Curried Sweet Potato Soup

September 29, 2009

Softer than a lullabye
Deeper than the midnight sky
Soulful as a baby’s cry
My Sweet Potato Pie

~James Taylor

Are sweet potatoes and yams birds of a feather? The short answer is no, and a still brief answer follows.

Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) belong to the Convolvulaceae or morning glory family. This fleshy, orange root vegetable is often mislabelled as a “yam,” a name adopted from nyami, a West African word for the root of a completely different genus of plants (Dioscoreae). So, sweet potatoes and true yams are not botanically synonymous. The confusion began in the antebellum era when enslaved Africans called the softer sweet potatoes “yams” because they resembled their beloved nyami from home. By word of mouth, the vernaculars of these vegs became one. Even today, the USDA requires producers to always stencil the label “yam” with the words “sweet potato” on cartons when referring to sweet potatoes.

A sweet potato’s thin skin may be white, yellow, orange, red, or purple, and its shape may be like a potato, or more tubular with long tapered ends. There are about 400 varieties, which are grouped into two categories.

Native to Central or South America, sweet potatoes are one of the oldest vegetables known to civilization. They have been enjoyed since prehistoric times as evidenced by archaelogical digs in Peruvian caves that have uncovered sweet potato relics dating back 10,000 years.

Christopher Columbus bestowed sweet potatoes upon Europe after his first voyage to the New World in 1492. By the 16th century, they were brought to the Philippines by Spanish explorers and to Africa, India, Indonesia and southern Asia by the Portuguese. During colonial times, sweet potatoes began to be cultivated in the southern United States where they have become a culinary tradition.

This is beta-carotene in a bowl. An intensely orange soup brimming with complex flavors and chocked with nutrition—vitamin A, vitamin C and antioxidant rich.


2 T unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 T fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/4 C dried apricots, coarsely chopped
2-3 T curry powder

4 C vegetable or chicken stock
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed

2 T honey
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
Plain yogurt

Melt butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium high heat. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, apricots and curry powder, and sauté until soft but not browned. Add the stock and sweet potatoes, and bring to a gentle boil. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes.

Add the honey, and then purée the potato mixture in a food processor or blender in batches or use a hand immersion blender.

Return the soup to the saucepan over very low heat and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the soup into bowls, top with a scattering of cilantro and serve each with a dollop of yogurt.

Faites simple (Make it simple).
~George Auguste Escoffier

A fleeting venture into French verb morphology. Faire (“to do,” “make,” “create,” “form,” “perform,” “effect”) is an irregular verb yet one of the most simple in conjugation. Depending on your source, it is the second or third most utilized verb in the language after être and avoir. Even though être is the French equivalent of “to be,” there are certain expressions in which you are obliged to use avoir or faire to express or translate into “to be.”

Roasted shallots are a fragrant, tender complement to roasted or grilled meat, poultry.


2 T fine sherry wine vinegar
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves stripped and finely chopped
1 lb shallots, peeled

Preheat oven to 425 F

Place the sherry wine vinegar, salt and pepper in a bowl. While whisking vigorously, drizzle in the olive oil in a steady stream to create an emulsion. Taste for seasoning.

In a shallow ovenproof casserole large enough to hold them in a single layer, arrange the shallots and drizzle with the vinaigrette. Sprinkle with the chopped rosemary and roast until tender to a fork, about 35-40 minutes.

Latin Turnovers—Empanadas

September 28, 2009

The belly rules the mind.
~Spanish proverb

From Africa to Iberia to Latin America.

Flavorous hot pockets to go. Served with a variety of both savory and sweet fillings, the word empanada derives from the Spanish verb empanar, meaning to “wrap or coat in bread.” Empanadas may have descended from muaajanat bi sabaniq maa lahm, the pleasing spinach and meat stuffed pastries introduced to the Iberian peninsula during the lengthy Arab occupation which began in the 8th century. (See Paella, 02.13.09)

Usually, an empanada is made by folding a thin circular-shaped dough patty over a stuffing du jour, creating its typical half moon shape. It is probable that the Latin American empanadas were imported from Galicia, Spain, where they are prepared similar to pies that are cut in slices…making it a portable yet hearty meal for working stiffs. The Galician version is customarily prepared with cod fish or chicken, but empanadas have evolved to include fruits, meats, cheeses, fish, chiles, vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts, eggs—to name a few.


3 C unbleached all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons salt
5 T cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 large egg
2/3 C water

1 28 oz can San Marzano tomatoes
1 poblano chile, stemmed, seeded, roasted, and skin peeled
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
1 bay leaf
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 lbs lamb, coarsely ground
1 t freshly ground black pepper
1 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t paprika
5 cloves, ground
1/2 C raisins
1/4 C black cured olives, pitted
1/2 T apple cider vinegar
1 bay leaf

1/4 C slivered almonds, toasted
3 T cilantro leaves, finely chopped
Sea salt, to taste

Canola oil for frying

Sift flour with salt into a large bowl and blend in butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal with some small butter lumps. Whisk together egg and water, and then add to flour mixture, stirring until just incorporated. Turn out mixture onto a lightly floured surface and gather together, then massage gently for a few minutes—just enough to bring the dough together and make it smooth. Form dough into two equally sized balls and chill them, each wrapped in plastic wrap, at least 1 hour to rest.

Place the tomatoes and chile in a food processor or blender and purée.

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and bay leaf, and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook 2 more minutes. Add the lamb to the pan and cook until browned. Drain off the rendered fat and discard the bay leaf.

To the skillet, add the pepper, cinnamon, paprika, cloves, raisins, olives, and vinegar. Simmer until thick, about 35-45 minutes. The filling should be firm in texture and moist but not runny. Then stir in the almonds and cilantro. Season to taste with salt and allow to cool to room temperature.

Divide first dough and half of second dough into 12 equal pieces and form each into a disk. Keeping remaining pieces covered, roll out a portion of the dough on a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin into a 6″ round (about 1/8″ thick).

Lightly brush the edges of the circle with water and spoon about 2-3 tablespoons filling onto one side. Then, fold dough in half, enclosing filling. Expell as much air as possible, and press the edges together to seal. Crimp decoratively with your fingers or tines of a fork. Transfer empanada to a baking sheet. Make remaining empanadas in same manner, arranging on a parchment lined baking sheet.

Pourboire: You may also use an empanada mold to create the pies.

Pour canola oil to a depth of 1″ in frying pan and heat to 375 F. Fry the empanadas a few at a time until deep golden, about 2-3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels and keep warm in an oven on low.

As for me, olives, endives, and smooth mallows provide sustenance.
~Horace (65 BC – 8 BC), Roman lyric poet

The olive itself is quite evidently the fruit of the squatty olive tree (Olea europaea) which is native to the coastal areas of the eastern Mediterranean basin. Unlike most fruits though, olives are not eaten in their raw state, as the high level of glucosides naturally found in raw olives makes them strikingly bitter. For olives to become edible, the bitterness must be drawn from them through one of several methods: lye curing, water or brine curing, or dry curing.

The color of an olive indicates the stage of ripeness at which it was picked. Green olives are fruit picked before they have ripened, usually in early autumn.

Lucques olives originated in Lucca, Italy, but are now grown exclusively in France—particularly in the glorious Hérault countryside of the Languedoc region in southern France. Brine cured, long and slightly curved with firm bright green flesh, Lucques are meaty and full flavored with a sweet, buttery, and nutty finish. Lucques are freestone olives in that the flesh does not cling to the pits. The olives must be kept submerged in their light brine since they discolor very easily.

A black tapenade recipe is found on the previous post entitled Tapenade—Provencal Olive Paste, 02.03.09. Both tapenades can be used as dips, with cheeses, on pizzas, with pasta, in vinaigrettes, on crostinis. That is a short list.


2 C olives, such as Lucques or Picholines, pitted
2 fresh plump garlic cloves, peeled and chopped roughly
2 T capers, drained and rinsed
2 high quality anchovy fillets
1/2 t fresh thyme leaves
2 T lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Zest of 1 lemon
2 t Dijon mustard
Dash of brandy or cognac
6 T olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

If the anchovies are salt packed, let them stand in a bowl of milk for 15 minutes to exude the salt. Then, drain and pat dry thoroughly.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the drained anchovies, olives, capers, mustard, garlic, cognac and thyme. Process in bursts until thick and chunky.

With the processor running, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until it is thoroughly incorporated. Season with pepper, then allow the tapenade to stand for an hour or so to allow the flavors to marry.

Risotto with Fennel & Wine

September 24, 2009

We signal the captain, taking time out against the wall. He frowns. He groans. His feet hurt. His ulcer rages. He hates his wife. The risotto will take 25 minutes. Lasagna will take even longer.
~Gael Greene

Another dish featuring that Mediterranean darling, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).

Fennel is a potent font of vitamin C along with being a source of dietary fiber, potassium, manganese, folate, and molybdenum. In addition, niacin as well as the minerals phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron, and copper are nestled in this versatile and long revered plant. Fennel also boasts phytonutrients such as the flavonoids rutin, quercitin, and various kaempferol glycosides that offer strong antioxidant activity. Whatever all that means to a single human being and to existence in general…let’s just leave it as a healthy compound of sorts that may or may not give you another day of that life you adore or abhor.

To keep it simple, I usually sidestep the nutribabble and just enjoy the aroma, herbaceous flavors and texture of this oft-underutilized green in all its glory—bulb, stalk, fronds, and seeds.

You can even push the envelope, as early test flight engineers were prone to say. For an extraordinarily transformative (and expensive) dose/experience, you can purchase the pollen which is collected from wild fennel. Tasting distinctively different than fennel seed or anise, and sometimes described as a touch curry-like, fennel pollen is a unique ingredient that imparts flavor and depth. Known as the “Spice of Angels,” fennel flowers are picked at full bloom, and then dried and screened. The pollen can be used as a dry rub on meats or fish before roasting or grilling, as a substitute for saffron in rice, pasta, or risotto dishes, or in stocks, sauces, and dressings.


3 T extra virgin olive oil
3 plump fresh garlic cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 medium fennel bulbs, cleaned, trimmed, cored and coarsely chopped (save fronds)
1 C yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
Pinch of sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 T dried red chile peppers
1 1/2 C arborio rice
1 T unsalted butter
3/4 C dry white or red wine
6+ C chicken stock

2 T unsalted butter
1/2 C parmigiano-reggiano, freshly grated
Zest of 1 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Goat cheese, crumbled and reserved fennel fronds

In a large skillet add olive oil over medium heat and sauté the garlic, then the fennel, followed by the onion with a liberal pinch of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring regularly over medium low heat until fennel is soft and the onion translucent, about 15-20 minutes. Discard garlic and set fennel and onion mixture aside.

Pour stock into a large pan and heat over low until just below a simmer.

Heat olive oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium low heat. Add chile peppers and onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Do not brown. Add the rice and stir, allowing the rice to absorb the moisture of the butter. Cook, stirring constantly for about a minute so the rice is fully coated. Add the wine and continue stirring until absorbed, about 2 minutes. Add stock by the ladle until each ladle has been absorbed, stirring constantly. After your second ladle of stock has been absorbed, add the cooked fennel.

Continue ladling and stirring the risotto until barely al dente, and then add the parmigiano-reggiano, remaining butter and lemon zest. Add lemon juice, and taste for seasoning.

Serve hot, topped with crumbled goat cheese and feathery fronds.

Mussels with Pesto

September 23, 2009

Of what use are the great number of petrifactions, of different species, shape and form which are dug up by naturalists? Perhaps the collection of such specimens is sheer vanity and inquisitiveness. I do not presume to say; but we find in our mountains the rarest animals, shells, mussels, and corals embalmed in stone, as it were, living specimens of which are now being sought in vain throughout Europe. These stones alone whisper in the midst of general silence.
~Carolus Linnaeus, Philosophia Botanica (1751)

To make a long story absurdly too short, Carolus Linnaeus has often been deemed the father of taxonomy. He laid the foundations for the binomial or binary nomenclature system of naming and classifying organisms which, with modifications, is still in broad use today.

For those of you who have diligently plucked the sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) from your summer gardens and bottled fresh pesto for the winter months—or who have friends who do the same and so generously share.


1 C pesto (see Pasta with Pesto, 08.18.09 post)

2 1/2 lbs fresh mussels

1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C shallots, peeled, and sliced
1/2 t sea salt
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

3 C dry white wine
Freshly ground black pepper

Spread pesto out in a large shallow bowl.

Scrub the mussels and rinse with several changes of water. If necessary, debeard them and discard any opened mussels which fail to close when pressed together.

Sweat the olive oil, shallots, garlic and salt in a large, heavy saucepan over medium low heat until soft but not browned, about 3 minutes. The shallots should be translucent. Add the wine and bring to a constant, but not raging, boil, for about 5-6 minutes. Add the mussels, cover the pan, and cook the mussels until they open, about 4-5 minutes. Do not overcook or they will toughen. Those mussels which do not open during the cooking process must be discarded.

Drain the mussels through a sieve, reserving the liquid in a bowl. Then transfer this strained liquid to the bowl with the pesto and stir them together. Remove the mussels from the shells and place them in the bowl with the pesto and reserved cooking liquid. Stir gently to coat and season liberally with pepper. Serve promptly with toasted or grilled bread.

Grilling, broiling, barbecuing – whatever you want to call it – is an art, not just a matter of building a pyre and throwing on a piece of meat as a sacrifice to the gods of the stomach.
~James Beard

One of those Elysian Fields. The Central Coast is an idyllic stretch of California, roughly spanning the area from the Monterey Bay through Santa Barbara. Ruggedly bewitching: with broad shouldered beaches, craggy vistas, serene tangerine-salmon sunsets, lofty valleys, closely cropped chapparal, patterned vineyards, hay-hued hills with solitary oaks, crisply scented eucalyptus belts, fecund avocado groves, herbal aromas, quaint inns and high end resorts. The Central Coast is also home to the heralded Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Paso Robles, and Monterey wine countries.

On this coastal stretch, located in the center of Santa Maria Valley lies the town of Santa Maria, the largest city in Santa Barbara County—80 miles north of Santa Barbara proper and 30 miles south of San Louis Obispo. Not only does Santa Maria rightly boast of its own breed of vaquero barbeque, its wineries produce exquisitely complex pinot noirs. Pinot loves a cool climate, and the conditions in Santa Maria Valley deliver. Constant ocean breezes coupled with an east to west transverse geography that channels the cool air into the valley combine to foster a long growing season for this most delicate and temperamental grape.

Miles, the protagonist from the engaging film Sideways, described pinot as “transcendent,” noting that it is a grape that “needs constant attention…(I)t’s not a survivor like cabernet which can be grown anywhere.” Compared to their northern neighbors in the Russian River, Santa Maria wineries are considered the nouveau riche of pinot noir with a tendency toward to experimentation. At the pour, Santa Maria pinots exalt in lavender, orange peel, sandalwood, wild strawberry, berries, cherry, rhubarb, and anise.

Tri-tip is a roast cut from the bottom of the sirloin primal. There is only one tri-tip per side of beef (a total of two per animal). In this country, tri-tip also answers to “bottom sirloin butt” and “triangle roast”, due to its triangular shape. It is a nicely marbled, tender, and robustly flavored cut which weighs about 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 pounds trimmed and measures around 3″ thick. Look for a tri-tip that still includes the fat on one side which will make it a little heavier than the norm.

The American origin of the tri-tip cut is believed largely happenstance and rooted in Santa Maria. There, as elsewhere, butchers would customarily carve beef loins into sections of preferred top block sirloin and filet, and then set aside the triangular shaped tips for stew cubes or hamburger. Then, sometime in the 1950’s, on a day when there was an overabundance of stew chunks and hamburger (and the triangular cut was about to be trashed) a local meat market manager experimented by placing a seasoned whole piece of the “unwanted” meat on the department’s rotisserie rack. An immediate hit with his guinea pig staff, he undertook a successful marketing campaign with this now cherished cut. The rest is history…well, recent history. A baby boomer dish.

Tri-tip marinades well and can be cooked on a grill, on a rotisserie, or roasted in an oven. Marinades usually contain an acidic ingredient, such as citrus juice, vinegar or wine. The acid breaks down the meat fibers some, but only at the surface.

Marinades are are usually founded upon the sum of: acid + salt + alliums + sugars + chiles + herbs. But, the variations on this basic equation are endless. Below are two marinades that couple well with tri-tip with a single grilling method for both.


Asian Marinade
1/4 C soy sauce
1/4 C nuoc mam chay pha san
2 T oyster sauce
2 T sesame oil
4 T Chinese black vinegar
2 T peeled and minced ginger
1 T five spice powder
8 fresh plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 yellow onion, peeled and minced
Juice of 3 fresh limes
1/2 C chile oil or canola oil
Abundant freshly ground coarse red, white, green and black peppercorns

In a large, heavy duty zip lock bag, combine all ingredients. Seal, squeezing out excess air, and refrigerate for 24 hours. Turn several times during the marinating process to make sure the meat is well coated. Let stand until it reaches room temperature before grilling.

Chile Marinade
Juice of 2 fresh limes
Juice of 1 fresh orange
3 T ground cumin
3 T ground coriander
2 T dried oregano
2 T chipotle chile powder
1 t ground cayenne pepper
8 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 jalapeno chiles, seeded and finely diced
1 small bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1/4 C red wine vinegar
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

In a large, heavy duty zip lock bag, combine all ingredients. Seal, squeezing out excess air, and refrigerate for 24 hours. Turn several times during the marinating process to make sure the meat is well coated. Let stand until it reaches room temperature before grilling.

Set your grill up for an indirect cook at medium high heat. Toss in a couple of small chunks of pre soaked smoking wood (red oak is traditional) to the coals or smoker box. Put the roast on away from the heat and close the lid.

Cook the tri-tip for about 10 to 12 minutes per pound, turning every 5 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches near 130 F—the land of medium rare. Because tri-tip is so lean, cooking beyond this point will render it tough.

Let stand for at least 15 minutes before carving, and then savor with a regional pinot noir (preferably one of those Santa Maria lasses).