Let's get one thing straight: Those ugly, gnarly taters you see in the supermarket with thin skin the color of red dirt are not yams, no matter what the sign says.
They are sweet potatoes, grown in warm climates with long growing seasons, sprouting the loveliest vines with heart-shaped leaves (they are a member of the morning glory family); they are rich in vitamins and minerals and they are an inextricable part of the traditional Thanksgiving meal.
A yam is actually a tuber with rough, knobby skin and a starchy, not sweet, flavor. You will likely never see a genuine yam in the United States but you might discover them on forays to the Caribbean or parts of Africa.
When the sweeter, darker fleshed potato first came to America, merchants sought a way to differentiate it from its pale cousin, the Irish potato, and did so by calling it a yam. But sweet potato it is. If the sign says "garnet yam," reach for a handful of smallish ones with pointed ends. The best ones will be bruise free with no broken flesh and will feel heavy in your hand. All varieties are sweet, even the whitish ones, though rule of thumb says that the redder the flesh, the sweeter the flavor.
Now to the sweet potato preparation debate: Why do we insist on sweetening that which is already naturally, sublimely sweet and why, consequently, has American cooking resigned the sweet potato to the status of casserole filler, gloppy and gooey in syrup, topped with miniature marshmallows?
It's a dirty rotten shame.
Sweet potatoes were once a staple food. Harvested late, they grow sweeter the first few months post-harvest. They can be used in almost every preparation normally assigned the regular, white-fleshed potato -- scalloped, mashed, baked or simmered in soups and curries.
Currently sweet potatoes are experiencing a comeback. Restaurants will frequently stage a dish atop a sweet potato confit or on a stack of crispy sweet potato cakes. Recipes, more and more, lean toward the fragrant, spiced and herbed rather than the sugared and marshmallow-smothered.
All of which brings us to Thanksgiving and the obligatory sweet potato dish. This year, break out of the standard "candied yam" mold and try something new with an old friend. And remember, sometimes the simplest preparation is the best.
Sweet Potatoes with Horseradish. Don't hold your nose until you've tasted it. Introduced by John Martin Taylor in The New Southern Cook, this is a simple, unusual and surprising dish.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel 4 small to medium sweet potatoes and slice into 1/4-inch disks. Toss with 3 tablespoons grated horseradish (preferably fresh) and 1 cup whipping cream until potatoes are evenly coated, then turn them out into a 9- by 13-inch casserole. Cover with foil and bake for 30 to 45 minutes or until the sweet potatoes are soft or al dente. These potatoes can also be made into a soup by pureeing them with chicken stock and a little more cream. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Baked Sweet Potatoes. Most cooks agree that the perfect preparation of the sweet potato is as follows: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Wash a medium-sized sweet potato and rub the skin with olive oil or softened butter. Prick two or three times with a fork and wrap in foil to keep the skin from getting too tough. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until drips of caramelized juices begin to ooze from the skin or until the potato is mushy and pliable. Unwrap, split open and squoosh up the pulpy insides. Drop in a tablespoon of good sweet butter and watch it melt. Eat it hot or save it and eat it cold. It's heaven in a skin.
Alice Waters (Chez Panisse Caf Cookbook), priestess of vegetable cooking, recommends doing the above, salting the potato slightly, squeezing a lime over it, then "shower[ing] with cilantro leaves."
Soy-Glazed Sweet Potatoes, the invention of vegetarian goddess Deborah Madison (Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Local Flavors). Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Scrub 3 large sweet potatoes and cut lengthwise into quarters. Place in a baking dish large enough to hold them in a single layer. Combine 1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 tablespoons mirin or sweet sherry, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1/4 cup water and brush the resulting sauce over the sweet potatoes, then cover dish tightly with foil. Bake 50 minutes, until nearly tender, remove the foil, baste the sweet potatoes with their own juices and return to the oven until the liquid has reduced to a glaze, about 15 to 20 minutes longer. The potatoes should appear lacquered, even blackened in spots. Sprinkle with toasted black or white sesame seeds and serve. Reheat leftovers in a nonstick pan. They will caramelize a bit.
Sweet Potato Pie. If you must sweeten sweet potatoes, do it in a pie. This standard recipe -- tested over many Thanksgivings in the Eastburn test kitchen -- comes from former Indy graphic designer Brennen Florey. Peel, cube and boil until tender 3 large, plump sweet potatoes. Mash with a potato masher and add a whole stick of butter while they're hot. Dump in 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, a capful of vanilla and your choice of spices -- cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger -- to taste. Beat 2 large eggs and add them, along with 1/3 cup half and half, to the mix. Stir well. Pour into a prepared pie crust (or two; this is a big recipe) and bake 45 minutes or until golden brown and set in the center. Let cool well before cutting. Eat to the accompaniment of Robert Cray's 1998 album Sweet Potato Pie.
More on Yams, er, Sweet Potatoes
Many families have precious heirlooms that have been passed on through generations, for hundreds of years. Unless you are in my family. Then you'd be anxiously awaiting for the 1929 revised edition of the New Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, which was given to my grandmother (by a neighbor) when she came to this country in 1933. It made its way into my possession three years ago.
While there is no cashing in this heirloom for early retirement, I can continue my family's long-standing tradition of doing unique things to sweet potatoes, circa 1929. The following are two variations of traditional candied sweet potatoes:
If you like sweet...
8 medium sweet potatoes
1 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened (margarine also works)
1 (10 0z) package frozen raspberries, thawed and undrained (the original recipe called for crushed fruit, mixed with 1/2 teaspoon of hot water, sweetened to taste. This works well too, if you can find good fruit).
Boil sweet potatoes in salted water for 20-25 minutes, or until tender (but not mushy). Drain and let cool to touch. Peel and cut in half, lengthwise. Arrange sweet potatoes in a lightly greased casserole dish (13x9x2 works best), with cut sides up. In a small bowl, combine butter and brown sugar. Mix thoroughly. Spread over the cut surface of the sweet potatoes. Top with raspberries and juice. Bake uncovered, at 350, for about 25 minutes, occasionally spooning raspberries and juice over potatoes (like basting).
For a nice flamb...
4-5 medium sweet potatoes
1/4 cup butter
1/3 cup brown sugar (firm)
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup brandy
Boil potatoes, drain, cool to touch. Peel, cut in halves lengthwise. Heat butter and brown sugar in a heavy frying pan. Add potatoes. Turn until lightly browned on both sides. Add water, cover tightly, reduce heat. Cook until tender, and again, brown on both sides.
While still in the pan, pour the brandy over the potatoes (or transfer to a baking pan). They will actually flame if you light them with a match... a nice touch to any Thanksgiving meal.
Yams were about as exotic as my mother ever got. They generally came out of a can, were somehow heated and subsequently ignored at the Thanksgiving table. Imagine my delight to discover years later that they were not only edible but pretty tasty.
I've found the secret to yams is like a small brown bird among the parakeets: what you put them with makes all the difference. Tart fruit like cranberries and orange, sweet things like butter and maple syrup, crunchy toppings like walnuts or pecans are all interesting to experiment with. (Promise me: no marshmallows).
The easiest way I've prepared yams is to alternate thin slices (one-quarter of an inch thick) of peeled yams and peeled apples (Granny Smith or Macintosh) in layers in a buttered baking dish. Use equal amounts of potatoes and apples. Dot generously with butter. Drizzle with maple syrup. Sprinkle a little cinnamon. Bake covered in a 375 degree oven until soft, about an hour.
Consider this variation on the above, Yams topped with a Pecan Crumble made with:
One third cup all purpose flour One third cup (packed) golden brown sugar One half cup coarsely chopped pecans 5 Tablespoons butter
Layer peeled and thinly sliced yams in buttered baking dish. (Omit the apples from this one). Bake yams about 25 minutes.
Mix flour and brown sugar in medium bowl. Add butter. Rub in with fingers until mixture resembles coarse meal. Mix in pecans.
Sprinkle pecan mixture atop yams. Bake yams until tender, about 20 more minutes. (Can be made 2 hours ahead. Cool. Cover and let stand at room temperature. Rewarm, uncovered, in 375F oven 20 minutes.)
Bon Appetit has always been a good source of seasonal variations on the tried-and-true. The Thanksgiving issue in recent years has included some easy yam dishes. Among them is this one from Bon Appetit, November 1998
MAPLE-GLAZED YAMS WITH ORANGE AND CRANBERRIES
4 3/4 pounds yams, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces 3/4 cup pure maple syrup 6 tablespoons butter, melted 1 1/2teaspoons grated orange peel
6 tablespoons dried cranberries Chopped fresh parsley
Preheat oven to 350F. Cook yams in large pot of boiling salted water 3 minutes. Drain; transfer to 13 x 9 x 2-inch glass baking dish. Blend syrup, butter and peel in small bowl; pour over yams. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to coat. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
Bake yams uncovered until just tender, stirring and basting occasionally, about 30 minutes. Mix in cranberries. Continue baking until yams are very tender and juices form thick glaze, about 15 minutes longer. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley and serve.
-- MB Partlow