battle 15–day 4–sweet potato/thanksgiving part 3

My folks moved last year from their sleepy little golf community in east Tennessee to a sleepy little farm community in western P-A, and Thanksgiving was our first time visiting them in their new house. We were there for three days. We spent all day Thursday doing Thanksgiving. And all day Friday doing Black Friday (the thought of which would usually make me want to gouge my eyes out, but the population density of my folks’ area is sparse enough that Black Friday at the Westmoreland Mall was more like a Tuesday afternoon at Lenox: busy, but not soul destroying). By Saturday, we had pretty much exhausted everything there was to do in Greensburg, P-A.

While Mom, Dad and David sat around Saturday morning hemming and hawing over what we should do that day, I meandered about my parents’ oversized and underused kitchen, thinking about what kind of fancy cooking I could make happen in there before the weekend was over (my arrogance continues to blossom). It was still breakfast time and I was starving so I started opening drawers and cabinets looking for inspiration. Then I saw the mound of leftover sweet potato soufflé/casserole in the fridge and genius happened:  sweet potato pancakes. Gen-ius. And even though David usually has cereal and my mom usually has four cups of coffee for breakfast, I was pretty sure that as soon as I announced my grand plan everyone would come running to the kitchen to watch genius unfold, then the pure deliciousness I was dreaming up in my head would happen magically and translate seamlessly to our plates (completely trumping coffee and cereal), and then we would all live happily ever after.

“Hey you guys, I’m going to make sweet potato pancakes, want some?”

They looked at me like I had two heads. David said, “Eh, I already ate.” Mom said, “Oh, that sounds interesting, honey, thank you, baby, but I don’t think so, sweetie.” My dad didn’t even feign interest; he just walked away. “No thanks.”

But I was pretty fucking sure I was on to something. The Internet agreed. We consulted on a few different variations of the many, many sweet potato pancake recipes out there, all of which start with sweet potatoes as the main ingredient, but since I was starting with soufflé/casserole as the main ingredient, I chose several recipes to work with so I could pick and choose the rest of the bits and parts until I thought it looked right. Very scientific. Fucking genius is what it was.

Following is one of the more basic sweet potato pancake recipes with my genius modifications:

  • 1 1/4 cups mashed cooked sweet potatoes (I used about two cups of the soufflé/casserole.)
  • 1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt (I added the flour, baking powder and salt exactly as prescribed.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (I don’t really like nutmeg, so I didn’t use it.)
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted (I figured the casserole/soufflé had enough butter, so I didn’t add any more.)
  • 2 eggs, beaten (Same with the eggs.)
  • 1 1/2 cups milk (Same with the milk, but then the batter was looking kind of gloppy, so I added a little milk here and there to moisten it up a bit.)
  • Sift dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Combine remaining ingredients; add to flour mixture, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Drop by tablespoons onto hot greased griddle or skillet and fry, turning once, until browned on both sides.

The actual preparation of the batter was pretty standard and didn’t draw a lot of attention from my house full of naysayers, but once I dropped the first dollop of sweetness onto the skillet and the smell of yummy goodness began to fill the kitchen, those naysayers changed their tune. Sweet potato pancakes smell good. One by one my suddenly hungry family filed into the kitchen, “just to see.” Then my mom, who really is a trooper and quite likes trying new things, was the first to shed her hesitation and jumped right on my genius bandwagon. “Julie! Those look great! Let me get my camera!” Flash! Flash! Snap.

And they were fantastic. I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea how they would turn out. I had never in my life had a sweet potato pancake and only knew they existed because I’d seen them on a menu at a ‘frou-frou’ brunch place a few weeks before, but I would never dare order it, and I would have given my folks the same look they gave me if they said that’s what they were making for breakfast. But this is my project and I’m the judgy genius around here, so if I say it will be a masterpiece, it will be. And it was.

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battle 15–day 3–sweet potato/thanksgiving part 2

One Thanksgiving down, one to go.

In normal people world, planning to cook my first major dish for family Thanksgiving might have caused some anxiety for someone who doesn’t know how to cook, since holidays are already fraught with tension and too many hens in the kitchen just adds to the angst. But I was pretty excited because A) um, my parents aren’t exactly food critics, and B) this was the first time my parents and I would be in the kitchen together—cooking together—since I started this project. I could finally make good on my threat to teach my mom how to cook.

I had decided early on, in like August, when my mom first asked me to start thinking about what I wanted to eat for Thanksgiving (yes, August, for real, and she asks me what I want for Christmas in June, so…I would say she contributes significantly to my obsessive love for the holidays) not to mess with our tried and true Thanksgiving formula, because even though we discuss the menu and possible alternatives ad nauseum as if it will make a difference, it doesn’t; we still have the same thing every year, and every year we have sweet potato soufflé. And since it was sweet potato week on the blog, this year sweet potato soufflé was all mine.

But I’m still me and I wanted to get as fancy as I could with the soufflé recipe without upsetting the apple cart too much. I could have used my mom’s recipe, but because this project is all about learning to cook new things in new and different ways, I owed it to my sweet potatoes to root out a great idea so we’d have something new and different on the table, but I also didn’t want to stray too far from our same-y same regularness, so my dad would eat it.

I thought about this all fall but didn’t really start my recipe search in earnest until the last minute. I’d had about 37 conversations with my mother about the menu and she was starting to get worried, because I hadn’t given her a grocery list (um, sweet potatoes) for my soufflé, because I hadn’t found a recipe yet. I wasn’t worried. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find a good sweet potato recipe the week before Thanksgiving. I was right. My friend Mark, who signed on early to be a researcher for this project (doesn’t that make it sound like we’re totally legit around here at Julie v. Veg?), offered his own personal recipe for sweet potato casserole. Here’s a thing: It didn’t occur to me until I started writing this that there might be a difference between a casserole and soufflé. It didn’t even occur to me when I was making it that what I was making was a casserole and what we usually make is a soufflé. For the record, no one else noticed either. So, that’s another thing. (I bet sweet potato soufflé really is just a casserole, but they call it soufflé because it’s alliterative. I respect that.)

Thanksgiving morning my dad was going over the schedule of what would be cooked when so that everything came together at once (he may not be a master chef, but he possesses the kitchen skill I envy most, so he’s OK in my book), and I saw my chance to get into and out of the kitchen before all the day’s madness happened. Despite this great opportunity to cook with my parents for the first time since my dad taught me how to make a grilled cheese when I was 12 (the one food item I cook well, and the one thing I could eat every day for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy, so technically, my dad did teach me everything I ever really need to know about cooking), I still prefer to be in the kitchen alone, so while everyone was waking up and getting dressed and before the real cooking started, I snuck into the kitchen and tried my damndest to make some sweet potatoes by myself.

Snap! Flash! Snap! (Well, it was really more like, Flash! “Wait a second, why isn’t this doing what I…Julie, hold still…what the?” Flash! Flash! “Dammit.”)

I had barely started mashing the potatoes (which I was doing with a mixer because my dad didn’t know what a potato masher looked like and swore they didn’t own one, a fact I believed since we always ate potatoes out of a box growing up, but later when I located a masher and showed it to him he said, ‘Well, huh, lookie there’…thanks, Dad) when my paparazzo mom came bounding around the corner with the digital camera I gave her last year for Christmas, swearing she has finally learned how to use it and if I would please just hold still….

So I paused to give her a few lessons in digital photography, which was totally by design, because then she became engrossed in exercising her newfound expertise (and was therefore less interested in asking why I was doing what I was doing every single step of the way). Most of the photos herein are hers. I think they’re quite good; don’t you?

Once I was done furtively combining all my ingredients and I had let my mom take a sufficient number of photos of the process, we examined the final product before putting it in the oven. It looked kind of…wet. Was it supposed to be this wet? It was really wet. At this point…I…asked my mom what she thought. Cringe. To be fair, I’d never made a sweet potato soufflé before and I really hadn’t ever eaten it either, so I had no idea how wet or congealed or mushy it was supposed to be, but I figured she’d been making it every Thanksgiving for 20 years, so she would obviously know way better than I would, despite my arrogance about being the best cook in the house, and sigh, what an, ugh, awesome opportunity for her to…help me. If I had known we were making a casserole and not a soufflé, I probably wouldn’t have panicked at this point and would have chalked up the wetness to the fact that this was just a totally different recipe, but I didn’t make all those connections, thus the panicking. Mom’s solution: cornstarch. She said it thickens without adding taste. I have to admit, that was kind of a cook-like thing to know.

It came out looking totally normal and it looked beautiful on the table with the rest of our regular, same-y same Thanksgiving feast, which was delicious and perfect and wonderful. And holy sweet sweet potato soufflé/casserole, it was like, dessert sweet. I liked it just fine, but more importantly, my dad loved it. Win.

Mark’s Fabulous Family Sweet Potato Casserole

  • 6 cups mashed sweet potatoes (5 or 6 potatoes)

Bake them on an aluminum foil lined pan at 375 degrees for about an hour, then peel and mash.

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Combine ingredients above and put in greased baking dish (13×9 pyrex oblong works well).

Topping

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup melted butter

Combine topping ingredients and pour over potato mixture.  Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve and enjoy!

battle 15–day 2–sweet potato

Remember how I very cleverly scheduled the pumpkin battle to fall during the week of Halloween? I did the same thing for sweet potatoes and Thanksgiving, because what’s more Thanksgiving-y than sweet potato soufflé? I mean besides, turkey. And pumpkin pie. And cranberry sauce. And corn casserole. Besides those things, what’s more Thanksgiving-y than sweet potato soufflé? Nothing.

As an adult Thanksgiving is probably my most favorite holiday, and I say that with all due respect to my former favorite holiday, Christmas. When I was a kid, all I did was dream of Christmas and all those presents under the tree. I would count the days and minutes from, like, June. I’m probably the only person in the universe who isn’t offended when people start putting up Christmas decorations the day after Halloween, because historically, as soon as Christmas was over I would sink into a deep depression for weeks, and then perk up for a minute because my birthday is in March, and then fall back into a gloomy funk until Christmas rolled around again. That’s a torturously lengthy present-less stretch and time goes sooo sloooow when you’re seven and entirely dependent on other people to give you things (and you need things), because you don’t have a job.

Then I grew up and got a job. And that’s when Christmas became my second favorite holiday. Because with a job I can make Christmas happen for myself any time of the year, but what my job won’t do for me is cook a turkey. And I love a turkey. And leftover-turkey sandwiches. And gravy. And just about everything else that goes with Thanksgiving dinner. Love. It. And now, I love sweet potatoes, too. Holy yum sweet potatoes yum yum.

St. Thanksgivingfairyclaus visited me twice this year: once for pre-Thanksgiving with friends, and once for regular Thursday Thanksgiving at my folks’ place. Both times I was in charge of sweet potatoes, and I wanted to make it special and different for both occasions. As a rule I’m not a very traditional, sentimental kinda girl, but when it comes to holidays and food, I’m by the book. However, this project has given me so many opportunities to branch out and really try new things that I didn’t want to stop that momentum, so I considered recipes that were both traditional and edgy (or ‘frou frou,’ as my dad likes to say).

I decided pretty early on that I would save the most traditional dish, sweet potato soufflé, for Thanksgiving with my parents and would try to find something a little more fun for pre-Thanksgiving with friends. For the friends version, I decided on a roasted sweet potato recipe from the Martha Stewart holiday magazine. Fancy!

Saturday morning before pre-Thanksgiving, David and I went to the Morningside Farmers’ Market to buy sweet potatoes for dinner that night.

(Side Note: While we were there we saw Jerusalem artichokes and I took a picture for Jess to prove they exist just in case they aren’t there again when Jerusalem artichoke week rolls around. That would be a bummer. Darn.)

Several of the farmers had sweet potatoes, but I really liked the ones Christa had used for sweet potato quesadillas, so I went in search of those. I bought, I don’t know, a bunch, and then wandered around the market feeling very earthy and hip. I’ve always thought neighborhood farmers’ markets are a good idea, in theory, but what with not eating vegetables and all, I never had reason to frequent them. While I was having this little self congratulatory revelation I noticed a big crowd standing around one tent and OMG! It’s celebrity chef Scott Peacock! Who also happens to be the executive chef at Watershed, my all-time most favorite restaurant in the universe forever to infinity and beyond. Morningside Farmers’ Market: epic success.

(Side Note No. 2: If you love Scott Peacock, like me, or even if you don’t but you love me and you know I know what the shit I’m talking about, and I do, he’ll be back at the MFM November 21 working with….sweet potatoes.) (Wait, that already happened…what day is it?) (Wait, does this mean Scott Peacock was working with sweet potatoes the day I saw Scott Peacock and I somehow didn’t notice that because I was too busy drooling over Scott Peacock? Epic fail.)

At home, the roasted sweet potatoes came together very quickly and easily. It was so easy I thought, hey, why don’t I take this extra time I’ve got (which was about five minutes) and start a whole new cooking project? Great idea! So then I pulled out some green tomatoes and fried those bitches (which made us about an hour late). So, the Potties’ final contribution to pre-Thanksgiving: fried green tomatoes and maple-glazed roasted sweet potatoes. If we’d have gone to pre-Thanksgiving last year, the absolute best, most frou frou item I could have contributed would have been monkeybread, which would have been delicious in a 12-year-old, spend-the-night party kind of way.

Pre-Thanksgiving was so awesome. Lots of good friends, great food, and remarkably excellent sweet potatoes. Many, many thanks to all my friends who shared with me the best of the best from their kitchens, and especially to those of you who made your shit without onions.

Maple-glazed Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Ingredients

  • 4 large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Juice and zest of 1 oranges, zest reserved
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup

Preparation

Preheat oven to 450°F. Place potatoes on large baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring once. Mix orange juice, sugar and syrup in a small bowl and drizzle over potatoes. Return to oven for another 10 minutes. Remove to serving dish and garnish with fresh orange zest.

battle 15–day 1–sweet potato

In case any of you actually read this regularly and have noticed posts have become slightly more infrequent in the last few weeks, let me catch you up on what’s happening with Julie v. Veggies right now. You may remember that I had a minor (major) panic attack when summer turned to winter and the vegetables went to shit. That slowed my enthusiasm significantly. Then pumpkin week happened, which picked up my spirits, but then my vacation happened, which put the brakes on the speed I picked up from pumpkin.  In the midst of my vacay exhaustion—and, might I add, the time change, which I hate (seriously, fall, WTF)—I discovered I had one vegetable on the list twice and one week on the list with no vegetable at all.

The project is kicking my ass a little. I’m not saying vegetables are beating me, I’m just saying the project could be a little nicer. Project, back off a little, eh?

So here’s where we are on the schedule now: I’m all caught up on pumpkin and kohlrabi; cauliflower happened next, and even though I have done it I haven’t written about yet; I have a week off (this week); and sweet potato is scheduled for next week to coincide with Thanksgiving. I was going to use this off week to catch up on posts, but instead I started early with sweet potatoes. So I’m going to simultaneously try to catch up and tell you how it’s going with sweet potatoes.

Another thing that happened in the last couple of weeks was David and I got a new housemate. Remember Christa from squash casserole night? Christa has been following the blog very closely and was so worried the project would eventually get the best of me if I kept fucking things up in the kitchen as regularly as I have been, that she thought it was best for everyone if she just moved in to show me how it’s done. And Christa knows how it’s done. Holy good goddamn dinner. The woman can cook.

Monday was supposed to be the first night of my off week, but Christa had brought home some locally grown sweet potatoes, educated me on the difference between conventional and local or organic sweet potatoes (which I totally knew), and started dreaming up all the things we could do with said sweet potatoes. I just watched it all unfold in awe. I was in a bit of a trance and secretly strategizing ways to keep Christa forever, when she whispered (or maybe e-mailed) the words ‘grass-fed brisket.’ I snapped to attention and said fuck my week off, we’re having meat and potatoes, my friends.

The challenge with meat-and-sweet-potato Monday was that one of my many, many, many vegetarian friends was joining us for dinner. I don’t know how, as carnivorous as I am, I have managed to collect so many vegetarians, but I’m sort of swimming in them. And if there’s one thing they’ve taught me it’s that they do require, for nutrition and other purposes, meals more substantial than meat-and-potatoes-minus-the-meat. I racked my brain for things vegetarians eat and asked our dinner companion, Vegetarian Erin, “Um, how about some tofu?” That seriously happened.

But Christa, because she’s amazing, said, “What if we do sweet potato quesadillas?” Obviously.

Then she started pulling things out of drawers and cabinets—utensils I couldn’t identify, spices I’ve never heard of, food I didn’t know we had—waved a magic wand and made the most spectacular, magical meal of sweet potato-y, black bean-y, habanero pepper-y, garlic-y, cheesy quesadillas. And mine had brisket. Wonderful. Heavenly. Too good.

I have to say, even though this project is kicking my ass a little, I have eaten better in the last three months than any other single period in my life. I don’t hate it.

And Christa may or may not forevermore be chained to a chair in my basement. You don’t know.