The very word “festival” means “time to eat,” and Christmas is our oldest Christian festival.
In New England, the women specialize in making food taste not like something else, but like itself. Cider tastes like the orchards, chowders bring the sound of the sea to the table, and the Boston baked bean is like a prayer to the good brown earth.
America’s North Country is made up largely of Scandinavians, Germans, Poles and Finns—vigorous and vital people who work hard, play hard and eat heartily. Their favorite saying—“make it good, and plenty of it”—brings to mind the logging camp’s clang of the dinner gong and the “groaning board.”
In the Southwest, Christmas customs and informal outdoor living are combined with a distinct flavor of Mexico. The Northwest’s table has the flavor of the sea as luscious dishes filled with salmon, clams, crab and oysters come to the table, and sit alongside America’s tastiest apples and pears.
At holiday time, mid-America’s horn of plenty literally spilleth over. This “Bread Basket of America” knows what good eating is, and there is ample of it—turkeys, beef or hams—name it and they raise it!
The South gave birth not only to the Blues, but also to the most distinctive cooking of all. Christmases in the South are steeped in traditions and still retain the stateliness of plantation life, and the earthiness of the rolling fields, where once the entire feast grew. We are all familiar with the warmth of Southern hospitality.
No Southern holiday feast is without sweet potatoes. They are always on our holiday table in the Northwest, and we most likely will find them on the holiday tables in New England, the North Country, the Southwest and mid-America, too.
Many ask what is the difference between a sweet potato and a yam? The sweet potato is either the yellowish, dry type or the orange, moist variety affectionately called yams. True yams are a different species, and the vegetables usually labeled as yams at the market are actually a variety of sweet potato. Real yams are of an entirely different family, found in Africa but rarely in the United States.
Sweet potatoes can be baked whole, sautéed in slices, mashed or added to other dishes. During the holidays a candied version smothered in a sticky marshmallow topping is a favorite. Here are a few other ways to prepare the sweet potato:
BAKED SWEET POTATO STICKS FOR TWO
Scrub 1 sweet potato well; cut it lengthwise into one-half-inch wide sticks. Transfer sticks to a medium bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of melted butter. Arrange spears, skin side down, 1 inch apart on a greased baking pan. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Bake in a preheated 425-degree oven 20 minutes or until tender.
MASHED HONEY ROASTED SWEET POTATOES
3 pounds of sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons of honey, divided
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1 teaspoon of salt
Place potatoes in a single layer on a greased baking sheet. Lightly spray potatoes with cooking spray. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 1 hour or until tender, stirring occasionally. Place the potatoes, 2 tablespoons honey, butter, and salt in a large bowl, and beat with a mixer until smooth. Put in a serving bowl and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of honey. Serves six.
SWEET POTATOES WITH APPLES
4 sweet potatoes
1/2 cup of brown sugar
1 teaspoon of mace
1 cup of orange juice
2 tablespoons of butter
Cook sweet potatoes in their jackets until tender. Drain, cool, and peel. Cut into thin slices. Peel, core and slice apples. Arrange alternate layers of the potatoes and apples in a buttered baking dish, sprinkling the sugar and mace between layers. Pour the orange juice over all and dot with butter. Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for 30 minutes. Cool to room temperature, and sprinkle with about 3 tablespoons of rum if desired. Serves four to six.
Today new varieties of sweet potatoes are in the markets with improved nutritive value, taste, looks, and texture—all vitamin-rich bundles high in vitamin A, potassium, calcium and iron.
No festive holiday table should be without the sweet potato—even if it is a sweet potato pie!
SWEET POTATO PIE
1 cup of cooked sweet potatoes, mashed
1 teaspoon of nutmeg
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1 cup of sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup of milk
1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
Pinch of salt
Combine mashed sweet potatoes with nutmeg, vanilla, sugar, beaten eggs, milk, baking powder and a pinch of salt and blend well. Pour into a 9-inch unbaked pie shell. Bake in preheated 400-degree oven about 30 minutes. Serve cold with whipped cream—they’ll never believe it isn’t pumpkin!
HINT OF THE MONTH: Cream whipped ahead of time will not separate if you add a touch of dissolved unflavored gelatin (1/4 teaspoon per cup of cream).
Marian Platt's regional narrative cookbook of Washington’s Sequim Valley, From My Kitchen Window, can be ordered by sending cash, check or money order for $25 (includes tax and handling/mailing costs) to Marian Platt, 434 Chicken Coop Rd., Sequim, WA 98382. Phone (360) 683-4691