Sweet potatoes: an appreciation and recipe

A few sweet potatoes waiting for their aluminum foil coat.
A few sweet potatoes waiting for their aluminum foil coat.

A dish of sweet potatoes was special-occasion food in my family.

Sweet potatoes made regular annual appearances at Thanksgiving. My mother was a working, single mom, so Thanksgiving was an endeavor best tackled in stages. Mommy would buy a big bag of sweet potatoes a week before the holiday to get ahead of the crazy Kroger crowd. A few days later, she or my Uncle Bobby scrubbed the spuds, piled them precariously into the biggest pot we had, covered them with water, and let them boil for hours on the electric stovetop. The pot of potatoes bubbled away beneath the TV and the phone ringing and my family’s normal volume that was always set to “Yell.” As the house settled into the evening, as the phone rang less often and conversations grew a bit softer, Mommy or Uncle Bobby drained the sweet potatoes, peeled off the skin with a butter knife, sliced them length wise, and arranged them like shingles in a baking dish. That night, or the next day depending on how full her schedule was in those scant days before Thanksgiving, Mommy cloaked the naked potato slices in a layer of brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and nestled pats of butter between some lucky slices. The dish baked until it bubbled and the brown sugar formed a crust on the once exposed sweet potato slices. The smell alone was justification for 365 days of waiting.

I’ve since adopted sweet potatoes as a staple in my own kitchen. This inclusion has made any meal with a sweet potato a special occasion, be it a quick lunch in my cubicle or dinner with my husband.

Sweet potatoes are a superfood, a hyped-up way of saying that these root vegetables are good for you. However, this is one superfood that actually tastes damn delicious without much work (I’m looking at you, Kale). It also helps that sweet potatoes are one of the more affordable super-duper foods, especially if you buy a bag of them.

I don’t always have time for the sweet-potato bake my mom and uncle would tag team. Instead, I’ve adopted a pretty simple method from The Kitchn of baking a bunch of sweet potatoes so they’re ready to eat during the work week. It doesn’t get much easier than these few steps.

That's me, desperately taking a picture with one hand and praying that I don't drop my phone in the water.
That’s me, desperately taking a picture with one hand and praying that I don’t drop my phone in the water.
  1. Buy yourself a bag of potatoes and wash off as many as you’d like to prepare. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Poke approximately a million holes in aforementioned potatoes. This is my favorite part.
  3. Rub your wounded potatoes with olive oil. A drizzle will do.
  4. Wrap potatoes in aluminum foil. Make sure the edges are sealed, but you don’t need to press the foil down tightly around the spuds. Give them some room to breathe.
  5. Place potatoes directly on your oven rake.
  6. Let potatoes bake for at least 45 minutes or until they are tender if you gently squeeze them (through an oven mitt, of course). I’ve been known to leave a batch in the oven for an hour and some change.

After the sweet potatoes have cooled down enough for you to handle, unwrap them from the foil. My ideal sweet potato is very soft and fleshy. I’d like to think it’s because of all those holes and the olive oil massage. I like to tear the insides away from the skin with my fork and go to town without any spices or sweeteners. A well-baked sweet potatoes is rich without the butter and sweet without the sugar, a dessert-for-dinner treat from Mother Nature.

I’ve taken to the Twitter to proclaim my love for the sweet potato, and I’ve gotten some good feedback about toppings that can elevate this favorite food of mine. Goat cheese? Balsamic vinegar? I’ll give them all a try. I’ll find an occasion.

Event: Dare to Care’s Bobby Ellis Thanksgiving Eve Vigil, Nov. 26

Take a moment tonight to think about the folks who do without on Thanksgiving and every other day of the year. (Courtesy Satya Murthy, Flickr Creative Commons)
Take a moment tonight to think about the folks who do without on Thanksgiving and every other day of the year. (Courtesy Satya Murthy, Flickr Creative Commons)

I’m thankful that I’ve never gone hungry.

Sure, I’ve chomped at the bit waiting for my next meal. I’ve even been hangry a time or three. Fortunately, there has always been food in my fridge and cabinets.

That’s not the case for many families in our community. In Jefferson County, 17.2% of people are food insecure, according to the non-profit Feeding America. That means that 127,320 people have at some point had inadequate or uncertain access to nutritious food.

Dare to Care, a food bank that serves the Kentuckiana region, has done a lot to address hunger in our community. Tonight, the organization will host a candlelight vigil to honor Bobby Ellis, the nine-year-old boy whose death from malnutrition on Thanksgiving Eve 1969 sparked the Dare to Care movement.

Before you dive headfirst into the Thanksgiving spread tomorrow, take some time to remember a little boy who went hungry in our own city and consider what you can do to stop hunger.


Bobby Ellis Thanksgiving Eve Vigil sponsored by Dare to Care Food Bank

Six ways to save yourself this Thanksgiving

English: Thanksgiving Dinner, Falmouth, Maine,...
English: Thanksgiving Dinner, Falmouth, Maine, USA 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s the day before Thanksgiving. Do you need some helping getting dinner together tomorrow?

I’m fresh out of miracles. Instead, I have a good dose of keepin’ it real.

We are delusional in the weeks before Thanksgiving. We convince ourselves that we can cook a 20-pound turkey because Alton Brown says it’s easy. We fill our grocery cart with pounds and pounds of potatoes because boxed mashed potatoes will just not do. We buy a rolling pin and a pastry blender because this will be the year we finally make that pie crust from scratch. And we sincerely believe that from our kitchens will emerge a display of culinary prowess that would make Martha Stewart throw her panties at our feet in adoration.

That fantasy is a few turkey trots away from our realities. For 364 days of the year, dinner is something simple enough to fix after an eight-hour workday, be it pasta with a homemade mushroom cream sauce, scrambled eggs or a bowl of cereal. Why do we think we can pull off a full Thanksgiving spread?

We can’t. No one can achieve the high expectation we set for ourselves. And that’s why you made it to the blog today, because the turkey is still frozen, the mountain of potatoes haven’t been peeled and the butter just won’t blend with the flour for that pie crust.

I can’t save your disaster. But I have some tips to save your sanity.

  • Stick with what you know. Do you have a killer chocolate chip cookie recipe? Do your friends rave about your fried corn? That’s what you need to cook for Thanksgiving. Everyone has a recipe that they have mastered over the years and made their own. Now is the time to whip it out of your recipe box (or iPad).
  • Just make a salad. I can’t think of one Thanksgiving meal that included a salad. It’s not that my family is full of salad-haters; everyone’s just too busy with mashed potatoes and the like to put together some fresh greens. Buy a bag of pre-washed lettuce, toss it with sliced apples, dried cranberries, feta cheese, almond slivers, and a raspberry vinaigrette, and veg heads will be grateful.
  • Think outside the casserole dish. There are lots of other items you can bring to the celebration besides food that your family and friends will appreciate. Run to your nearest dollar store and get some paper plates, napkins and cups.
  • Never underestimate the power of a beverage. Be the cool cousin and bring a few bottles of wine. Is your family more conservative? Stop by a gas station and get some two-liters (bonus points if you get Coke Zero).
  • Break it and bake it. Grab a pack of the ready-to-bake Nestlé Tollhouse cookie dough. No mixing and barely any work — you just separate the squares of dough, put on a baking sheet, and let cook in the oven. Dessert in less than an hour. What’s not to love?
  • Be honest about your shortcomings. Just come right out and say you’re frazzled and can’t fulfill your culinary commitment. So what if the crust never came together? Your family and friends will love you anyway. That’s what Thanksgiving is about.

Put down the pie and pop in the workout DVD, or how to stay healthy during the holidays

I’m two turkey sandwiches, four slices of sweet potato pie and nearly a dozen Crescent Rolls into the holiday season.

My hips are going to spread faster than the BP oil spill if I don’t change my eating habits between now and Christmas.

Most weight gain during the year occurs during the holiday quarter, and folks typically don’t lose the pounds they put on, according to an article from the Washington Post.

It’s the beginning of December, a prime time to learn from the gluttony and subsequent food hangover of Thanksgiving and make smart food choices through Christmas.

Here’s a few tips on how to stay (kind of) healthy during all the buffets, sit-down dinners and break room goodies. This advice has been gleaned from two rounds of Weight Watchers and too many years of eating myself silly at Mama Eats’ kitchen table. Bottom line: treat yourself, but don’t pig out.

  • Eat your veggies first. Fill half of your plate with vegetables and dive into the healthy stuff first. When I fill up on vegetables first, I have less room for the less-healthy options.
  • Pack snacks for work. Is it me, or does the office break room have little elves that constantly fill platters with cookies, cakes and pies during the holidays? Bring healthier snacks in your lunch bag, such as dried fruits or almonds, when you are tempted by the generosity of your co-workers.
  • Don’t forget to exercise – even if it’s just walking. It’s hard to get motivated when it’s cold and gray outside. But a few extra minutes of cardio each day can really make a difference. I like following a workout DVD when I get up in the morning – it gets my day started on a good note. I’m a fan of Leslie Sansone, who advocates indoor walking for exercise (it sounds kind of weird, but it’s pretty awesome).
  • Go easy on the sauce. Some of those holiday cocktails can be heavy on the calories. Check out the nutritional facts for eggnog. And chug some water between those hot toddies.
  • Bring your own dish to the holiday parties. The menu can be a mystery at holiday gatherings, but there’s some security in bringing your own healthy dish. I recommend pumpkin spice muffins.
  • Just say no. Daddy Eats will still love me, even if I don’t try that pecan pie he bought for charity. I’m sure your loved ones feel the same. But if Grandma’s eyes start to well when you turn down her cornbread stuffing, have a small portion instead of a heaping mound.

Thank you for being a friend, supporter and/or provider of great food

The turkey is sitting heavy in my belly, as is sweet potatoes, green beans, stuffing and other goodness straight from my mother’s oven.

While I wait for the tryptophan to take its hold, there are a few people I’d like to thank for being amazing, thoughtful and kind to me as I’ve developed the Ashlee Eats blog.

  • My boyfriend, Rob. He loves food as much as I do. He puts up with me writing notes during dinner dates. Simply, he’s an amazing person.
  • My roommates, Susie and Samantha. They join me on $10 Challenges and share a love of Snuggies and Glee. And did I mention that they’ve taken up baking … from scratch? Take a gander at Sam’s homemade apple pie:

  • Mama Eats. See above. My mother knows her way around a kitchen.
  • My dog, Roscoe. He’s always willing to sample my dishes, even if I don’t want him to.
  • Waiters and waitresses. I’ve met so many servers who are patient while I study the menu and offer good advice on what I should order.
  • Michelle from the Consuming Louisville blog. She barely knew me before offering to publish my $10 Challenges on her blog. What a big heart.
  • Josie from the blog Yum Yucky. She was the first blogger whom I ever reached out to for advice. She was so helpful, and her blog is great.
  • All the readers. You guys are awesome. Thanks for reading, subscribing and commenting.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

Bits and pieces: Thanksgiving news from the web, 11.24.10

    Gobble gobble, y'all. Photo courtesy of Alan Vernon via Flickr.
  • Each year, one lucky turkey escapes the dinner table, receives a Presidential pardon and lives a pretty cushy life in the process. The Food Network put together a fun slideshow about the process, and the Washington Post profiled the chosen bird, Courage, and his alternate, Carolina, last year.
  • This Thanksgiving, more folks in Louisville (and the rest of the country, from what I’ve read) need help, but donations have fallen flat, according to an article in the Courier-Journal. From the story:

“What I’ve been really amazed by is the number of people who come in and feel somewhat ashamed because they say, ‘I’ve never been in this situation before,’” said George Sanders, executive director of West Louisville Community Ministries. “They’re almost apologetic.”

  • I’ve never had the urge to try the abomination that is turducken (a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken stuffed with … stuffing), but in case you’re interested, here’s a recipe. Somebody should stuff some Tums in there as well.

 

  • Some calls to the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line prove that there are such things as stupid questions, according to a piece from Reuters. The story lists some real questions that have been posed to the turkey experts throughout the years, including my favorite: “Is it okay to thaw my turkey in the bathtub while bathing my kids?”

 

  • Need something to talk about at the Thanksgiving table? The good people of Smithsonian.com have compiled a list of science trivia about common Thanksgiving foods.

Bring on Thanksgiving with the help of pumpkin spice muffins (Recipe)

Pumpkin spice muffins.

Thanksgiving is getting the shaft this year.

Before I could even put away my orange Pumpkin Fairy tutu, retailers had dragged out the trees, bows and candy canes.

But what about Thanksgiving? Where are all the pilgrim hats? The horn things filled with food? For goodness’ sake, where are the turkeys shaped like hands?

I’ve baked pumpkin spice muffins twice this past week to get myself and others into the Thanksgiving spirit. As Rob put it, the muffins “smell like autumn.” I hope you can also use this easy recipe to spread some Thanksgiving love.

Pumpkin spice muffins

Recipe adapted from my friend Sally Scherer, who got her version from All Recipes

Ingredients

  • One 15- or 16-ounce can of pumpkin (I prefer Libby’s)
  • One box of spice cake mix
  • One 6-ounce bag of dried cranberries, such as Craisins

Directions

  1. Dump the spice cake mix and can of pumpkin into a mixing bowl.
  2. Blend the cake mix and pumpkin until it looks like this:

    It looks gross, but it's very tasty.
  3. Pour in the bag of dried cranberries and mix them in with the batter.
  4. Lick the beaters (if you used a mixer) or spatula. Seriously. It’s imperative and delicious.

    This batter is delicious. Lick like no one's looking.
  5. Spray two muffin pans with nonstick spray or fill with cupcake liners. Fill two-thirds of each cups with batter.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
  7. Let muffins cool. Enjoy.