam in my local supermarket to distinguish those darker skinned sweet potatoes of softer orange flesh from the harder ones with paler pinkish flesh, which don’t cook up the same way. As long as that’s what "yam" refers to on the sign at your local grocery store, that’s what is of interest to you, and so that’s the truth you’ll be looking for when shopping. 

Here’s another fun fact, particularly apt to this blog. In Italian, sweet potatoes are called American potatoes. This might seem odd historically, given that both sweet and white potatoes came from the Americas, and the former were discovered by Europeans before the latter. No doubt historical research could trace a trail of facts to explain this Italian nomenclature. But would those historical facts explain the present reality? Perhaps not. Perhaps the present will teach a reason the past cannot. Perhaps because the common potato has been a staple of Italian cooking for centuries, pasta notwithstanding, while the sweet potato remains special, it’s only natural its name be one of contradistinction reflecting not its bygone origin but its living esprit. 

Witness my family. My Italian family loves sweet potatoes baked sweet in the American way. This is remarkable to me, in that the Italian immigrants of my parents’ generation thought of American cooking as too sweet. They mostly eschewed sugar as spice in their own cooking; they might well use it to offset acid, but rarely to add sweet flavor. They frankly disliked the American penchant both for sweet food and for sweet sweets—except for the classic sweet potatoes browned with brown sugar and butter. Such glazed sweet potatoes were a staple of any holiday dinner in my house growing up—certainly on Thanksgiving, but also Christmas, Easter, my father’s birthday, or any Sunday on which we had Sunday gravy, where it was served next to broccoli di rabe sauteed in garlic ‘n oil, as a perfect duo to complement the gravy meat served as second dish after the pasta. 
So maybe it was treated more like a red vegetable than a starch, since we would never serve white potatoes after pasta? Then perhaps Taxonomy Guy wasn’t so wrong after all in distinguishing sweet from white potatoes—although if he was right, he was right for the wrong reasons, offering the wrong facts to explain the truth of the matter.  Or maybe his fact is not explaining anything, but in fact needs explaining.  Fact is, there are Gentiles who insist on having both sweet potatoes and white potatoes on Thanksgiving, sometimes even mashing both.  What are we to say?  Are they having two kinds of potato, in the holiday's spirit of excess, or else to keep the peace by catering to divided predeliction?  Or will Science Guy insist self-assuredly that one is a mashed Nightshade and the other a mashed Morning Glory, and a mashed sweet potato doesn't have anything more to do with a mashed potato than mashed eggplant or chewed tobacco would?  No, I think the resolution of this question is clearly beyond the ken of Science Guy's fact.  This is clearly the stuff of Thanksgiving tableside dialectics.
As for me and this blog, I have come around to Italianizing Gentile recipes for glazed sweet potatoes with the use of olive oil, and my parents liked mine even better than the American classic. It’s three such recipes that I offer you in this blog post. I won’t go so far as to call them Barbary, as I do other recipes of my own devising, since these sweet potato recipes are not quite so original as that. They’re more “reverse assimilations” than innovations, insofar as they pull back a bit on the original American recipe by adding olive oil to the butter and offsetting sweetness with the acidity of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. These recipes Italianize what remain substantially American in spirit as in origin: American potatoes all’italiana, as it were. 

Sweet Potatoes Baked Sweet 

The aesthetic of this recipe is the traditional one of potatoes baked soft and browned by sugar, maybe even burnt at the edges (if you don’t mind those edges getting stuck in your molars, which my father insistently didn't and I definitely do). I like this recipe best for the larger, harder, paler sweet potatoes, which need help to taste good. 

I help out each such large sweet potato with one tablespoon of butter melted into one of regular olive oil, plus one tablespoon coarse raw sugar (aka "Turbinado") and a teaspoon of fresh-squeezed lemon juice. As with all sweet foods, I salt them generously, followed by spare gratings of nutmeg. 

After washing and peeling the potatoes, I cut each in half lengthwise, and then crosswise into demilune wedges wide as a nickel. I soak the wedges in fresh cold water until I’m ready for them. 

I use a metal mixing bowl so that I can put it over lowest heat to melt the butter into the olive oil. Then I drain the sweet potato wedges and add them to the bowl, generously salting them all over, followed by light grating of nutmeg all over. Next comes a tablespoon of Turbinado sugar per potato, sometimes called raw sugar (although it’s in fact half-processed). In a pinch, I’ll use the traditional brown sugar instead (which in fact adds molasses to processed sugar, for which reason I use scant tablespoons, not liking too much sweetness). Don’t forget the teaspoon of lemon juice per potato (which is in fact 1/3 a tablespoon) to militate against cloying. 

Now I mix it all well, tossing and folding, over and over, until all the ingredients coalesce into a glaze that coats the potato wedges. I bet there are chefs who with my mother would chortle that I’m just playing house again, and that the coalescent glaze would form on its own in the baking pan without pre-mixing.  But I’m my own man and this man likes to pre-mix. Then he dumps his admirably glazed wedges into a roasting pan broad enough that all the wedges can lie on the bottom of the pan in one layer, so as to brown from below. 

The pan gets covered snugly with aluminum foil and goes into a 425 degree oven for 20 minutes, to steam the potatoes first in their own moisture. After 20 minutes of steaming, remove the pan from the oven and the foil from the pan, and then turn each wedge over. Yes, each wedge one by one, as though playing house. Somehow it helps to use a spoon upside-down to flip each wedge with a fork. You’ll find that the flipped undersides have begun to brown. Back into the oven, this time uncovered, for browning both above and below, for another 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, take them out and make the call: either call them done, if you like them lighter and firmer, or else flip them over again (yes, one by one again) and put them back in for another 5 to 20 minutes, for as much browning (or burning) as you like, perhaps raising the temperature to 450 degrees, but keeping a close eye on them if you do, because they burn from below.  In a hurry, you could broil them brown, but keep an even closer eye on them if you do, because they burn from above even faster.

Simple truth is, they’re ready when they’re ready to you

Yams Roasted Tangy 

This recipe is stylish. Its austerity makes it feel sophisticated, its restrained sweetness tinged by tanginess. The source of both the sweet and the sour is the same, namely Basalmic vinegar, the stylish sophisticate among vinegars—although I, for one, wouldn’t use any fancy Balsamic glaze, as sweet to a fault. The herbaceaous nose of rosemary adds another gourmetish difference. All this appeals to the stylish and the sophisticated. 

I roast these a bit al dente, for a gourmetish difference from traditional glazed sweet potatoes. They taste and look good next to roasted meats: the burnt orange looks good surrounding slices of a roast on a platter, especially flanked by a bright sauteed green, like broccoli di rabe. 

I like having different recipes to jive with different menus and moods, so there’s no reason for invidious distinctions between these roasted sweet potatoes and the traditional glazed. I like the traditional recipe better for paler, harder sweet potatoes, and this recipe for softer orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (which I’m willing to distinguish as “yams”, as are some of my supermarkets). 

For these roasted yams, I use one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil (rather than regular), with one of melted butter for each large yam, plus one tablespoon of balsamic vinegar—a savory trinity. Then there’s the aromatic trinity: I generously grate fresh black pepper all over them, and fresh nutmeg, trusting my nose to say how much is enough, and finally rosemary needles, preferably fresh, but dried will do in pinch. I very generously salt the potato wedges cut wide as a nickel, and so must you. As in the recipe above, I pre-mix in a mixing bowl to glaze the wedges. Then I lay them out in one layer in a roasting pan, and cover with foil, for initial steaming. 

Aiming for al dente, I put them in a 425 degree oven for 15 minutes, before uncovering the pan and flipping the wedges and baking another 15 minutes uncovered.  Then I make the call. Typically, I decide to flip the wedges over a second time and to roast another 15 minutes, until edges are distinctly gilded (but not blackened), because I don't really like them al dente and I don't really care what stylish sophisticates think.

 A Yam Baked Whole 

I love how simple this recipe is. I think of it as something simple I make for myself that is too simple for guests, but when I’ve made it for a casual guest, they have always liked it a lot. I only use soft yams for this, as having native sweetness. 

I wash a not over-large yam well, scrubbing it, knowing I will like eating the charred skin. (Yes, now I like it burnt). I put the yam onto the rack of a 425 degree, with a drip pan below, and bake it, turning it over once, until its skin blackens blotchy all over, and the wrinkled yam oozes syrupy drippings into the drip pan, and the kitchen smells carmelized. 

I slice it lengthwise in half, and then score its rose-gold flesh with a knife. Now very generous shower of salt all over, and grindings of black pepper, and just the right amount of fresh nutmeg gratings. Then I spear a wad of butter with a fork and run it back and forth to melt the butter into the scored crevices. But not finished yet! Now drizzling of extra virgin olive all over the surface. Yum. (Yes, slant-pun with yam intended.) 

Please don’t ruin my recipe by deciding to use only olive oil and not also butter because it’s healthier; or else only butter because you don’t keep extra virgin olive oil in the house. Make up your own recipe.

A baked yam is one of those “sides” I like to eat on its own, after my meat rather than in between bites of it. Usually half is enough, and I save the other half for another night, for “twice baked” as it were. I heat it up by putting it in a hot oven on a baking sheet, flesh side up, sometimes with fresh dotting of butter or drizzling of extra virgin olive oil, and sometimes just dry. Still satisfying, and in 10 with no fuss.

Glazed Sweet Potatoes

* Sliced peeled sweet potatoes first lengthwise in half, then crosswise into wedges wide as a nickel.  Put the wedges to soak in fresh cold water.
* For each large potato, in a mixing bowl melt a tablespoon of butter into a tablespoon of regular olive oil and a teaspoon of lemon juice.  Drain and add the potato wedges to the bowl.  Salt them generously all over, and then grate nutmeg lightly all over.  Mix all well, tossing and folding the wedges until they are evenly glazed.
* Pour out the wedges into a roasting pan, spreading them out in one layer.  Cover snugly with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes at 400-425 degrees, to steam them soft.
* Remove the pan from the oven and the foil from the pan, and flip each wedge over.  Then return the pan to the over for another 20 minutes of baking uncovered.
* After 20 minutes, remove the pan and flip the potato wedges again.  Return the pan to the oven and cook to the brownness and softness your appetite desires.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes

* Sliced peeled sweet potatoes first lengthwise in half, then crosswise into wedges wide as a nickel.  Put the wedges to soak in fresh cold water.
* For each large potato, melt a tablespoon of butter into a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and a tablespoon of Balsamic vinegar.  Add the potato wedges drained to the bowl, sprinkling them with rosemary needles.  Season them generously all over with lots of salt, fresh grindings of black pepper, and some gratings of nutmeg.  Mix all well, tossing and folding the wedges until they are evenly coated.
* Dump out the wedges into a roasting pan, spreading them out in one layer.  Cover snugly with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes at 400-425 degrees, to steam them soft.
* Remove the pan from the oven and the foil from the pan, and flip each wedge over.  Then return the pan to the over for another 15 minutes of baking.
* After 15 minutes, remove the pan and flip the potato wedges again.  Return the pan to the oven and brown to taste.

Sweet Potato Baked Whole

* Wash and scrub not overlarge sweet potatoes.  Place them on a rack in a 400-425 degree oven with a drip pan below.  Bake until the potato skin wrinkles and blackens, and the potatoes ooze golden syrup onto the drip pan below. 
* Slice each potato lengthwise and score its soft flesh with a knife.  Sprinkle generously with salt, grindings of black pepper, and some gratings of nutmeg.  Rub with butter and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.  Enjoy.