I don't know about you guys, but I'm ready for spring. We may be spoiled here in the Bay Area, with lettuce year round, but it's not like we have tomatoes and cucumbers and all the rest of salad stuff. I've been trying pretty hard to eat seasonally, but boy am I tired of cabbage and kale and root vegetables.
Recently I had sweet potatoes from my CSA box that I really needed to use up before they went soft like the last batch. Desperately seeking something a little unusual in flavor, I turned to what used to be one of my favorite cookbooks, "The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen" by Eric Gower. I say "used to be" only because I've been on a cookbook buying spree lately and have loads of new ones I've been playing with.
My friend the Waffler turned me on to Gower's book, and it has yet to let me down. The ingredient lists are manageable, and the recipes are clear and not overly fussy. The recipes are not at all traditional Japanese, but more Japanese-California fusion — an emphasis on turning fresh ingredients into memorable combinations that often rely on umami, the savory fifth taste, for their kick. I love the Broiled Pork Loins with Dates, Walnuts, and Umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums); the Mint-Cilantro Udon Noodles with Fresh Ginger and Meyer Lemon are a light, summery pasta-type dish; and the Baked Tofu with Pistachio and Mint has been a vegetarian crowd pleaser year round.
When I spotted Mashed Ginger Sweet Potatoes, I was excited — I'm a sucker for ginger. As usual, I was undeterred by the fact that I was missing several key ingredients: I had no shallots, egg, or yogurt. Surely I could substitute some mild red onions for the shallots, and a little sour cream for the yogurt. For once, I was right. Since my sweet potatoes ranged from puny to large, roasting them in their skins would have been a pain to time, so I just peeled, cubed, and tossed them with olive oil and salt and pepper, then roasted them in a baking pan for about 35 minutes before following the rest of the directions.
Man, they were good. I thought the sweet potatoes were transformed by the savory flavors into something I had never tasted before — something utterly unlike the sickly sweet Thanksgiving dinner dish I primarily associate with yams. The gingery tang glowed through the salty richness like a light in a dark hallway.
The Potato Non Grata, however, was not wholly won over. He's always thought sweet potatoes were dessert food, undeserving of a place next to meat. So a few nights later, needing to bring a side dish to a dinner party, I decided to try the recipe again but substitute butternut squash. This time I had all the ingredients, but I had not foreseen how different the texture would be, much more watery and stringy. I probably should have omitted the yogurt, since the squash is much less sweet. It was OK, but I vastly preferred the sweet potato version. The PNG stubbornly insists the squash was better.
Gingery Mashed Sweet Potatoes or Butternut Squash
From the Breakaway Japanese Kitchen by Eric
3 medium-large sweet potatoes or 1 medium size butternut squash
2 TB extra virgin olive oil
fresh ground black pepper
1 TB butter
1/2 cup shallots, minced
4 TB fresh ginger, minced
1 TB soy sauce
4 TB yogurt
2 TB milk
Preheat the oven to 375. If you're roasting the sweet potatoes whole, wash and dry them well, then rub them with 1 TB of the olive oil, salt and pepper them, and put them on a cookie sheet to roast for about 45 minutes or until a fork pierces the fattest one easily. If you're substituting a butternut squash, cut off the ends, split it down the vertical middle, scoop out the seeds, brush the flesh with olive oil, and lay it face down on the cookie sheet to roast, also for about 45 minutes until fork tender.
Meanwhile, in a small pan, heat the butter and remaining 1 TB of oil, add the shallots and ginger, salt and pepper, and sauté for about 5 minutes until soft. Transfer to a blender (or the cup receptacle of a handheld immersion blender, like I lazily use), add the egg and soy sauce, and blend until uniformly liquid.
Remove the potatoes or squash, let them cool enough that you can peel off the skins and discard them. Transfer to a large mixing bowl, add the yogurt and milk (I advise skipping these for the butternut squash), and mix well using a sturdy wooden spoon or potato masher. Add the egg-ginger mixture and blend thoroughly. Salt and pepper to taste. Both reheat nicely in the oven, if you want to make ahead of time.