Thursday, November 21, 2013

I Yam What I Y'ain't

Have you ever mistaken a goat for a cow?  Or a sheep for a pig?  Or maybe even a carrot for a stick?

Well, except for that last one, me neither.  But that doesn't mean that I've never been immune to total disassociation.  In fact, I'm sure there's not a person here who hasn't at some point in time felt its embarrassing sting.

In the mood to share?  How about that thing your mother told you never to do.  Shoes first, then pants.  Or answering a potato instead of a ringing phone.  Or even better, wondering why it's so darn hard to button up that shirt that you just put on inside-out.  Better luck next time.

Ah, disassociation.  Even the word feels, well, disassociated.

But, getting back to our story, disassociation is the last thing I need at this time of year.  Now, here’s something confusing.  Take yams, for example.  Or maybe it’s sweet potatoes.  No, I guess it is yams.


Well, with the big feast just around the corner, and a long list of goodies to buy, who wouldn't welcome a little confusion.  But, what you might be surprised to learn is that the confusion was intentional.  Well, not the confusion.  Just the intentional.  So, have I made this any clearer?

All right.  Perhaps it's best if we start at the beginning.  First of all, a yam is a yam is a yam.  And a sweet potato, well,  it’s just a sweet potato.  It's not a yam and it never even wanted to be a yam.  Ever.  Now, how's that for straight shooting.

But, don't get me wrong.  It’s not like there’s a rivalry or anything. Far from it. Why, they aren't even related. Sweet potatoes are tubers, distantly related to potatoes and native to both Central and South America, while yams are the tubers of a tropical vine native to Africa and Asia. 

Yams hold great importance as a foodstuff to Africans since they store well and are available to eat during the wet season, when food is scarce.  That's probably why they call them "yams" in the first place, since the word comes from the African word "nyami,” meaning "to eat." But, that's just for starters.

If a sweet potato met a yam in a darkened alley, (I know it's tough, but, stay with me here) the yam might not even be seen, much less recognized, due to his, thick, black, rough and somewhat bark-like skin.  And we're not even talking about size, here – for boy, does it ever matter.

While some yams can be the measly size of a small potato, others can grow to become gargantuan monstrosities, up to 8 feet long and weighing in at more than 130 pounds.  Yamzilla, anyone?

So, the chances of you ever buying a true yam in your local grocery store here in the U.S. are pretty remote, unless you've tracked down an international specialty market that carries them.

But enough about yams.  Let's talk potato here.  And I mean sweet. 

It's one of the oldest vegetables known to man and has been consumed since prehistoric times in Peru.  The first Europeans to get hooked on their flavor were members of Columbus's expedition in 1492.  And they liked it so much, that they brought them back to Europe after their first voyage.  Spanish explorers, about a century later, carried them on to the Philippines, while the Portuguese lugged them along to Africa, India, Indonesia and Asia.  Which proves, that it sure is hard to keep good flavors down.

And it was around this same time, that sweet potatoes began to be cultivated in the southern U. S., where they remain a beloved staple today.

Which brings us back to your local grocery store.  "Firm" and "soft".  That's all you need to know.  Almost.

Sweet potatoes in the U.S. come in two main varieties – “firm,” which remain firm when cooked, and "soft," which become soft and moist.  The “firm” ones have light, tan skins with a yellow flesh that becomes crumbly when baked.  But these “firm” ones are actually the least sweet of the sweet potatoes.

If it's the sweeter ones you have a hankering for, or you're looking to bake a pie, it's the "soft" variety that you'll be after.  With their dark brown, reddish or slightly purple skins and deep orange interiors, these "softies" are the ones that’ll bake up luscious, soft and sweet.

But you won't often find them labeled as "sweet potatoes," but yams.  How could this be?

It seems that when the “soft” variety entered the marketplace several decades ago, the producers and shippers, in order to distinguish them from the “firm” ones people already knew, chose a new name and labeled them "yams."

And to make this all even a bit more confusing, the USDA, in trying to rectify the confusion, now requires that sweet potatoes labeled as "yams," also include "sweet potatoes" in their signage.  Now what could be clearer than that?

So now that you've become a sweet potato master, here's a new twist on a holiday favorite that takes the best of South America and brings it home to you –  Tropical Sweet Potato Pie.


Serves 8 – 12

1 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons sweetened coconut flakes
3 tablespoons butter (cold, cubed)
1 large egg (beaten)

1½ cups sweet potatoes (roasted, flesh removed)
1½ tablespoons white sugar
¼ cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon cardamom
¼ teaspoon Saigon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated preferred)
⅛ teaspoon kosher salt
4 large eggs
1¼ cups unsweetened coconut milk (warmed)
2 tablespoons dark rum

To assemble the crust, add the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and coconut to the bowl of a food processor.  Pulse briefly to combine.  Add the cubed butter, then pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal.

Add the beaten egg, and continue pulsing until dough forms a rough ball (or to create by hand, whisk together the dry ingredients, cut in the butter with 2 knives, then knead in the egg). 

Empty the dough onto a sheet of wax paper or plastic wrap, press quickly into a flat disk, then wrap and refrigerate for one hour.

Once dough is chilled, roll it out between two sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap to fit a 9-inch deep dish pie plate.  Then once transferred, set the pie plate atop a sheet pan.

Set rack to mid-oven and preheat to 425° F.

To assemble the filling, in a large bowl, mix together the roasted sweet potato, sugars, salt and spices.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Warm the coconut milk briefly on the stovetop or in the microwave before slowly adding it to the sweet potato mixture along with the rum. Mix thoroughly to combine.

Pour the filling into the pie shell, then slide pie plate with sheet pan atop, into the preheated oven.

Bake 10 minutes, then reduce temperature to 350°F and continue baking another 60 - 70 minutes until pie center is firm.

Transfer pie to a rack to cool before serving each portion with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream sprinkled with toasted coconut.

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