Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: Sour-Cream Sweet Potato Soufflé

As American Thanksgiving nears, I'm leafing through a journal in which I've recorded recipes as I concocted them, if they seemed fairly successful.  This one turns sweet potatoes--one of the few vegetables I have to force myself to eat--into something between one of those cloyingly sweet side dishes many of us seem to like with our other Thanksgiving vittles, and a dessert.  I honestly can't recall which way I served it in 1996, when I thought up this dish and served it at some gathering.

I can't really explain why sweet potatoes don't appeal to me.  I know they're wonderful for folks, and I've long tried to like them.  My dislike has something to do with the texture, with the fact that they seem to expand as I chew them.  They become (or so I imagine) a bigger spongy mass as I try to chew and swallow them, than they were when I brought the fork to my mouth.

I remember an instance in grade school when I tried to deceive our eagle-eyed, ginger-haired, no-nonsense principal Ms. Ellis into thinking I had eaten my sweet potatoes at lunch time, in order to obtain a second helping of a beef stew I loved.  The stew was served every Wednesday, and on this particular Wednesday, the school cafeteria decided to serve it--horrors--with sweet potatoes on the side.  

I tried, I really did, to eat my sweet potatoes, because the rule was that any child that hadn't eaten everything on her plate could not request a second helping.  Which was doled out by the principal from a pot she carried around the lunch room, a big white apron covering her dress.  

After I had manfully forked my sweet potatoes into my mouth, I had  less manfully spat them out and hidden them with a slice of bread, hoping that Ms. Ellis wouldn't think to ask if anything was hidden under the bread.  But ask she did, and to my shame, I had to reveal the sordid mess of chewed and discarded sweet potatoes under the bread when she asked to see what was hidden.  And I didn't get the second helping of stew.

On the other hand, I do have fond memories of stories my grandmother told me as I was growing up about the large role sweet potatoes played in the life of her family when she was a child.  They were a big family of hard-working farm children and parents, and sweet potatoes grew well in the sandy soil of south-central Arkansas where my great-grandparents lived, and helped keep the many mouths of the family well fed.  

My grandmother often told me what a treat a baked sweet potato was each day, especially in fall and winter, when she and her siblings came home from school.  Her mother would bake a batch of potatoes before they returned home, putting a dutch oven into the fireplace and filling it with sweet potatoes.  The first thing they did as they entered the house was go to the fireplace and retrieve a potato, which they peeled and ate on the spot.

Her Tennessee-born father also learned as a boy from his North Carolina-born father to hunt 'possums.  This was a nighttime activity.  Hounds would tree the 'possum for you, and you'd then shake or knock it down and put it into a burlap sack.  The 'possum or 'possums were then carted home and put into cages to be "fed out" until they were ready for slaughter. 

The idea, my grandmother told me, was to remove the wild, gamey taste of the 'possum by feeding it corn for several weeks, until its fat was as thick as the first joint of an index finger.  She'd show me the top joint of her index finger as she told this story.  

Then, when the 'possum was ready for the table, her mother would parboil the dressed animal in stock rich with red peppers, and would bake it after that in a roasting pan.  With sweet potatoes surrounding it.  My grandmother remembered this childhood dish with great fondness, saying that the 'possum tasted like fine ham.

I won't ask you to find or dress a 'possum for this sweet potato soufflé.  What I will ask you to do is the following: bake two large or three medium sweet potatoes until they are tender, cool them, peel them, and then purée them with three egg yolks (set the whites aside), 8 ounces (by measure) of sour cream, and 2 ounces of dark rum.  Stir into the purée 1/2 cup of brown sugar, the finely grated peel of an orange,  and 1/2 cup of raisins.  Add a pinch of salt.

Then beat the whites of the three eggs until they are stiff and fold carefully into the sweet potato mix, and turn into a buttered souflée dish.  Strew across the top 1/2 cup slivered almonds and sprinkle enough brown sugar across the almonds to cover them lightly.  Add dots of butter across the brown sugar and bake @350 F. for about 45 minutes.  Serve immediately.

I hope you enjoy it.  Even if a fat, succulent roasted 'possum isn't grinning up at you from the Thanksgiving dinner table

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