By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
At least once a week, my just-home-from-work drill goes like this: Drop bag, turn on oven, put in sweet potato, take dog to park, return, remove sweet potato, slash, squeeze, season, eat. Maybe I'll have a salad or leftover veggies or meat on the side; maybe I won't.
The sweet potato is non-negotiable. And that's the way I want it, because to my mind this tuber -- ubiquitous this time of year in pies, under melted marshmallows and whipped to within an inch of its life -- reaches its noblest purpose when left whole and baked until steaming. As a single cook, I keep sweet potatoes as a year-round staple for some of the same reasons I do eggs: They're self-contained, portion-controlled, quick-cooking and full of nutrition.
In sweet potatoes' case, they're also long-lasting. It's rare, but if I go for a month or more without cooking the onions or garlic in my pantry's wire baskets, I'll see some sprouts here or there. The sweets, meanwhile, look just as they did (a little dusty and homely, it's true) the day I brought them home from the market.
I'm not averse to using them in other ways. I know how versatile they are: great in soups, stews, stir-fries and omelets, comfortable in several ethnic cuisines. But for the most part, those are the types of dishes I cook for friends. Other nights, I'm alone in the kitchen with a sweet potato.
When it comes out of the oven, steaming and ready to split open, it's so different from a white potato (which isn't really related, and neither is a true African yam). Perhaps most important, sweets don't cry out for butter; they won't complain if you put some on, but they're creamy enough without it. Instead, I like to squeeze a little lime juice on top, or maybe sprinkle on a little smoked paprika.
Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, prefers to microwave a couple for herself and her husband, a farmer. She loves to top them with just sour cream. "If I have the time, of course, I'll bake them in the oven," she says. "I find they have more moisture, and the aroma is just out of this world."
Sweet potatoes have strong roots in the cooking of the South; North Carolina produces 40 percent of the country's sweet potato crop, more than any other state. Southerners certainly are more comfortable with the vegetable than are their Yankee counterparts. But nationwide, perhaps driven by interest in the nutritional benefits (or in affordability as the economy stalled), consumption of sweet potatoes has seen a steady uptick in the past few years. It's still a mere fraction of the 31 pounds apiece Americans ate annually in the 1920s, but we're now up to five pounds per capita per year.
I've long known that sweet potatoes are high in beta carotene (you can tell from that gorgeous color, though some varieties are lighter-hued) and fiber (particularly if you eat the skin, which I do) and have fewer simple carbohydrates than a white potato. They have slightly more calories (214 vs. 189 for a six-ouncer), but so much more flavor.
I didn't realize until I started looking into it just what powerhouses they are in other ways. In 2002, when the Nutrition Action Healthletter, a publication of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, rated vegetables based on the percentage they provide of the daily value of six nutrients plus carotenoids and fiber, sweet potatoes were named a top 10 "superstar," scoring twice as high as white potatoes.
Nonetheless, any obsession can run its course. And one day this fall I looked at one of those sweet potatoes in my pantry and sighed. Really? Again?
Out of desperation came inspiration. I almost always keep miso in the fridge, and I remembered a Japanese cook in Tokyo showing me how she likes to mash miso into roasted sweet potatoes, one of the country's many objects of culinary fetishism. I had some ground pork in the freezer. The path was clear: Rather than eat anything alongside the sweet potato, I should eat more things on it. It would be a superior twist to the potato topping bars I remember from my college years in the '80s.
I've since added broccolini or broccoli rabe to that miso pork mix. I spoon it all onto a split potato, adding lots of scallion slices for crunch. I've also gone Southeast Asian, making a simple shrimp curry with coconut milk, red bell pepper and Thai chili paste; that mixture goes on top as well. Other times I've mashed in black beans, sour cream and lime juice.
My roasting technique changes depending on my mood and on the time I have available. If it's late and raining and the trip to the dog park turns into a lap around the block, I'll microwave the sweet potato for a few minutes instead of roasting. If I have a half-hour, I'll start it in the microwave and finish it in the oven.
Sometimes, though, what I have is more time, not less. And it turns out that the flexibility of sweet potatoes extends in that direction, too.
On a recent night I put one in a cold oven, set the temperature at 425 degrees and went to what I hoped would be a one-hour meeting of my cooperative building's shareholders. Tense budget discussions stretched to two hours, and I didn't remember the dinner that was underway until I walked back down the long hallway to my apartment. Visions of blackened potato skin and wafting smoke filled my head.
As I got closer, though, I inhaled only the intoxicating smell of caramelizing sugars. I opened the oven door to find my forgotten sweet potato sitting on its piece of foil with just a few sticky, dark-brown spots where moisture had been expelled.
When I cut into it, the inside was the texture of a thick pudding. Its flesh tasted sweet and heavenly, without a thing on it. That preparation might just become my next obsession.