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North wind’s blowing in and it’s time for sweet potatoes. Most of us won’t be going over the river and through the woods this Thanksgiving day, but we’ll bring family traditions to our tables, dining alone or with those in our small bubble. Grim though it sounds, we are up against a Goliath this year and it’s up to all of us to follow the guidelines that will one day bring us back together.
All this makes me think back . . .back to the time when families had to survive alone and off their land. We remember reading Little House On The Prairie where they celebrated a simple family Christmas in the one room cabin. And I think of my grandparents living in a farming community freshly forged in the West where they, too, lived almost completely off the land. Although the big house burned before my time, I’ve poured over old photograph albums and can imagine the setting. There was a small dairy herd providing milk, cream, butter and cottage cheese; a flock of hens for eggs and chicken; a large vegetable garden, fruit trees, and grape vines. During the summer they canned peaches, pears, apricots, tomatoes, jams, pickles and preserves. Each fall they’d butcher a hog fattened on kitchen scraps and windfall fruit. Neighbors would pitch in. They’d make sausages, render lard, salt pork, prepare bacon and ham for RF’s smoke house.
In the cool root cellar just a few steps from the back kitchen door winter provisions would line the walls. Groaning shelves of mason jars (also including canned fish from the local river, venison from the nearby mountains, and mincemeat made with meat). From the ceiling there’d hang cleaned cotton flour sacks filled with dried sweet corn or pinto beans. On the dirt floor bushels of onions, winter squash, potatoes and apples. Carrots and turnips would wait covered with earth. For a good while there’d be fresh cabbages and later crocks of sauerkraut. From the bounty of this cellar with the daily gifts from their animals, this family and countless others dined well keeping healthy and strong through the cold winter.
Now as California’s Central Valley floods our supermarkets with strawberries and lettuces year round, we almost forget what’s seasonal. During this time of isolation, we can learn skills from those who came before us.
One of the things I remember, even from my own childhood, when we didn’t have a lot of fresh green produce in the winter, were apples served as a savory. Fried apples came to the table as a common companion to pork or cheese dishes. Apple salads spiked with raisins and celery or bowls of applesauce took the place of a vegetable. Apples keep well in a cool garage and even though the skins wrinkle, they cook perfectly. Try to recognize your cooking apples from the eaters. The sweet eating apples don’t soften easily when cooked, so it’s best to stick with McIntosh, Winesap or Jonathan for cooking.
Mounds of sweet potatoes on market shelves bring us to Thanksgiving and I’m ready for a plate of sautéed apples and caramelized sweet potatoes– a good combination for brunch, lunch or a supper side dish. The tartness of the apples plays off the sugar of the sweet potatoes and a sprinkling of shallots and pomegranate seeds add a dazzle of holiday flair. Add some grilled sausages or frizzled ham, or sliced smoked turkey, a sprinkling of roasted pumpkin seeds, almonds or pecans. Serve the combo warm or at room temperature with crumbled goat cheese. Stick with the season: it’s time for sweet potatoes.
Fried Apples and Sweet Potatoes
2 medium sweet potatoes baked in their jackets and cooled*
1 ½ -2 tablespoons butter, coconut or olive oil
2-3 tart cooking apples (Jonathan recommended)
2 tablespoons minced shallots or red onion (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Pomegranate seeds and parsley or mint for garnish
*By far the best way to precook sweet potatoes is to roast them in their skins. Add a shallow pan of sweet potatoes to the oven when you’re baking bread, roasting a chicken or most anything. The oven temperature doesn’t really matter. When the sweet potatoes are tender, they will collapse. Cool and store them in a plastic bag until ready to use. They will keep up to two weeks in the refrigerator. Peeled raw sweet potatoes tend to discolor and raw sweet potatoes often shatter when cut. A cooled baked sweet potato will literally slip out of the skin and cut as easily as soft butter.
First sauté the apples. Core the apples and cut each into 8 wedges. Melt half the butter or oil in a cast iron skillet and sauté apples gently until browned and softened, turning as necessary. This should take 8-9 minutes. During the last couple of minutes, sprinkle over the chopped shallots and season with salt and pepper. Set the cooked apples aside in a warm oven. Wipe the inside of the skillet with a paper towel.
Peel and cut the cooked sweet potatoes into half inch slices. Melt the remaining butter or oil in the warm skillet and when it sizzles, add the sliced sweet potatoes. Cook 3-4 minutes on a side turning as needed to take on a glistening caramelized surface. Season with salt and pepper.
When ready to serve, mound the sweet potato slices in the center of a shallow dish; surround with the warm apples. Sprinkle over pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley or mint. Such a simple treat! Enough for 3-4
Photos are courtesy of mjcuisine unless otherwise noted.