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Table Talk: The sweet potato quest

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There's something unusual about sweet potatoes. They're an in-between vegetable, more sweet than savory, just as comfortable in dessert dishes as they are in dinner dishes.

I knew all this, but I'd never really cooked anything with them. Sweet potato fries, roasted root vegetables, sweet potato pie…that was about where my list of possibilities ran out.

So when I saw the sweet potatoes in the greenhouse at Golden Russett Farm two weeks ago, it got me thinking. Those ones there weren't your average sweet potatoes. Some were larger than my head. What could you possibly do with that much sweet potato, I wondered?

I went home that evening with four considerably smaller sweet potatoes and a couple of stalks of kale. We'd been talking, during lunch, about Alton Brown's sweet potato pie recipe, with mashed sweet potatoes whipped with eggs and yogurt into a cheesecake-like consistency. That, I thought, was different. It had to be worth a try.

But since my roommate works in the evenings and I'm usually just cooking for myself, dessert seemed a dangerous road to follow on that particular evening. I postponed the sweet potato pie plan and got to thinking about other dinner possibilities.

It's perhaps a bit odd for someone who predominantly cooks Italian and American food, but one of the staples of my kitchen is coconut milk. It's especially odd for someone who, as a child, groaned loudly about any Almond Joy or Mounds bars in my Halloween candy and promptly handed them off to my father, who likes coconut. Something about the texture always disgusted me a little.

But after spending a semester in college studying in Kenya, I can't get enough of it. Just the smell of coconut milk sends my mind flying back to the colorful fabrics on laundry lines and the aroma of cooking coconut rice and spiced fish at lunchtime in Mombasa. Mangos and samosas also do this to me, but coconut milk is both cheaper and easier to come by.

So I just happened to have a can of coconut milk sitting in my cabinet, and I just happened to wonder what a combination like sweet potato, coconut milk and kale might yield. When I Googled it, I found an intriguing recipe: Nutty Vanilla Sweet Potato and Kale Soup, from the Kath Eats Real Food blog. The comments were all favorable, so I figured I'd go for it.

The soup was incredibly easy, and it was kind of hard to stop eating (though I overspiced it a little, due to a measurement error, and I didn't have peanuts). I added a toasted sourdough english muffin I'd made the night before with melted cheddar on top, just to balance out the soup's sweetness.

The following week I made the sweet potato pie, which was fluffy, not too sweet and dangerously eatable. And last night, after I recovered from a (thankfully) brief illness, I was inspired to continue my quest to use up the sweet potatoes. I made pork chops with spiced sweet potatoes, apples and onions, which not only furthered the sweet potato quest: it also forced me to cook meat, which happens to be my greatest fear in the cooking world.

I thought I'd accomplished my sweet potato goals — I've worked through three recipes, have three days worth of pork chops and two servings of frozen soup (the pie has officially been eaten, which means that my house is a healthier place). But it turns out I still have one left, which means that I'm still in the market for other good sweet potato recipes.

Andrea does reporting and online media for the Addison Independent. You can see other Table Talk entries here or find her on Twitter here. Feel free to weigh in on this post or suggest future topics, either in the comments section below or at andreas [at] addisonindependent.com.

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