The sweet potato, now firmly rooted in our traditional Thanksgiving feast, is actually a transplant from Central and South America and is only distantly related to the potato. This member of the Morning Glory family is utterly unrelated to the yam which is native to Africa and Asia. Facts rarely inhibit the soul of merchandising. Some decades ago, North American producers used the term yam in an attempt to differentiate between the white and orange fleshed sweet potato. They were so successful that their legacy of entrenched confusion still reigns. Ambiguously, U.S. government agencies now permit the use of “yams” in the labeling only if it also identifies the tuberous vegetable as a sweet potato. So much for the clarity of authority.
In the southeastern U.S. the sweet potato retains its longstanding status as a staple. Thanks to questing chefs, eager to expand the palates of the population, the sweet potato has re-emerged in many other areas of the country and is a gaining significant, wholehearted following. The far sailing Polynesians are probably responsible for bringing the sweet potato to the Cook Islands and then help spread its Pacific popularity from there to New Zealand, the Philippines and Hawaii. The 18th and 19th C Dutch and Portuguese maritime merchants introduced several varieties, including a purple fleshed one, into China, Japan and Korea, where they still thrive. The Japanese created an alcoholic drink called Shōchū from the tuber. They also fashioned a colorful dessert pastry made with sweet potato.
The sweet potato is a sociable sort. It has apparently never met a flavor or a cooking method it couldn’t befriend. It is a ready flavor compliment and companion of butter, coconut butter, coconut milk, sesame oil, peanut oil, white miso, rosemary, thyme, brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses, bourbon, dark & light rums, smoked salts, allspice, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, chili, cilantro, coriander, lime, oranges and tangerines. (Now some would claim that marshmallows belong in that list, but for my money, marshmallows belong on sticks.) The sweet potato can be roasted, baked, grilled, fried, steamed, boiled, tempura-ed, pickled or sautéed.
It’s shocking the things one can do with vegetables these days. All these “new” things were always possible, of course. Maybe someone even thought of them somewhere, but not in the minds of the cooks I came across. Perhaps earlier centuries and cultures had their Alice Waters. Certainly, there have been perpetual cycles, successions and popular dynasties on which the rise and fall of empires, governments, politicians and rulers depend. So why should the vegetal world be immune? More importantly, why care? Let’s just wallow in the glory of it.
This brainy looking vegetable is thought to be a descendent of the wild cabbage with its roots in ancient Asia Minor. Having gone through many transformations, it was eventually cultivated by both the Turks and the pre-Roman inhabitants of the Italian peninsula as early as 600 BC. There cauliflower led a quiet life for 16 centuries until an enterprising Genoese merchant, perhaps bored with pesto, brought it to France.
During the time of Louis XIV, cauliflower had become the celebrity food of the aristocracy. Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry was a known devotee. Some enterprising, perhaps favor-currying, chef served her the white-headed vegetable under a velvety Mornay sauce and called it Cauliflower a la du Barry. Not with quite the same cachet, its cultivation spread across Europe and to the American colonies. Despite Mark Twain’s quip that, “Cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education”; or perhaps because the French Revolution eliminated too many of cauliflower’s aristocratic patrons, the cauliflower fell into culinary obscurity.
It will surprise few to learn that the Northern Europeans maintained the heirloom varieties. Nor is there likely to be surprise that it was the Italians who developed more exotic varieties including the green Romanesco (above). Likewise, it was the soil of the Italian peninsula that gave birth to other elegant varieties in brilliant shades of red, brown, orange and purple.
In keeping with the new kitchen creativity, we offering Cauliflower Popcorn as this week’s recipe. But don’t stop there. Take a look at the web site and see the many Cauliflower recipes previously published here. You will find things such as Roasted Parmesan Cauliflower, Saffron Cauliflower Pasta with Sultanas and Pine Nuts and Bacon-scented Cauliflower Soup.
Well, I guess the answer is almost anything you want. Let’s take the word belladonna. In Italian that translates into beautiful woman. It is also the botanical name for deadly nightshade, a virulent poison that featured largely in the dynastic dramas of the Roman Claudians, the papal Borgias and even Macbeth as Duncan’s lieutenant. This same nightshade family includes our everyday, undeadly tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. Some animated family branches include a character called Dudley Nightshade, who played arch nemeses to the redoubtable Crusader Rabbit and his sidekick, Rags the Tiger. These three cartoon characters amassed a Pied Piper following of children every Saturday morning from 1950 through 1952. The same characters served as prototypes for Rocky and Bullwinkle, who appealed to both children and adults, though Dudley lost his villainous place to Boris Badenov and (Nuy-ha-ha) Dishonest John.
Back to the botanical, this has been a difficult year for vegetables. There is a dearth of balance between sun and rain, only extremes of both. (Hmmmm, what else does that sound like?) Weather, who is an Olympian of ill-humor and rarely a team player, has not managed squelched the nightshade family’s eggplants and their presence in our farmers’ market. From the skinny, brighter Japanese varieties, to the pumpkin round variety, to the heavy-bottomed, deep-purple eggplant we find spilled over the market tables, the options for upping your kitchen game are plentiful.
It is interesting that though the tomato and potato were unknown in Europe before Columbus and his followers, their second cousin, the eggplant, was known and independently domesticated and cultivated across Europe, north Africa and onward through Near, Middle and Far Easts centuries before. Slice it, dice it, grill it, roast it, sauté it, stack it, pureé it, eggplant is a most amenable partner to many flavors and methods. We’re probably most familiar with the contributions made by Italian-Americans use of eggplant with mozzarella, tomato and Parmesan. Today, however, we’re offering a taste of Greece with Eggplant Pastitsio with Feta, Tomatoes, Peppers and Mint. Despite knowing and loving all the ingredients, this was a surprisingly pleasing dish to bring to the table. When you’ve tried that recipe, you may want to refresh your memory on the market website of past eggplant ideas such as Grilled Japanese Eggplant with Jalapeno, Ginger and Lime or Eggplant Involtini.