I love sweet potatoes. Roast them, steam them, puree them—any way you fix them, it’s fine with me. Well, just don’t candy them. What! No marshmallows? No maple syrup? No brown sugar? No.
You see, I was not always the great fan of sweet potatoes that I am today. When I was growing up, sweet potatoes usually appeared mostly around the holidays… highly decorated and sugared, apparently right from Santa’s workshop. Everyone went “AHhhhhh” and “Oooooo” when my grandma brought the sticky, puffy, cinnamon-scented casserole dish filled with sweet potatoes and topped with perfectly toasted marshmallows to the table. Everyone, that is, except me.
Something about them just didn’t taste the way it should. And over the years I’ve decided that the problem was balance. Nothing in the dish, except maybe mounds of salted butter, created any sort of contrast. Everything was just too sweet, so ultimately flat and one-dimensional. Well, everyone is entitled to her opinion, right?
Now I’d like to think that my aversion to candied sweet potatoes pointed to a rather sophisticated palate in a precocious young child, that somehow I instinctually knew the key to a great-tasting sweet potato dish was creating colorful balance and contrast rather than monochromatically piling sugar on sugar. But, truth be told, I probably just didn’t care for the sweet potatoes, thought them stringy and weird. I’m sure if my grandma had poured maple syrup over the mounds of buttered mashed white potatoes I could consume by the gallons, I’d have happily kept on eating without even coming up for air.
As a more “mature” foodie, however, things are different. I definitely eat more sweet potatoes than white potatoes. But you won’t find me using brown sugar, maple syrup or—heaven forbid—marshmallows. When I roast sweet potatoes, for instance, I like to pair them with other root vegetables—like beets–that will get equally sugary and rich as they cook, as well as with some not-so-sugary choices, like turnips. Roasted root vegetables is, in fact, one of my favorite dishes for the holidays, mainly because it is so yummy yet so darned easy to prepare.
Recently, I scored a beautiful bunch of turnips from Biver Farm—little white creamy globes that I knew would work well with Biver’s equally beautiful sweet potatoes. I added a few red beets and a large fennel bulb and one other very special ingredient—chestnuts! My neighbor Travis brought over a big bag of freshly harvested chestnuts about a month ago and gave me a recipe for shelling and partially roasting them so that I could stick them in that little freezer of mine. (Yes, eventually I will stop talking about the freezer… eventually.) So take a look. This dish could be the perfect easy-peasy side to that Thanksgiving turkey this year.
- Three medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cubed (Nope, I don’t peel my sweet potatoes.)
- One bunch turnips, about eight to 10 small or five or six medium, washed, thinly peeled and cut into small chunks.
- Three medium red or golden beets, scrubbed, peeled and cubed (Red are particularly nice here.)
- One large or two medium fennel bulbs, washed, trimmed, cored and sliced in large chunks. (Another good choice here would be shallots, sliced vertically.)
- One teaspoon coarse sea salt
- One teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- One teaspoon whole mustard seed
- One teaspoon whole cumin seed
- One quarter-teaspoon red pepper flakes
- One quarter cup dark balsamic vinegar
- Two tablespoons Dijon mustard
- Juice from half a large lemon
- One quarter-cup olive oil
- One cup chopped chestnuts
- Two to three tablespoons unsalted butter
- Two to three tablespoons fresh chopped chives
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
- Crush all the spices, sea salt through cumin seeds, with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder. Add the red pepper flakes.
- Put all your prepared vegetables in a large bowl and toss with the spices.
- Whisk together the balsamic vinegar, Dijon and lemon juice. Whisking constantly, incorporate the olive oil until you have a smooth emulsion. Add to the vegetables and give the whole thing a thorough toss.
- Place the vegetable mixture in a large baking dish that has been coated with oil or cooking spray. Vegetables should be in a single layer. Roast at 450 degrees for approximately 40 minutes or until the vegetables are nicely caramelizing and becoming quite tender. Stir halfway through.
- Remove the dish from the oven, stir in the chestnuts, dot with butter and return to the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes. To serve, garnish with fresh chopped chives.
I must say, I’m thrilled with the November issue of FEAST Magazine. I think it is their best holiday-focused issue to date. And wouldn’t you know—they are featuring chestnuts! It turns out there is more to these little local gems than amazing flavor. They are a come-back crop that could help us all stay local in our cooking. Be sure to check out “Breaking Out of the Shell” for tips on preparing and using chestnuts in some fantastic dishes, as well as learning about why they are an environmentally friendly and small farm-supportive choice. Of course you could just buy chestnuts in a jar for the recipe above, but the flavor won’t be the same. My freshly frozen chestnuts have the creamy consistency and richness of raw cashews, plus just a hint of sweetness. Very meaty and very delicious. Further, it’s really pretty simple to prepare them, just set aside a little time and maybe involve the family in the process. Here’s how Travis and I do it:
Wash your chestnuts well with cold water and make a slit in each one so that heat has a place to escape as they partially roast. Place the scored chestnuts in a pan of clean, cold water on the stove. Bring them up to a strong simmer, shut off the burner and drain the pot. Now put your chestnuts—in their shells—into a 425-degree oven for about 15 minutes to partially roast them. When done, remove them from the oven and put them back in the now-empty pot you simmered them in and put the lid down fairy tight. While the chestnuts need to cool in order to be handled, they will shell a lot easier if they are warm, so whenever you can handle them, begin to shell them. This is the most painstaking part. Once shelled, they are ready to use or freeze. It’s important to note that fresh chestnuts are highly perishable, so refrigerate to use within a week or freeze for later use.
So here we are winding the year down with those big traditional family-and-friend meals that are the hallmarks of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas. I hope your harvest has been a good one and that there are many blessings to share at your table. By the time I “see” you again, my turkey from MOB Farms will have arrived, and I’ll be planning not only my own traditional “Saturday” Thanksgiving dinner, but will already be contemplating my leftovers, so that nothing goes to waste because I know how hard my farmers work and that the food they grow is a great gift worthy of my respect and gratitude. It’s time to get busy, to shop local, eat healthy (well, within reason) and always, always be brave in the kitchen.
So what’s your special dish for the Thanksgiving table this year? Need a few more ideas? How about pan-seared pork chops (Mine came from Papa’s Pasture.) and sautéed Brussel sprouts with chestnuts and pomegranate seeds. Sign up for my seasonal menu and receive a printable PDF by email!