Monday, February 29, 2016

The Wisdom of Crowds: Sweet Potato Hash with Nigella and Caraway






As I crossed my legs in sukhasana, getting ready for the evening yoga practice, there was still light in the room. The dark days are over. Change is in the air. It always happens after the Presidents Day, tick-tock, and all of a sudden, you can feel the spring sneaking in, it is not quite there yet, not quite tangible, yet you know that the change is about to happen. And suddenly, those trusty Uggs and cashmere sweaters that got you through the winter are impossibly unbearable to wear.

The tricky thing is, the season might be turning the corner, but the market does not quite follow. Market has its lead time, just like pretty much any other natural phenomenon, because Mother Nature does not like to be ordered and bossed around, hence the first spring produce will have to wait. A week or two, sometimes even longer. And that is what makes March one of the least beloved months in my culinary calendar.

In other words, I am still cooking with roots. And yes, I am aware that my latest writings were exceedingly tuber-centric, but please, bear with me just one more time. To compensate, I promise to disclose one of my closely guarded kitchen thoughts, something I had discovered million years ago and have been practicing ever since, something that can propel the most boring dish to a new-found level of gastronomic excellence. I will share two magic words that changed my culinary world forever. I bet you are all ears now.

Vegetable diversity.

Allow me to elaborate.

Let us consider all the boring dishes very few bloggers, if any, would bother to write about. Dishes like roasted sweet potatoes, grilled peppers, summer tomatoes dusted with salt, cucumber salad, or zucchini hash. OK, perhaps zucchini hash is not all that boring, especially when sprinkled with herbs, goat cheese and balasmic reduction, but it is still a pan of plain old diced veggies, stuck in the oven and left to roast. Not exactly a recipe one would blog about with great enthusiasm.

Well, that's where diversity comes into the picture.

I stumbled upon the concept many years ago, while still in college. My dad had this pepper dish he used to make all the time. You kind of fry the peppers with garlic first, and then lower the heat, and let the peppers sauté for a while in their own sweet and garlicky juices, until close to falling apart. It was a mighty good dish, but the only problem was Dad's choice of peppers. Mr. Stan liked to use those smallish, pale yellow, thin skinned peppers, not quite horn shaped and not quite round -- we called them Hungarian peppers. Here in Gotham, at the peak of the summer, they are a frequent visitor at the Union Square green market. Well, let's just say that back then they were not exactly my favorite, and I complained bitterly, week after week, until I wore Mr. Stan out and one day he sent me to the market to get the peppers of my liking. "I'll make my peppers," he said, "and you make yours, and then we will compare." Mom, poor thing, who always ended up being caught in the enemy fire, was ordered to serve as a judge. In my world, failure is not an option, so to the market I went, and bought pretty much every pepper variety I could possibly find. It was the end of August, Kalenić market was bursting with capsicums, and you can imagine how my basket looked like. Back home, unable to decide which peppers to use, I used them all.

"Stanislav," my mom said after she tried both dishes, "her peppers are to die for."

As much as I would like to brag about the conquest, it was not my culinary genius that carried me into victory, it was the wisdom of crowds. In data science we call it ensemble learning -- an ensemble of experts will always outsmart a single authority. And that is why a pot of pepper diversity will outshine that lone Hungarian soul, no matter what. A touch of sweetness, a touch of smoke, one with the floral character, and one slightly acidic -- it's like the perfect choir, like three, or four, or five sections, like soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, coming together in perfect harmony.

Or consider a bowl of your favorite heirloom tomatoes (mine is hillbilly) competing against the Team Heirloom: one hillbilly, one green zebra, one cherokee purple, one cosmonaut volkov, striped cavern and black brandywine. Sprinkled with Maldon and a drop of EVOO.

Speaking of zucchini hash... Have you ever tried a hash made with all summer squashes from the Union Square green market: zucchini and pattypan, the crooknecks and zephyrs, the cousa and tatuma, romanesco and the eight ball. Once you give this a try, that plain old pan of zucchini roasted in the oven will never taste the same.

You have no idea how many glorious dishes I created based on this concept. All beautiful in their simplicity.

Which brings me to sweet potatoes, my vegetable du jour: orange, whites and garnets, Korean and Japanese, Okinawas and Covingtons, and all their close and not so close sweet potato cousins from all around the world. On one baking sheet. And in one oven. United. With minimum embellishments. It's a dish so good that you will want to stretch the ugly winter for one more month, just for sake of doing it again.

Did I redeem myself?







Sweet Potato Hash With Nigella and Caraway  


* one orange sweet potato (about 1 lb 4 oz)
* one white sweet potato (about 1 lb 4 oz)
* one garnet yam or Japanese sweet potato, or any other variety (about 1 lb 4 oz)
* about 1 - 2 tbsp nigella seeds
* about 1 1/2 tsp caraway seeds
* olive oil
* salt and freshly ground black pepper
 


Preheat the oven to 375F convection (400F regular bake).

Wash the sweet potatoes, peel of the skin and cut into 3/4-inch dice.

Dry the cubes with paper towel, sprinkle with salt, pepper, caraway and nigella. Drizzle with olive oil, so that the cubes are fully coated.

Spread the sweet potatoes on a baking sheet in one layer and place in the oven. Roast for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure even roasting, until the potatoes are tender and crispy on the edges. Serve. Enjoy...




10 comments :

  1. Obozavam peceno korenasto povrce! Slatki krompir je tek pre nekih 7-8 godina poceo da se koristi kod nas, ali mene ukus toliko podseca na pecenu tikvu (bundevu). Najvece iznenadjenje sto se ukusa tice, barem za mene, je koren celera. Tvrd je kad je sirov i malo se teze sece, ali brzo postane mekan, mirisan, aromatican, a pri tome je diuretik i sjajan cistac organizma. Potpuno osvezavajuca kombinacija. Dodajte i neku sargarepicu i pastrnak, to je kombinacija snova. Srdacan pozdrav iz Beograda.

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    1. Tanja, koren celera je i za mene pravo otkrovenje. Mi smo ga uvek jeli rendanog u salati, ali pecen -- to je potpuno druga prica. Puno pozdrava!!!

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  2. In my house growing up, mom and grandma were the masters of the kitchen, and my dad and I would sometimes have little culinary projects, with varying degrees of success. I remember peppers with kajmak (revolutionary!). I also remember trying to steam rice, without a steamer, which took large part of a day to finish. One time we wanted popcorn. We made it, took the same pot, placed it between ourselves on the couch, and snacked away. When we were done, we were shocked to find our white couch cover with a huge brown burn. Mom went easy on us on that one, so that was good.
    Thanks for the vegetable diversity tip, and a great story. I have some sweet potatoes-my six month old son is about to try them, and I’ll make a medley for the grown-ups, as well.

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    1. You know, these little kitchen stories with Mom and Dad are among the memories I treasure most fondly. My dad and I used to bicker all the time, and we still do, and it is still a lot of fun!

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  3. I am with you, there is beauty and deliciousness in the simplest and most unembellished of foods. I love most food straight up, the natural flavor shines through with the help of a nice supporting cast in this case caraway and nigella. My Dad also made peppers much the same way, the Italian banana peppers were his choice and they were delicious, cooked slowely in the pan until so soft they almost melted. I love your sweet potato hash, I have never used nigella or caraway on sweet potatoes and weill give it a go.

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    1. Suzanne, it could be the age. When I was younger I was into really flashy foods with unusual pairings and innovative food combinations, but these days I find myself converging towards really simple dishes. At the end, it is all about the ingredient.

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  4. Many thanks for beautiful story and pictures. It reminded me of our recent trip to Eternal city where we enjoyed diversity of pizza al taglio. They are much tastier than any other in restaurants. The only problem is quantity. Now I am making such pizza at home. The best part is with peppers. We saw violets, there and here, flourished trees...

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    1. Hi Jasmina, many thanks for stopping by. I love violets. Have not seen them in NYC in a long time. One should make a trip to Eternal city just for the violets.

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  5. I enjoyed the story about the peppers with your mother saying that your peppers were to die for. I agree with you about mixing heirloom tomatoes in a simple tomato salad, it is one of the best things you can enjoy each summer. I'm sure your sweet potatoes are the same way.

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    1. Have to admit that my mom was always a little bit biased :) But the peppers were good. Isn't it amazing how simple foods shine if only we treat them with little respect? Cheers!

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