I’m a Sagittarius. It’s supposed to be the luckiest sign in the zodiac.
I’ve never won anything.
I’ve never even opened up a bottle of soda, looked under the cap, and won another bottle of soda.
So why I ever thought I could win the Sweet Potato Recipe Contest, I have no idea. The winner gets $1000 and the honor of having come up with the best new sweet potato recipe according to the Sweet Potato Commission of North Carolina.
Like most of my adventures, this one started off full-throttle. I spent some time coming up with sweet potato recipe ideas and then, the next day, headed to the Farmer’s Market to pick up a large bag of fresh sweet potatoes.
Three weeks and several bags of sweet potatoes later, I think I just might have a winner.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned more about the sweet potato than I ever thought I would know in my life. I can also now tell you exactly how to cook a sweet potato to get the proper texture for anything from soup to crispy French Fries. And did you know that sweet potatoes can not only be cooked any way you cook a normal potato, but that they’re WAY more nutritious? You will also be stunned to discover that the sweet potato contains fantastic amounts of protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, folic acid, Vitamin C, and a ton of Vitamin A; and that a great deal of the nutrition is found in and near the skins. And you are now privy to this knowledge due to my slightly obsessive nature and a burning curiosity about all things.
If you aren’t obsessed with cooking, trust me, you wouldn’t have wanted to be around me the past few weeks as I bored friend after friend with my lengthy discussion of sweet potatoes. Not since my pursuit of the perfect paper towel holder for my kitchen (see earlier blog post) have I been so singularly obsessed.
As the days went by and I found myself elbow deep in mushy sweet potato pulp, I read up on sweet potatoes, posted cryptic updates on my Facebook page, and emailed and called family and friends letting them all know of my sweet potato activities and my intent to do everything possible to win this contest.
Finally, I came up with this:
Sweet Potato Skins
One distinguishing thing about sweet potatoes is that the skin easily peels away from the flesh, making sweet potato skins difficult to master---but not impossible! After several attempts at healthing them up by baking, I finally gave in to what restaurants do with regular potatoes---I fried them. The final result is amazing!
Here’s what you will need:
Sweet Potato Skins
Brick of Monterey Jack cheese
Good quality lean ham
First you wash your sweet potatoes, cut the end bits off, and cut them into quarters. With a melon baller, scoop out a good portion of the sweet potato inside to get a nice skin. You can save these bits for boiling, frying or baking later, if you like.
Pour enough peanut oil (you can also use vegetable or canola oil, but I find peanut oil best for frying) to make a nice pool in the bottom of your pan. Raise the temp to about 250 degrees (that’s around medium to medium high heat, depending on your stove) and blanch the sweet potatoes for a few minutes till they get just a tiny bit soft.
Take them out, pat dry with a paper towel and let them rest for a few minutes.
Then, raise your oil to a high heat and drop the potatoes back in for a few minutes of frying. You’ll smell the sweetness of the potatoes as they cook and turn slightly brown at the edges. Turn them several times to get just the right amount of crispness on the outside and soft on the inside.
Pull them out again, pat dry with a paper towel, pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees and get started on your toppings.
Grate up a nice pile of Monterey Jack cheese and cut or rip your ham into tiny pieces to fill the potato skins. Put the ham on the bottom and the cheese on top. Place your filled skins on a baking sheet and pop them in the oven for about five minutes, just till the cheese melts on top.
Serve them with a side of sour cream and apple sauce.
Now, this, to me, was a winner.
Unfortunately, one of the prerequisites for entering this contest was that you post the recipe to your blog site. Yes, I have a blog site, but it’s certainly not all about cooking or food. While I do mention cooking and food quite often on this blog, you’re just as likely to find me writing about rats, going to the eye doctor, or finding free books in my laundry room. While this recipe might be good enough for a food blogger, for someone who wrote an entire essay about paper towel holders… Well, I felt that my series entitled “A Week’s Worth of Excuses on Why I Couldn’t Write a Week’s Worth of Essays of 500 Words or Less (In 500 Words or Less)” definitely put me in the Underdog category. With this fear in mind, I ate all the sweet potato skins without even taking a decent picture. Sure, I could have made them again---but suddenly, I felt I had to up the ante.
In an attempt to be Continental, yet simple, I tried to adapt a recipe a friend recently gave me for an amazing Pannekuchen (that’s a German/Norwegian-style pancake). This new jewel in my recipe box is so simple to make, yet so amazingly delicious. I added some sweet potatoes, adapted the recipe in an attempt to accommodate and came up with this:
Sweet Potato Pannukuchen
It was tasty, and yes, I ate it with some delicious Lingonberry Jam purchased during my last Ikea trip. But the texture was still off and I doubted it had enough sweet potato flavor to really put me in the running.
Then I came up with the idea of Sweet Potato Biscotti.
Now, I LOVE biscotti! But I’m kind of funny in that I don’t like my biscotti completely hard as a rock. My favorite biscotti to make is with dried figs and pistachios---a recipe I made up myself and whip up on a regular basis. It’s just slightly moist, but still retains a hearty texture.
Unfortunately, the moist, yet starchy sweet potatoes completely threw off the texture. Even after three tries, I still wasn’t happy.
But then, baking is a science. I’m sure Jonas Salk had his share of mishaps, too. However, unlike Salk (who tested the polio vaccine on his own wife and children before offering it for public consumption) I knew better than to offer my biscotti-gone-bad to anyone except the local birds, squirrels and (most likely) rats---this is NYC, after all.
It wasn’t BAD biscotti, just not prize-winning.
And that, after all, was my goal, wasn’t it?
It wasn’t as if I didn’t have other more pressing matters to attend to. A script under deadline. A short film I started the rehearsals for just today. My French studies so I can pass my French equivalency exams. And the loads of Spring cleaning that not only was begging for my attention, but that now included a daily sweet potato counter and dish clean-up that was seriously eating into my free time.
However, like an inveterate gambler, I somehow convinced myself that if I could just win the Sweet Potato Contest, the sheer act of winning ANYTHING just might turn my luck around. After all, who doesn’t love a winner? Unless you win too much, like the Yankees, and then everyone wants to see you lose.
But as a struggling writer-slash-waitress, I was surely not lumped into the Yankee camp. Tips haven’t been that good. Trust me.
It wasn’t until a mere two days ago that I came up with the recipe that could possibly topple my Sweet Potato Skins and turn the competition in my favor…
Sweet Potato Butter.
2 cups of sweet potatoes (boiled or baked)
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons apricot jam
3 tablespoons brown sugar
¼ cup applesauce
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Simmer all ingredients on low heat for about 15 minutes till flavors come together. Blend mixture to a smooth consistency using either an immersion or regular blender. Let cool. Can in sterilized containers for long-term use or put in jars to keep in the refrigerator where it will keep for about two weeks---though it certainly won’t last that long!
As a kid, my Grandma used to buy jars of Apple Butter and, for a mid-afternoon snack in the summertime, would smear a glob of the cold, jam-like spread onto a piece of white bread to keep us going till dinner. Online recipes for homemade Apple Butter seemed to involve hours upon hours of simmering of fresh apples. But, with a large container of freshly-boiled sweet potato pulp all chilled in my refrigerator, I decided to try to put it to use. I looked thru some cookbooks for tips on how to make apple butter and then set off on my own.
The first batch was delicious.
The second was nothing short of perfect. Absolutely THE most delicious thing I’d ever had on a piece of bread in my life!
I quickly packed it into a few tiny jars and set it in my refrigerator to chill over night.
The next morning, I spread it on a piece of bread and had it with my coffee.
This was my winner!
If I had ever doubted the enormous amount of work I’d put into this Sweet Potato Contest, I had no doubts now. I could bottle this and sell it at the Farmer’s Market in
Then, I went onto the Sweet Potato Recipe Contest Website to get some final tips on how to submit my recipe.
To my horror, I discovered that after all that work---they already had a recipe for Sweet Potato Butter listed on their website!
Early in the game, I had been so careful to make sure I wasn’t repeating any recipes they already had posted. And granted, my recipe was quite a bit different---but they already had Sweet Potato Butter. And I thought my idea was so original. I almost cried.
Instead, I smeared some of my Sweet Potato Butter onto a piece of bread and felt how fresh, sweet and spicy it was as the flavors rolled across my tongue. Every single nuance hit and blended just perfectly---yet, with all those flavors, you could still taste the sweet potatoes in all their perfection. Why, oh why?---I lamented.
Today, I packed a jar of my sweet potato butter into my bag and took it into the restaurant where I work. I pulled out a loaf of bread from behind the line, cut it into quarters, and began smearing the Sweet Potato Butter onto the pieces and walked around offering it to various members of the staff. Not only did they like it, but I immediately began to get requests for jars of the stuff.
However, the toughest critic was my manager. Like me, he is addicted to The Food Network. Unlike me, he has an aversion to most forms of cooked fruit. And when I mentioned Sweet Potato Butter, he made a face and, like a child, actually said, “Ewww.”
He did this twice.
However, he does swear that my Chicken Noodle Soup is THE best chicken noodle soup he’s ever had and recently, when he came down with a bad cold, actually handed me some raw chicken and vegetables from the kitchen cooler and begged me to go home that night and make him my chicken soup.
A tough critic, but he appreciates my work. Nevertheless, I was venturing into dangerous territory. Cooked “fruits” and mulling spices---two things he was definitely not feeling.
Finally, with great trepidation, I handed him a small plate with a sample of my Sweet Potato Butter on a slice of bread.
“Just try it.”
He looked at it cautiously and sighed.
“Well, you haven’t let me down yet,” he said, as he popped the sample into his mouth. A moment later, I saw him disappear around the corner. Oh no! He was spitting it out into the trash can, I thought as I began to walk away to avoid what would undoubtedly be some snarky comments.
Suddenly, he popped back around the corner and declared, “Okay---you win a can of sweet potatoes for that one!” he declared as he handed me a giant, industrial-sized can of sweet potatoes left-over from the Thanksgiving special.
“I didn’t think I was going to like that…but I need more.”
While I may not win the Sweet Potato Recipe Contest, I was a winner today. I received the accolades of my friends, co-workers and one pretty harsh food critic for my weeks of effort. I also now have a recipe that I will be making over and over again. And I have a giant can of sweet potatoes that may not be as attractive as an Oscar or a Tony Award---but it was earned thru years of effort in my kitchen.
After all, cooking, like all human activity, is really done for one true purpose---to secure love.
Today, thanks to sweet potatoes, I am a winner.
And I LOVE sweet potatoes!!!