Saying no to mush at Thanksgiving [Food and dining]

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This article appears in the November 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

Did the creator of Popeye have an inkling of what confusion might one day be unleashed by the simple phrase “I yam what I yam?” I can pretty much guarantee you that if you go online or consult any number of reference books to determine the difference between yams and sweet potatoes, you will end up scratching your head and asking yourself, “What the devil?” or even, “Who really cares?” Especially if you start studying the photos.

Let’s just dispense immediately with the whole discussion of tubers versus monocots and say right up front that any variety of sweet potato or yam (or winter squash) you want to use in this month’s recipe will work well.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been served about 100 times too many sappily soggy sweet-potato side dishes not only at Thanksgiving dinner but at all of the office parties and luncheons leading up to Thanksgiving dinner. You’ve had enough of marshmallow topping. You’re ready to say bye-bye to the maple syrup bath. You’d like to recognize the potato you’re about to bite into as a potato rather than accept more mashed-up mush. And you’d prefer that maraschino cherries not be involved in any way at all.

Remembering an old butternut squash recipe from that high priestess of Indian cookery, Madhur Jaffrey, I went in search of a dish that could function as a substitute for the more expected Thanksgiving fare, and I happened upon one by the high priestess of American cookery, Molly O’Neill. After some experimentation, I came up with what to my taste buds works ideally as a blend of the two worlds. You might think of it as a different kind of celebration of the Indian — or as Stephen Colbert once said, the collision of feather and dot.

In addition to being flavor-loaded with its blend of sweet, tart and zingy-hot, this dish is really pretty to look at. It has varying shades of yellow and orange, and if you cut the chunks of potato, squash and apples into different-sized squares, you can make it look like a little architectural wonder — a welcome contrast to the toddler-textured food on the rest of the buffet.

Now, a word about apples. After all this time, the Granny Smith remains the best cooking apple, especially in a dish such as the one below. With their crisp tartness, they’re the perfect all-purpose cooking apples, especially when paired with sweeter, spicier flavors. The Honeycrisp might be best for biting into raw, but you cannot beat the Granny Smith when it comes to maintaining firmness and flavor under duress.  

Finally, it is time to speak of rum. Although this recipe calls for a miniscule amount of the stuff, I cannot underestimate how essential the spirit itself is to the spirit of the recipe. It’s the booster shot that sends the dish from just plain delicious to over the moon. If you like, any good-quality dark rum will do, but I want to put in a word for aged rum — specifically one from the Guatemalan highlands called Ron Zacapa Solera Gran Reserva.

I know, I know — that’s a long name. Any decent liquor store clerk will recognize it if you say simply Zacapa Solera. My husband brought a jug of this stuff back from a trip he made a few years ago to La Antigua, Guatemala. When he first handed it to me, I shouted, “Rum! What? This is another of your Homer Simpson gifts!” Longtime readers of this column may remember that the fellow is known for giving gifts that he himself wants to use. I, not being a rum drinker, believed this bottle of booze to be one of those.

He said, “It’s not what you think.”

Still, I did not even crack open the box, let alone the bottle, for several months. So ignorant was I that I assumed the man had bought it in duty-free for, at most, eight bucks or so. Ha! Little did I know that there is such an entity as the Rum International Hall of Fame, much less that Zacapa was inducted into it in 2003.

Quite by accident, I discovered the truth whilst perusing the wine aisle across from the booze at my local liquor store. I glanced over and recognized the box and the words “Solera Gran Reserva.” I looked at the price, then did a double-take (OK, make that a quadruple-take), finally bothering to ask myself, “Just what is meant by the word Solera?”

According to Gordon Jackson of Old Town Liquors, this rum, made from the concentrated first pressing of sugarcane juice (known as virgin sugarcane honey), is aged and blended using a system normally reserved for high-end sherries. It involves “fractional blending,” a process whereby the finished product is a mixture of ages, with the average age gradually increasing. The barrels are stored 2,300 meters above sea level on the upper slopes of the mountains and volcanoes of Guatemala, where the temperature is an average of 62 degrees.

The outcome is a rum much more in the vein of a cognac. It is not sweet like the Bacardi you mixed with cola in college. At approximately $40 a bottle, it is not nearly as pricey as certain aged liquors that are in its same league. Thus, rather late in life, I have become a sipper of rum. So chalk one up for Homer Simpson! What’s essential here, though, is that it is the binding ingredient for a savory late-autumn dish.

The recipe: spiced yams, winter squash and apples

  • 1    tablespoon dark molasses
  • 2    tablespoons dark rum
  • 1    teaspoon fresh minced chili pepper
  • 1/8  teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8  teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2     tablespoons butter
  • 3    yams, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 1    smallish butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 2    tart apples, peeled, cored and cut into ¼-inch cubes
  • ½    cup green pepper, diced   
  • ½    teaspoon salt
  • A few sprigs of fresh rosemary
  •  

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the apple cider, molasses, dark rum, chili pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. Set this mixture aside.

Melt the butter in large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the yams and the squash, tossing to brown the cubes. Add the apples and green pepper and toss the mixture again; then remove all from the heat. Drizzle the cider mixture over yams, squash and apples; toss. Sprinkle with salt.

Bake the vegetables until tender, about 15 minutes. Toss every 5 minutes, adding more cider if necessary to avoid sticking. Sprinkle the finished dish with rosemary sprigs. Serves eight.

Photo: John Natio
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