Friday, May 6, 2011

A sweet gift for Mother

This gift for mother that I am suggesting happens also to be one of the gifts from the New World: the sweet potato (ipomoea batatus,) or camote (from the nahuatl camotli ). No, I am not mistaking Mothers Day for Thanksgiving. Read on and you will soon be off to the market to get this wonder food. True, it is not exactly the most attractive looking item for a gift. Its outer skin can be downright ugly, but it hides a true treasure on the inside.
Christopher Columbus already had camotes on board on one of his return voyages to Spain. Its sweet taste made it easy to like this New World food without hesitation, and its long-term storage capacity made it fit for the sometimes up to 6 month long sea voyage. The sweet potato is easily cultivated in tropical and warm temperate regions, grows quickly and does not need much in the way of fertilizing. Therefore not before long, it spread from Central America to many other countries, mainly the Philippines, India, China, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Hawaii, just to name a few. (China is now the world's largest producer of sweet potatoes). Upon arriving in North America in the 16th century, the orange-fleshed variety mistakenly was named a yam, a completely different plant, which is originally from Africa, and not often found in US or Mexican markets. The sweet potato also is only very remotely related to the potato. The white and orange varieties became very popular in the US, mostly in the South, because of favorable growing conditions. During the Civil War it became to be one of the main staples for the fighting soldiers. This delicious and nutritious food was always inexpensive and therefore became associated with poor people’s food. This might have been one reason for its loss in popularity. Only as part of the traditional Thanksgiving menu did the sweet potato have staying power. However, by loading this holiday dish with excess ingredients, such as butter and sugar, did all but drown its healthy properties. In 1904 per capita consumption was 22 pounds, in 2004 only 4 pounds. Consumption has slowly increased to nearly 5 pounds in 2007. Now that its many healthful properties are becoming better known, consumption could dramatically rise.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest named the sweet potato, referring to the orange-fleshed variety, the most nutritious vegetable. Sweet potatoes definitely have a reputation among health food advocates as being one of the most densely nutritious (but surprisingly low-calorie) foods on the market. Sweet potatoes are packed with massive amounts of vitamin A, a nutrient considered critical in maintaining proper eye health. One sweet potato contains nearly eight times an adult's daily need of this important vitamin. It also contains significantly higher amounts of calcium, iron, vitamin E and protein in one serving, than the daily recommended amount. One of the wonderful benefits of the sweet potato is that diabetics can enjoy it as a sweet treat too. The list is long, if I have wetted your appetite for wanting more information, I recommend searching the Internet.
No doubt, orange sweet potatoes do a body REALLY good.
Now what can you do with them? A lot.
Sweet potatoes are available in Mexico almost all year round, since they keep well in storage in between harvests. If you plan to store them, you must pick the ones free of blemishes or damaged skin. Keep them in a dark cool place (I keep mine under the sink in a basket), never in a plastic bag or in the refrigerator. There they actually develop an unpleasant taste. When baked, they freeze very well. For a fast addition to your meals, bake a bunch in their skins in an 400F oven for about an hour, or until they are soft to the touch and start to exude their juices. When completely cooled, wrap them individually in clear wrap and freeze them. My friend Diana Kennedy, the foremost authority on Mexican cuisine, has a recipe in her book “The Art of Mexican Cuisine” that calls for just baking them and then packing them down in a dish and letting them sit over night. The next day they are ready to be eaten as a treat, including the skin. This way you will have the full nutritional benefit because many of the nutrients are also located in the skin. BCC (Before Coca Cola) many Mexicans still remember their childhood breakfast comfort food, a lump of baked camote dropped into a glass of milk. What a sweet and healthy way to start the day.
On one of my first visits to Mexico I was startled by a sound similar to the one a little train made that I commuted on to school in my native Germany. It was the camote vendor and his movable cart! In typical Mexican fashion of re-purposing items, a converted steel drum functioned as an oven in which to bake camotes. The whistle was powered by releasing steam from the oven. How much color and health a camotero, as the vendor is called, would add to the streets of San Miguel if we would invite him back?
Recipes for sweet potatoes are tumbling out of my head; hashed browns, muffins, crepes, vichysoisse, and salads (see recipe). Ice cream? Oh yes, with fresh black berries!
Do you think mom (dad too) will like this? I think she will love how much you care about her well being in such a delicious way.
Happy Mothers Day, which is really every day. Mothers are the pillars of civilization.

Sweet Potato Salad with Caramelized Onions, Watercress and
Guajillo Chile Dressing
Enselada de Camote con Cebollas Caramelizadas y Chile Guajillo

What makes this salad so delicious is the wonderful dressing. However if you have your own favorite homemade dressing, it will work just as well. Remember, if you use a commercial dressing, all the healthy properties of this dish will be wiped out in one fell swoop because of all the harmful addatives they contain. (KW)
Serves 8

For the Guajillo Chile Dressing:
¾ cup vegetable oil, olive oil or a mixture of the two
2 medium (1/2 oz. total) dried guajillo chiles (you can also use New Mexico chiles)
2 garlic cloves peeled and cut into quarters
¼ cup sherry vinegar (balsamic adds sweetness, champagne or white wine vinegar adds lightness, but the richness of the sherry is my favorite)
Salt

1 large onion, cut into ½ inch cubes
3 medium (about 2 pounds) sweet potatoes (camote amarillo), peeled and
cut into ½ inch cubes
2 bunches watercress (or verdolaga or your favorite greens)

Pour oil into a very large (12 inches) skillet and set over medium heat. When the oil is warm, add the chiles and garlic. Turn and stir until the chiles are toasty smelling, about 30 seconds (if the oil isn’t too hot). Remove from the heat.
Transfer the chiles to a blender jar (leave the oil and the garlic in the pan). Add the vinegar and a scant teaspoon salt and blend 30 seconds. When the oil and garlic are cool (5-10 minutes), add to the blender, set the skillet aside without washing. Blend the dressing until smooth. Pour into a jar with a secure lid.
Return the skillet (it will have a light coating of oil) to medium heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring regularly until soft and richly browned, 9-10 minutes. Add the sweet potatoes, ½ cup of the re-shaken dressing and 1 tsp salt. Stir well. Cover and cook until the sweet potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Uncover, remove from heat and let cool-most of the dressing will be absorbed into the potatoes. Taste and season with additional salt if necessary.
Break the large stems of the watercress (you should have 8 loosely packed cups). Divide among eight plates, forming it into “nests”. Scoop a portion of the sweet potato mixture into each nest. Drizzle a little dressing over the watercress. Serve right away.

Recipe by Rick Bayless from “Mexican Everyday”
Article published in La Atención, San Miguel de Allende, May 6, 2011

1 comment:

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