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.

[amd-yrecipe-recipe:64]

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:

chestnuts and fresh chives on a cutting board

For the roasted root vegetable dish, give your chestnuts a rough chop, leaving fairly large pieces. Add your chopped chives to this dish just before serving.

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.

scones

This is my version of FEAST Magazine’s Savory Sweet Potato Scones. I “made do” with a couple different flours to come up with the right amount and my cooked sweet potato for this dish was actually a pureed roasted vegetable medley. Waste not, want not.

FEAST also has a fabulous recipe for Savory Sweet Potato Scones, a masterpiece in baking from Christy Augustin, owner of Pint Size Bakery and Coffee in St. Louis. A recipe just up my oven.

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!

pan-seared pork chop and sauteed Brussel sprounts

Both these dishes are quick and easy to prepare. Just add a glass of your favorite dry red or white and maybe a baked potato for a great winter meal.