In the landscape of seasonal food, few things are as disappointing as a bad peach in the summertime. Summer food is meant to be fresh; the really good stuff, you don’t even have to cook. But come fall, about the only things good to pick up and eat without cooking are apples, nuts and some greens. And even those taste better with a toss or two in a skillet with some melted butter.
I had a bad sweet potato while dining out a couple weeks ago, and I must say that is worse than a disappointment. It’s actually kind of a shock that you never get over. Look, when you pick up a peach in the summer, if you didn’t see it come off the tree with your own eyes, some part of you is nervous about what will happen when you bite into it. You can squeeze it and sniff it all day long, but the true test of its ripeness and sweetness is in that first bite – and this is where it must be said that I am not a peach peeler. Peeling the peach is a cheap spoiler, a defiler of the mystery that is a summer peach.
But who can see a bad sweet potato coming? How do you screw that up? This is how I normally cook sweet potatoes.
1. Peel the sweet potatoes. (I am a sweet potato peeler.)
2. Chop them into a half-inch dice.
3. Toss them with sea salt, pepper, a generous drizzle of olive oil, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and about half-a-teaspoon-per-sweet-potato of brown sugar. Maybe a quick squeeze of lemon or lime juice.
4. Bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes.
No matter what your method is, sweet potatoes cook faster than their more versatile and popular distant relative, the potato. You can cook them on the stove in a skillet, too, but at some point you’ll need to cover the skillet until they get soft. You can deep fry them; sweet potato fries are great! You can bake them in their skin. You can even twice-bake them and stuff them. They are versatile and delicious…but they must be soft.
So what is up with a restaurant that serves sweet potatoes al dente? Is that some new hipster thing? Whatever it is, it sucks, and it must stop. Crunchy sweet potatoes are gross. If you serve them like that, you are perhaps acting out of some post-traumatic flashback to the stuff your mother or grandmother used to make you eat as a kid: the fluffy, over-sweetened goo that was usually topped with marshmallows. If you were forced to eat that candied gunk as a kid, I guess I can see how, once you matured as a Southern foodie, you felt like you had to throw some new spin on sweet potatoes, and the way you did that was to toss them in curry and coconut milk after a safflower oil sauté. The whole time, your mind crackled with nightmarish visions of your grandmother heaving one more pile of sweet potato glop on your plate because it was GOOD FER YE.
I get it. You had to be your own cook. And you had to be groovy. You didn’t start tying your hair back with bandannas and get those lotus tattoos because you wanted to be just like Granny, and you sure as shit ain’t gonna cook yer sweet taters like she did.
But here is where orthodoxy and objective truth prevail over innovation and relativism: A sweet potato must be cooked until it is soft in order to be good. There is a spectrum of good and evil in the realm of sweet potato cookery. Good is on the middle rack, at 400, for about 45 minutes. Evil is on either end of the spectrum: in the gooey quicksand of molasses and marshmallows on one end, or in some pre-seasoned open skillet with faddish ingredients like Sriracha, cardamom flowers and agave nectar on the other.
Forgive Granny, just let that whole thing go. When you have the time, dig up the yellowed index card with her sweet potato casserole recipe and bake it to her specifications. Take one syrupy bite. No water. With the marshmallow froth still oozing down your esophagus, take the entire casserole out to a crossroads and bury it.
Then go home, light some candles, and start a new batch. And cook ‘em till they’re soft.