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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Skillet Potatoes

My grandmother baked marshmallow topped cinnamon-spiced sweet potato pies every week for me during my entire first year of college. Every. Single. Week. Sure, I was more than happy to have those pies. As a lowly freshman locked up in a towering dormitory like a prince-less Rapunzel, my only food was sourced from the student cafeteria accessed with my prepaid meal card. Her home baked sweet potato pies felt special. Eventually, my grandmother's relentless pie punctuality forced me to share the abundance with my dorm-mates. In the beginning, we were all happy. Every day felt like Thanksgiving. Was it too much of a good thing? Yep. Somewhere between pie #23 and, lets say, pie #30, the charm started to wain. Pie overkill. Nobody wanted sweet potato pie. I didn't want pie. Yet, they kept coming and coming and coming. Weeks passed. Months passed. My dorm-mates shunned me. Any time I stepped off of the elevator with my weekly pie in tow, dorm room doors slammed shut like syncopated thunder claps. "Incoming." "Pie  Boy." "Duck and cover." Slam. Slam. Slam. Because I loved my grandmother and embraced her efforts to love me with food, I ate every last bite of those damned sweet potato pies. And loved them.

I didn't touch a sweet potato for years after college. I never told a soul or explained my aversion at family gatherings. I simply passed on any and all sweet potato offerings. All of that changed when I discovered the savory side of sweet potatoes. While still somewhat sweet, once the potatoes dropped the marshmallow toppings, brown sugar, maple syrup, and seasonings that helped them masquerade as pies, I fell back in love with them. Hook, line, and sinker. Nowadays, I'll  roast multi-colored peeled baby sweet potatoes and toss them into salads with  bright acidic vinaigrettes, deep fry paper thin shards for chips served alongside spiced dippers, or layer slices with gruyere cheese and heavy cream in a long baked gratins.

Although my grandmother wore me out with her barrage of sweet potato pies when I was a kid in college, I'm happy for it now. Sometimes, rediscovered gems are the most precious gems.

Let's face it, there's nothing really sexy about bushels and bushels of potatoes found at our farmers markets. They're big, clumsy, dirty, and boring. Yep, I went there. That said, I totally respect the labor of love that goes into growing and harvesting them. Growing up on a farm in Western Kentucky, all of the potatoes (russet, new, red, sweet, purple, baby, fingerling) were the workhorses of our country garden.

Skillet White Sweet Potatoes.
Not quite an Anna and not quite a gratin. A playful riff on both

Right off the bat, I wanted a punch of flavor to tip the potatoes over to the savory side. I dropped 3 fresh rosemary sprigs and 2 whole peeled garlic cloves into a small cast iron skillet along with 1/2 cup olive oil. After bringing the oil to a gentle ripple, I steeped the rosemary and garlic for 5 minutes before pulling it off the heat to cool.

While the infused olive oil cooled, I peeled 4 large (about 3 pounds) Casey County white sweet potatoes, sliced them 1/8" thick on a mandolin, and set them aside.

After brushing the bottom of a large cast iron skillet with the infused olive oil, I shingled the potatoes (vertically) around the edges of the skillet, worked my way toward the center of the skillet, and finished with a quasi potato rossette (for lack of a better term).  I brushed the tops of the potatoes with the flavored olive oil, sealed the skillet with foil, and slid it into a preheated 350 degree oven. After 50 minutes, I removed the foil, cranked the oven to 425 degrees, brushed the potatoes with melted unsalted butter, and returned them to the oven. When the exposed edges started to brown and char ( about 35 minutes), I pulled the sweet potatoes from the oven to cool before finishing with fresh rosemary and delicate dried chili threads.

Here's the deal. The potatoes crisped on the bottom from the heat of the skillet and on top from the high heat of the oven. The slices that fused together in between were meltingly soft and tender. Even through the bits of caramelized char and crispiness, the inherent earthy sweetness of the potatoes stayed true to form. While the rosemary and garlic grounded the soft sweetness with subtle savory undertones, the chili threads added whispers of biting heat.


Not my grandmother's sweet potatoes.

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