How Sweet It Is

The holidays are officially upon us. Instead of panicking over what lies ahead, I prefer to embrace Thanksgiving and everything it stands for. This is a time to celebrate family and friends, and give thanks for the many blessings that come our way.

It is also the perfect opportunity to thank the people who grow the food we eat throughout year, by purchasing the majority of the holiday meal’s ingredients directly from the farmers’ market. Veggies, fresh and dried fruits, nuts, lettuce and other greens, artisan bread for stuffing, California olive oil—it’s all there.

If you are fortunate enough to be a guest instead of a host on November 26, the farmers’ market is still a valuable resource. Eschew crowded supermarket aisles and shop in the open air for fresh flowers, wreaths, and a multitude of other tasteful gifts to bring your host. Who wouldn’t enjoy a basket of decorative gourds or edible winter squash? It’s certainly a more creative offering than that tired ol’ bottle of wine.

When planning the Thanksgiving menu it’s easy to get carried away, trying every new recipe that graces the cover of a magazine. Over the years I’ve learned that it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel every year. Thanksgiving is not the Culinary Olympics, and nobody is comfortable when the host is harried. Breathe deeply, and enjoy the company. Simple is best…especially when that simple food tastes terrific.

Sweet potatoes are a staple of the American holiday table, though our annual consumption is very small compared to the rest of the world. They are never going to win any beauty contests, but it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without them.

sweet potatoesI grew up in an era when sweet potatoes came out of a can. (This is one childhood memory best left forgotten.) Fortunately times have changed. Although we easily find fresh ones almost year ‘round, their peak season is now through the end of the year.

Unlike most veggies that taste their best when freshly picked or dug-from-the-earth, sweet potatoes require some curing time to toughen their skins and convert their natural starch to the sugary sweetness consumers expect. This task is taken care of by the growers, before they ever reach the market.

This month’s recipe is easy and inexpensive, and ends up tasting terrific. If you want to gild the lily, I’ve also included a few variations below. And even if you have been assigned the potluck task of bringing sweet potatoes to someone else’s home for dinner, have no fear. The entire dish can be prepared and baked one day in advance, so you won’t have to impose upon your host for an hour + of oven space… which, on Thanksgiving, is the most valuable real estate in town.

Spirited Sweet Potatoes
3 pounds large red-skinned sweet potatoes (yam variety), peeled and halved crosswise
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus extra for greasing the baking dish
1/4 cup water
Fine sea salt
4 to 5 tablespoons bourbon, to taste

1. Place the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Cut each potato half lengthwise into quarters.

2. Place a steamer-rack insidea Dutch oven or other large saucepan and add enough water to reach the bottom of the rack without touching. Place the quartered potato halves on top of the rack, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, covered, until the potatoes are barely tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let cool, uncovered.

3. Generously grease a shallow 3-quart baking dish. When the potatoes are cool, arrange them in an even layer in the baking dish and seasonwith salt.

4. In a small saucepan, combine the brown sugar, butter, 1/4 cup water, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar melts and the syrup begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the bourbon, to taste. Drizzle the syrup evenly over the potatoes and bake, basting occasionally, until the syrup has thickened and glazed the potatoes, about 1 1/4 hours. Serves 8.

Note: If prepared in advance, let the baked casserole cool to room temperature; then cover and refrigerate overnight. Before serving, reheat, loosely covered, in the oven or microwave.

Tips for Sweet Success
–Sweet potatoes are part of the morning glory family; which explains their beautiful vines.

–The edible roots with light tan skins are commonly called sweet potatoes. When cooked, their flesh is somewhat dry and fluffy, similar to a russet potato. Those with reddish skins and moist orange flesh belong to the yam variety of sweet potatoes, but are usually sold simply as “yams.” Look for colorful names like Beauregard, Jewel, and Garnet. Here’s how the confusion began: In the 1930s, Southern growers began to erroneously market red-skinned sweet potatoes as “yams” in order to distinguish them from the paler, drier, less sweet variety. (True yams are from a different botanical group altogether and are seldom seen outside of Latin markets the U.S.)

–Buy sweet potatoes of similar size so they cook evenly. Look for firm potatoes that feel heavy for their size.

–Sweet potatoes should also have smooth skins with no soft spots. (Surface bruises that have sealed over with a white-ish patch are not a problem, but do avoid potatoes with any with black patches.) Sweet potatoes at the farmers’ market have come directly from the grower’s climate-controlled curing facility, so they are handled minimally and are usually in much better condition than those shipped to supermarkets.

–Sweet Potato Arithmetic: 1 pound generally equals about 5 small; 3 medium; or 1 1/2 to 2 large sweet potatoes.

–Sweet Potatoes are a good source of fiber as well as Vitamins A, B6, C; and beta carotene, iron, potassium, and magnesium.

–Store uncooked, unwashed sweet potatoes in a dry place that is both cool and dark. Do not refrigerate.
For this particular recipe:

–Look for sweet potatoes on the large-ish side; ones that will hold their shape during cooking without turning into baby food. (The added bonus of using the big guys is you won’t have to peel as many!)
–To spice things up, add a generous pinch of ground cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, or coriander to the syrup.

–Feeling “meh” about bourbon? Dark rum and brandy work equally well. Or explore your inner Janis Joplin and add a healthy glug of Southern Comfort.

–If you are not feeling very spirited, omit the booze altogether and flavor the syrup with the juice of 1 orange and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract.

–For those inclined to go a little nutty, add a sprinkling of coarsely chopped California walnuts over the top before baking.

–Save the marshmallows for hot chocolate in the morning. They don’t belong on top of sweet potatoes. Ever.

The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad and Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at s1-800-949-FARM, or visit their web site at This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well!