Alhambra Farmers Market
Still stuffed and feeling slightly lethargic, the Alhambra Source is goign back to the Sunday morning farmer's market to take a second look at some traditional vegetables that are often pushed aside in favor of the meat and gravy.
While I'm a big fan of Thanksgiving side dishes, they are unfortunately always thought of as filler to the main course of turkey. After all, we always call them "side" dishes. I actually think they're so good, I still want them after Thanksgiving is over.
Exploring the complex relationship of the sweet potato and the yam
There continues to be an air of confusion between yams and sweet potatoes, but the difference is actually pretty easy to figure out. The usual varieties found in US supermarkets have light skin and yellow meat, while the other is darker and has orange flesh that is more moist. The latter is often labeled as "yams" when they are truly just orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. When this variety was first introduced to the US in the early 20th century, farmers needed a way to better distinguish them from the "traditional" sweet potato. They noticed that slave workers would use the word "nyami" when describing the sweet potato crop (nyami is the African word referring to the edible root of the Dioscorea genus of plants). They adopted the word into the English form of "yam," and the rest is a case of culinary mistaken-identity history. And let's not forget that sweet potatoes and regular potatoes are not related at all.
So what do we do about this culinary conundrum? Try them all to see the difference yourself! If you're not feeling up to the task, or need a few pointers, I highly recommend checking out this entry from pastry chef Zoe Francois's blog, where she experiments with different varieties of sweet potatoes, yams and other tubers. Luckily, a lot of these tubers can be cooked by the same methods, and produce finished products with similar textures and results (difference being varying degrees of sweetness). For Thanksgiving I used this recipe from Good Eats for a sweet potato pie using the orange-fleshed variety (a purple version using Ube would be pretty wicked, though). To remove the flesh for future recipes, I suggest peeling and cubing the tubers, then steaming them for 20 minutes until soft. Be careful when cutting as the tubers are hard and not very uniform in shape. The cooked flesh can be used for the previously mentioned sweet potato pie or in a creamy soup with nutmeg and maple syrup. Roasting them will intensify their buttery and nutty flavor, which makes for amazing mashed sweet potatoes. And there really isn't anything better than some sweet potato fries with a horseradish aioli .
When choosing, look for ones that are firm and do not have bruises, cracks or soft spots. Sweet potatoes should be stored in a cool, dark and well-ventilated place not above 60˚F (if you have a root cellar you're all set). You can place them in a paper bag with holes punched in it, and placed in a well-ventilated cupboard away from heat. Don't place them in the refrigerator, as the cold will alter their taste.
A nutritional staple that deserves more respect
I used to hate green beans. This had to do with a lot of overcooked beans from school cafeterias and fast food sides. This is a shame as green beans are amazingly versatile, and can be paired with a lot of different food combinations. They are an excellent source of Vitamins A, C and K, as well as dietary fiber, iron, omega-3 fatty acids and niacin. The popular theory is that when coupled with rice, they form a complete protein with all essential amino acids (for a list of other vegetable combos check out The Veggie Table).
Green beans are available throughout most of the year, but I've found that they're cheaper around the fall/winter months. When choosing, look for beans that feel smooth and have a vibrant green color with no brown spots or bruises. They should feel firm and give a 'snap' when broken. Store fresh beans (unwashed) in a plastic bag in your refrigerator's crisper, where they will keep for about a week.
To prepare, snap off the stem end and blanch them in salted water followed by shocking them in ice water. This will help maintain their bright green hue, as well as preventing them from becoming mushy from overcooking. You can use these in a classic green bean casserole, or tossed with melted miso butter and toasted almonds. In regards to the casserole, instead of going the canned soup and fried onions route, go the extra step with the help of The Pioneer Woman. Green beans can be battered and fried tempura style or in a beer batter, or dry-fried with Szechwan peppers. Diced into a minimalist omelet, or sauteed with tomatoes, topped with basil and parmesan cheese. My favorite preparation is pan-fried with bacon and caramelized shallots, tossed with cooked quinoa (a nutritious grain similar in texture to couscous).
Let us know what you had for Thanksgiving, as well as your favorite farmer's market finds!