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Recipes and Stories

22 October 2014: Sweet Potato Salad

My sweet potato salad as made by friend Betsy Hollis for the recent Manna Club gathering where my cookbooks were honored and celebrated.

After I left architectural practice and was waiting for the publication of my first book, Classical Southern Cooking, in a moment of what can only called temporary insanity, I let a former cooking student sweet talk me into opening the kitchen of her new downtown café. Though I had long been writing about andteaching home cooking, I had absolutely no professional cooking experience. But she needed a cook and I needed work and, besides, wanted the experience.

Somehow, through a combination of dumb luck, good flavor instincts, Abby, my talented young assistant cook, and a handsome young waiter with good legs who knew how to charm our customers, we pulled it off. I lasted for six months (that was all both the owner and I could stand), but the learning experience was rich and well worth it.

Since the place was decorated with the owner’s collection of Latin-American folk art, the menu was an eclectic trade-winds combination of my native Southern food, Caribbean cooking, and a smattering of the Italian Riviera. Instead of offering standard potato salad or chips, our year-round side was this simple Southern-style sweet potato salad. Fresh and cooling in the summer, it was still full of the warm flavors that made it perfect for autumn and winter.

Now, a lot of Southern-style sweet potato salads are so full of sugar, apples, raisins, and marshmallows that they seem more like dessert than salad. So our customers met this one with surprise, since it contains few ingredients besides potatoes, and only they and the red bell peppers were remotely sweet. However, surprise usually turned to enthusiasm after the first bite.

This fits all my requirements for a great potato salad: it’s nice to look at, simple to make, and goes with just about anything from grilled food to winter roasts. Of course, the most appealing thing of all is that it also happens to be very good.

Serves 6 To 8

3 pounds sweet potatoes
2 medium red bell peppers, washed, stemmed, and cored, seeds and membranes removed
8 small scallions or other small green onions, washed and trimmed
Red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, or cider vinegar
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. Scrub the sweet potatoes under cold running water. Put them in a heavy 6-to-8 quart pot and add enough water to cover them by an inch. Lift out the potatoes, cover the pot and bring it to a brisk boil over high heat. Return the potatoes to the pot, cover, and let it come back to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, set the lid askew, and simmer until the potatoes are just tender and can be pierced through with a sharp knife. Drain and let them cool enough to handle, but don’t let them get cold: they should still be warm when you mix the salad.

2. Meanwhile, cut the bell peppers into small dice and thinly slice the scallions. When they’re cooled enough to handle, peel and cut the potatoes into half-inch dice.

3. Put the still-warm potatoes, peppers, and scallions in a large serving bowl. Sprinkle generously with vinegar (I originally used red wine vinegar, but sherry vinegar is lovely in this and, if you have neither, cider vinegar also works fine), salt, and pepper to taste, and gently toss to mix. Let stand for 5 minutes or so, then taste and adjust the seasonings. Drizzle lightly with olive oil—just enough to lightly coat the potatoes—and toss again. Let it cool completely before serving. (It can be made ahead and refrigerated, but take it out of the refrigerator at least half an hour before serving to let it lose some of the chill.) Just before serving, sprinkle with the chopped parsley.

From Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches, 2nd Edition (Globe Pequot Press). Copyright © 2014 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved

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