I sit two feet to the left of our fire. It sputters and pops and burns and desires way too much wood due to its intense updraft (we’ve gone through a full carload – truck, seats, and all – of wood in one week). But it is fire and its flames lick high up towards the chimney. I’m sure all kivas were not created equal and this one definitely serves the decorative gods not the heat gods, but we love it and tend to it just the same. Its heat radiates just enough to touch the right side of my body and all the way up to my cheek. Sometimes I walk over to it and stick my butt out to get it a bit toasty before sitting back down.
You can tell when the breeze is blowing just so when the fire makes that rhythmic bubbling noise and the curtain in front of me starts to flutter, just slightly. See, it’s 47 degrees out here. Just warm enough to turn down the heat in the apartment to conserve energy, light a good fire, and crack the window open about a foot.
If you sit by a fire long enough, poking and prodding and listening to the wood pop, you can’t help but want to cook in it. So when the fire starts to die out and the coals are that incredible orange orange hidden behind a layer of ash, we’ve been making thick cut sweet potato fries. They are just crisp on the outside, speckled with those delicious browning marks, and sweet and tender inside.
We’ve been eating a lot of tubers, rhizomes, and bulbs, a ton of dal, and then any greens we can find (chard, kale, and broccoli mostly), interrupted by the morning’s fried eggs on toast and an occasional spicy pork sausage or grass fed steak. The more we’ve come to enjoy the seasonality here and the limited ingredients, the more we desire simple, earthy foods. Which brings me to these sweet potatoes. You see, I have never been a big fan of tubers, squashes, and the like. Mostly, I have never been a fan of mixing dinner with dessert. Actually, this sentiment of preferring savory over sweet supper foods seems to be the case with most of the American and European population, seeing as we have plenty of sweet potatoes to spare but few who want to eat them. This trip to Santa Fe is about roots…. both the tuber variety and discovering those foods and cooking practices that stem from the Americas.
We went to an incredible cooking class at the Santa Fe Cooking School last week, taught by Rocky Durham, a native Santa Fean who has been widely successful as a chef, writer, and teacher of Santa Fe cuisine and cultural roots. Rocky pointed out in our Chile Amore! class that cooking comes down to three kinds of heat: moist heat, dry heat, and no heat. And if given a selection of those three on a menu, people will always order the description of dry heat. Think about it. Would you rather grilled steak, boiled beef, or steak tartare? Chances are, if it has grilled, braised, and roasted in front of it, you’ll order it, Rocky told us.
While humans have been using fire for centuries, it’s still a wondrous thing. Watching flames lick a burger and seeing those impressive grill marks is a sign of, well, something charred and delicious. We can always conjure up these flavors in our mind. I also considered prepending other preparations to menu items. Boiled halibut, pan-fried tuna, and broiled clams definitely don’t sound as appetizing as poached halibut, seared tuna, and baked clams. With today’s audience, add “slow” or “home cooked” or “Grandma’s own” in front of a dish and mouths start to water and wallets tumble freely out of pockets. Slow roasted pork, slow-braised short ribs, slow-smoked spare ribs and slow simmered beef stew come to mind.
Hearing something has been fire roasted sort of makes my knees week. Roasting over coals allows the inside of the potato to cook more slowly and sweeten and the outside to caramelize, giving us those complex flavors we find so satisfying. Which brings me back to these sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are indigenous to South America, and were brought to Europe by Columbus. Today, China consumes enough sweet potatoes to make the root the second most important vegetable worldwide. Maltose, the enzyme in sweet potatoes that turns the starches into sugars, is active from 135F to 170F (internal temp). So the slower the cooking time (with lower heat), the sweeter the potato will be. The sweet potato is rich in beta-carotene (depending on color), vitamin A, potassium, and is a good source of fiber. Substituting foods like sweet potatoes for other, simpler carbs can help give you energy in the middle of the day but not slow you down. It is a wonderful, nutritious, comfort food. I really enjoyed the more golden yellow of the Japanese variety, but am determined to try each an every variety.
Sure, you could roast them in the top of your oven at 400F for 40 minutes, turning them once or twice, until tender and slightly browned. They would be delectable, timed just as you want them, and not requiring a lot of blowing and tending and adding of wood, but what would be the fun in that? If we’re going to go through so much wood, we figured at least we can harness the energy somehow. Whatever way you slice ‘em, make these sweet potatoes.
Fire roasted sweet potatoes
2 sweet potatoes (we used Japanese because that’s what looked good)
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
Juice of 1/2 lime
3/4 teaspoon salt
A few tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Wash the potatoes well. Cut off any nubs. Cut into 1″ lengths of the same thickness. Raw sweet potatoes can be fibrous and hard to cut so do the best you can.
Dry roast the seeds and then grind coarsely along with oregano.
Put the potato in a bowl and toss with the lime, salt, and olive oil. Toss with spice mix. Spread out in a sheet pan and roast in the fire above the coals where the surface of your sheet pan is around 400 degrees, turning and rotating the pan once or twice, about 30 minutes. Once they’re roasted and tender in the middle, dump them onto a serving tray and serve with the dip. Enjoy by the fire!
Honey chipotle yogurt dip
2 tablespoons yogurt
1 teaspoon ginger
1/8 teaspoon chipotle powder
1 teaspoon honey
Mix and let sit in fridge until needed.
A smoother, more herbaceous variation
In with the sweet potato add a couple cloves of garlic (whole). Instead of grinding the dried oregano in with the spices, place a couple sprigs of rosemary on top of the sweet potatoes to infuse them. Turn the garlic once, remove, and mash. In the dip, substitute a soft, fresh goat cheese for the yogurt, add the mashed garlic in place of the ginger, and substitute a sprig of rosemary, minced, for the chipotle powder.
- Spicy yogurt chicken with sweet onions and cracked olives
- Hearty cabbage soup with sausage and potatoes
- Garlic mashed potatoes + peas with mint and cremini mushrooms
- Roasted Japanese eggplant sandwich with shishito peppers, goat cheese, and olive tapenade
- Frisée salad w/ linguiça, serra, egg, and roasted garlic dressing