Maybe I’m just not understanding something. But when a vegetable is so naturally sweet as to have “sweet” in its name, why smother them with marshmallows and syrupy goo? It’s like sprinkling salt on your prosciutto or lox. I know it’s tradition, but “candied yams” can go with dessert then. For the main meal, why not roast some sunny-orange slices with savory herbs and a hint of spice?
While the question of to candy or not may be totally subjective, the question of yams versus sweet potatoes is more distinct. We are as a nation confused about the meaning of “yam.” Commonly, the redder, sweeter varieties of sweet potatoes are mislabeled as yams, which are instead long, cylindrical tubers not closely related to potatoes. True yams are more rare to come by in US grocery stores, and they’re not reddish-orange, like the iconic image of candied yams served around Thanksgiving. But then, turkeys are not native to Turkey, their namesake. What can you do?
I had another pre-Thanksgiving party to go to last weekend (definitely the coldest one yet of this season!). There wasn’t much on hand, and I didn’t have very much time to think or act on my contribution to the potluck spread. So, hoping there’d be nothing similar to it at the table, I sliced through some sweet potatoes, tossed them with salt, pepper, olive oil and chili flakes on a whim, and popped them into a 400-degree oven. By the time I was dressed and ready to head out, they were ready also, toasty-colored and piping-hot. I didn’t expect the reaction from guests, though. “Who made these?” “Why can’t I stop eating them?” I heard around the room. I found myself describing the simple steps I’d gone through just an hour before to a few people, who nodded, taking mental notes.
The potatoes are sliced here into half-ovals, for easy finger eating. When still warm out of the oven, they’re a little crisp on the skins and baked surfaces — and a little chewy in patches, thanks to all those natural sugars. In fact, the aroma from the oven as they gently brown is not dissimilar to that of a roasting marshmallow. The insides are sweet and moist, ranging from deep reddish-orange to yellow (the more orange pieces the sweeter). There is so much complexity to a simply roasted vegetable, especially these. Consider them “naturally candied” by virtue of high heat.
In lieu of added sugars, I steered these sweet potatoes to a more savory direction also with a generous clutch of fresh herbs for just the last minute or so of roasting. It’s tempting to just get it over with and toss the herbs with them at the beginning. But then the herbs will burn. It’s fine instead to toss the herbs with the sweet potatoes once they’re finished and out of the oven. But do it immediately, so the heat will bring out the herbs’ essential oils and spread them throughout. I prefer the gentle crunch of just-barely roasted herbs clinging to the sweet potatoes more than their fresh, feathery counterparts, so a quick toss and another minute in the oven achieves this while enhancing the flavor.
Which herbs? Thyme, mostly, and rosemary were used here. Any herb(s) that you have on hand for your turkey stuffing, gravy, or other sides I’m sure will do. And for those worried about taking up precious oven space from the turkey: these small slices of sweet potatoes are perfect for popping in the oven after the turkey’s out, and resting.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes With Chili Flakes and Fresh Herbs (Not-Candied Not-Yams)
(makes 6-8 side dish servings)
2 lbs sweet potatoes (about 5 medium)
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
couple pinches red chili flakes
2-3 tablespoons fresh herbs, picked from the stem (such as thyme and/or rosemary)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Holding a sweet potato on its side, slice off the tapered end on a diagonal. Continue slicing along a diagonal so that you have 1/4″-1/2″ oval discs. Discard the tapered end pieces. Slice the large oval slices into halves for bite-size pieces. Keep the smaller ovals that are of roughly the same mass of the half-discs intact. Toss all the pieces with the olive oil, a few pinches of salt and pepper, and the chili flakes, making sure each piece is thoroughly coated with the oil. Arrange flat without any piece touching one another on a baking sheet. (You may want to arrange the larger, thicker pieces around the edges of the pan as these places tend to get hotter.) Roast for 15 minutes. Remove and flip the pieces over to lightly brown the opposite sides. Continue roasting for another 8-10 minutes. For the last minute, sprinkle the herbs across them and bake another minute. Remove from oven and let cool. Serve hot.
(for 6-8 side dish servings)
2 lbs sweet potatoes: $2.00
4 tablespoons olive oil: $0.50
salt, pepper, chili flakes: $0.10
1/2 bunch herbs: $1.00
Four brownie points: A welcome additional to any meal, Thanksgiving or not. Sweet potatoes are especially high in Vitamin A and many antioxidants. Keeping the skins on them helps them retain more minerals (as well as texture). Even without adding sugar, they’re high in natural sugars and carbohydrates, but they’re a filling and flavorful side dish that you won’t need to take heaps of to be satisfied.
Eight maple leaves: Sweet potatoes keep very well year-round, so they’re a popular and low-impact crop. Did you notice they’re also especially cheap?