By: Ben McNeely
Last Thanksgiving, The New York Times sent a reporter down to Carrboro, next to Chapel Hill, to write about sweet potatoes.
Now, I always get a laugh when The New York Times sends someone down to write about anything in the South. They write a story like they’ve just discovered whatever it is they are writing about, when, really, we Southerners have been doing things our way for generations.
In this case, it was sweet potatoes that the Old Gray Lady just discovered, only because high-falootin’ restaurants in Manhattan are substituting sweet potatoes for white potatoes in their dishes.
It seems that Yankees are just now discovering the benefits of sweet potatoes in culinary dishes, like sweet potato fries, purees and the like…
Truth be told, we Southerners have been eating sweet potatoes since we got here from the Old Country. Guess these silly Yankees are just now finally looking way down South for new, interesting and healthy foods.
North Carolina is the leading producer of sweet potatoes. Farmers here are enjoying a surge of interest in sweet potatoes, especially in bars. Sweet potato fries are showing up on bar menus all over because of the taste and the health factor.
Sweet potatoes are incredibly healthy, containing complex carbohydrates, protein, vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium (at least that’s what Wikipedia says; the N.C. Sweet Potato Commission agrees.) in volumes that make it better for you than the white potato. Studies have shown that sweet potatoes stabilize the blood sugar in diabetics.
But apart from the health benefits, sweet potatoes are just damn good, if prepared properly. Now, a good portion of the country only eats sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving, when their grandma makes a casserole where she smears marshmallow goo on top of the sweet potatoes
This is terrible. It is sacrilege. This is an abomination to the sweet potato. Why would you ever take marshmallow, which belongs on a S’more, and smear it on something as perfect and wonderful as a sweet potato?
It’s abhorrent to the Southern palate to even think about destroying a sweet potato with marshmallow. It’s down-right disgusting.
That being said, fine Yankee restaurants, and Southern ones, alike, are making room for sweet potatoes on their menu. In steakhouses, you can get a baked sweet potato in substitute for a baked white potato.
At the Speakeasy Alehouse in downtown Concord, Chef Adam Lewis makes the sweet potato a part of one of his regular dishes, through a side called sweet potato hash.
It’s simple, really. You’ve had home fries for breakfast, right? It’s just cubed white potatoes, roasted or fried in a pan, with seasoning on top.
Adam Lewis does the same thing, only with sweet potatoes. He grills sweet potato cubes with onions and seasoning as a side for his entrées.
I made a similar dish at home. I diced up 3 medium sweet potatoes, with the skin on, diced up one large Vidalia onion (for its sweetness), drizzled some olive oil on top, a couple of dashes of ground black pepper, a dash of salt, a dash of garlic powder and mixed it all up.
I let it sauté in a cast iron pan with a lid on top for about 20 minutes or so (sweet potatoes take longer to soften), stirring up the mixture occasionally.
When the onion browned and the sweet potato chunks softened, I pulled the pan off the heat and ate it. It’s better than the hash browns or homes fries you usually eat at breakfast, because the sweet potatoes add a different texture and taste to the meal.
Now there’s a side dish you can serve, at any time, to anyone, that’s tasty and healthy, that The New York Times won’t complain about.
Ben McNeely likes to eat and write, but usually not at the same time. When he isn’t eating, he is writing for the Independent Tribune in Concord/Kannapolis and, on occasion, for WFAE News. Read his Tumblr blog, Simple Country Writer, at benmcneely.com.