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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.

Friday, October 16, 2015


After retiring from the army, my father moved our family to Port Oliver, a small community in Western Kentucky, to live on the farm with my grandparents. Although happy to be home,  he always had  plans to build our own home somewhere else on the property. The farm, with rolling meadows, forest patches, fields, ponds, and lakefront access, edged the steep twisting banks of Barren River Lake. With plenty of options to choose from, he chose a site not too far from my grandparent's farmhouse.

Tucked under maple, oak, pin-oak, and elm trees, my father built the house of his dreams from the ground up. Using salvaged everything, he nestled our home into the landscape as if it grew from the ground. Utterly organic, our grey/teal-stained wooden house breathed with the changing seasons. Spectacular in every season, the house was a real showstopper come autumn. I loved living there during fall. The canopy of trees crackled with color. After moving away, I made the trek home every October, as often as I could manage, to celebrate our birthdays and to inhale the sheer beauty of his land.

My last autumn in Port Oliver was bittersweet. We spent months struggling with my father's cancer diagnosis and the whole package that accompanies that sort of news. The struggle to balance fear, hope, and joy was a tightrope balancing act. Intermingled with the necessary trips for treatments, my dad and I celebrated birthdays, took long drives in the country, watched a lot of televisionenjoyed a bounty of summer produce, and had spirited bourbon-induced conversations about everything under the sun. I was surprised how much the pure innocence of  joy outweighed the other emotions most of the time. We held fast and lived in those moments.

By the time autumn blitzed Port Oliver in brilliant patchworks of color, my father was well into his battle with cancer. Country drives, bourbon, and tomatoes had become distant memories replaced with tender reflection, fodder shocks, pumpkins, and cheap white wine. Even then, it was a happy time.

On one particular day, when the late afternoon shadows were deep and long, Dad wanted to take a walk. Off we went, as best we could, with walker in tow. Shuffling through the sloping yard under rustling wind-swept trees, he started picking up leaves. One by one. Maple. Oak. Pin-Oak. Elm. Red. Yellow. Orange. Green. Burgundy. Brown. One by one, he shared his respect and joy for each  fallen leaf. I simply listened. As the sun dropped into a distant field, I walked my father back into the house and pressed those leaves into the ragged pages of my journal.

The following year, Port Oliver was also a distant memory. I used those very leaves to mold delicate replicas of kiln-fired clay memories for my family. Those leaves still inspire me.

Double Chocolate Pumpkin Tart with Autumn Pastry Leaves

So, canned puree or fresh puree? Some folks say it doesn't matter.  Maybe it doesn't matter. That said, for the last few seasons I've found that the local sugar pumpkins we find at our farmers' market are downright fabulous. In fact, making fresh puree might be easier than opening a can. This year, I took easy to another level by simply roasting the pumpkins whole. Boom. Yep. Whole.

For venting purposes, I used a sharp paring knife to slice the tops off  two 1 pound Scott County sugar pumpkins,  placed the lids back into place, and slid the pumpkins into a 350 degree oven to roast for 1 1/2 hours. When the pumpkins started to  collapse and were knife tender, I pulled them from the oven and cracked them open. Pumpkin carnage. After scooping out the seeds and stringy membranes, I slipped the flesh from the tender skin, pureed the pulp until velvety smooth, scraped it into a bowl, and set it aside.

Tart Shell
For the underlying chocolate crust, I pulverized enough thin dark chocolate wafers in a food processor to measure 2 cups. After tossing the crumbs into a mixing bowl, I added 4 tablespoons sugar and 6 tablespoon melted unsalted butter. I mixed the crumbs with the butter, scraped them into a 9" tart pan with a removable bottom, used a straight edged measuring cup to firmly press the crumbs into the pan, and  chilled the shell in the freezer for 15 minutes to set the crust before sliding it into a preheated 350 oven to bake for 12 minutes.

Pumpkin Filling
I spooned 2 cups of fresh pumpkin puree into a large mixing bowl, added 1/2 cup white sugar. 1/4 cup light brown sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon salt, a pinch ground clove, a pinch ground allspice, a pinch cardamon, 2 large eggs, and 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream. To lighten the filling, I whipped the mixture with an old fashioned  hand held mixer until it was fully incorporated, and it poured into the cooled chocolate tart shell. I lined a sheet pan with parchment paper, slipped the tart onto the pan, and baked it in a preheated degree oven 450 for 15 minutes, reduced the heat to 350 degrees, let it rip for 55 minutes, pulled it from the oven, and placed it onto a wire rack to cool before sliding the tart into refrigerator to chill.

More Chocolate
I wanted something a bit firmer than a classic heavy cream and chocolate ganache. After shaving 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate ( 70% cacao) into tiny shards, I tumbled the chocolate into a bowl, added 2 ounces (1/4 cup) melted unsalted butter, and 1 tablespoon light corn syrup. I warmed the mix over a low flame, gently stirred the mix until it melted into a loose glossy glaze, poured it over the chilled  pumpkin filling, carefully tilted the tart to swirl the chocolate into an even layer, and tossed it into the refrigerator to set.

I threw together a very basic pastry dough by pulsing 1 1/4 cup sifted flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 cup chilled cubed butter, and 1/4 cup ice water in a food processor. Just as the dough came together, I formed it into a flat disc, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and slipped into the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.

I didn't have any of those fancy leaf shaped cookie cutters that seem to pop up everywhere this time of year, so I free-handed a few leaves on parchment paper, cut them out, and set them aside. I rolled the dough into a 1/8" thick circle, used my parchment paper stencils to cut out the leaves,  carefully slashed veining into the leaves, transferred them to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, and chilled them for 30 minutes. After brushing the leaves with an egg wash (1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon heavy cream), I slid them into a blistering 475 degree oven for about 12 minutes. When they were beautifully browned, I removed them to a wire rack to cool, pulled the chilled double chocolate pumpkin tart from the refrigerator, and scattered the leaves over the top.

Topped with buttery crisp pastry leaves, the airy spiced pumpkin filling had all the nuanced warmth of classic pumpkin pie. Suspending the pie between layers of chocolate took it to another level and gussied up those familiar flavors with self-indulgent sass.

Chocolate in the pumpkin patch