Winter’s last gasp (I hope)

Being gooled again by the pink blossoms and daffodils into thinking it’s spring makes the 30-degree weather we have now that much worse. It will be gone soon, but in the meantime this soup can brighten your outlook. North Carolina is the nation’s No. 1 producer of sweet potatoes – now, don’t say you didn’t learn anything today. The cold weather brought this soup back into my cooking lineup. You know how you forget about recipes sometimes – I’d forgotten how good this one is, and that it’s such a crowd pleaser. Make it vegetarian by substituting water for the chicken broth. You can peel and boil the sweet potatoes, but I prefer to roast them because roasting deepens the flavor – and you can do that part a day ahead.

Spiced Sweet Potato Soup

Makes 6 servings

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, olive oil or ghee

1 cup chopped onions

1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala or curry powder

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 pounds sweet potatoes, cooked and mashed

3 cups chicken broth or water

1 (5.46-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk

Salt to taste

Juice of 1/2 of a fresh lime

Chopped toasted pecans

Put a large pot on medium heat and add the butter, olive oil or ghee. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until they are brown, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger, garam masala or curry powder, cinnamon and garlic, and cook for about 10 seconds.

Add the cooked sweet potatoes and chicken broth or water. Remove the pot from the heat and use a stick blender to puree until smooth. (Alternatively, cool down the mixture and pour carefully into a blender to puree, then return it to the pot.) Return the pot to medium heat, stir in the coconut milk and heat until it is steaming hot. Taste, then add salt, and stir in the lime juice. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes. When serving, garnish each bowl with chopped pecans.

Forget about cookies

Those of you who think the job is done when a writer pushes the send button on the final copy of the final version of a book, and the manuscript travels down the Internet tubes to the publisher, are living in a sugarplum fairyland. No, my friends with sensible jobs – the work is just beginning at that point. Because after the delight of seeing the shiny covers and inhaling the fresh-paper smell of a box of just-printed books with my name on them comes the work of persuading other people to love them as much as I do and to open their wallets in expression of that adoration. It’s called sales. And most writers became writers to avoid that sort of labor (and to stay far away from math).

Because my newest book, “Southern Holidays: A Savor the South Cookbook” is about – duh – holidays, the past few months have been busy. I had the fun of writing in the book about holidays throughout the year, but the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s vortex is, naturally, a big focus.

The variety of book signing called a “sit-and-sign” can be dismal or delightful. The dismal ones are when I sit behind a stack of my creations and a plate of samples for two hours and hardly anyone walks by. At those, I feel like the perfume girls who used to work at department stores pursuing and attempting to spritz fleeing passersby.

(About those samples. John Grisham can show up with just a pen and his wit. But, no, a cookbook author must bring the snacks, too.)

But I enjoy even most sit-and-signs, because I am able to talk to people all day long, if I have to, and have little shame. And because, with luck, they’re highly entertaining, especially during the holiday season.

At a signing I did recently at Southern Season in Chapel Hill, N.C., the very helpful staff prepared the samples for me (usually I have to do it and haul them from home). They chose a recipe from the Hanukkah section of the book, Sweet Potato Latkes. I had to explain to several curious children what latkes were. In one case, they didn’t get it until I finally said, “They’re like french fries,” and the kids dug in.

I thought Santa Claus had already come after one shopper decided that six signed and personalized copies of my book would take care of the rest of his shopping. Then I saw an actual Santa and Mrs Claus, who were walking down the aisle in front of me, posing with kids for their parents’ raised cellphones. In my best imitation-Jewish-mother voice, I called out, “Hey, Santa, you want a latke?” The dark eyes below the hat brightened, and he grabbed a sample, lifted his beard and ate it up. “Those are good,” Santa said. I swear it’s true, even though I wasn’t able to grab my cellphone camera and verify it.

So, kids, now you know what Santa really wants you to leave him on Christmas Eve.

Sweet Potato Latkes

This recipe from “Southern Holidays: A Savor the South Cookbook” by Debbie Moose, published by UNC Press, uses sweet potatoes instead of the usual white potatoes for the traditional Hanukkah dish. They go especially well with applesauce on top. Grate the onion and potatoes in a food processor to make things go even easier.

2 cups coarsely grated peeled sweet potatoes

1 small onion, coarsely grated

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Vegetable oil

Applesauce and sour cream

In a large bowl, combine the sweet potatoes, onion, eggs, flour, salt, chili powder and cinnamon.Heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium heat.

Scoop out about 2 tablespoons of the sweet potato mixture per latke and place in the hot oil. Don’t crowd the pan so the oil will stay hot. Press the patties gently with the back of a spoon to flatten them out. Fry, turning once, until browned on both sides.

Drain on a wire rack placed over a platter for a few minutes, then transfer to a paper towel-lined platter and keep warm in the oven while you fry  the remaining latkes. Serve with applesauce and sour cream.

Makes 4 servings

The elusive sonker

Everyone thinks that the official food of North Carolina should be barbecue, but I disagree. Our state’s most original food is the sonker.

Never heard of it? Neither had the New York Times, where the origin and definition of sonker baffled writer Kim Severson in this article.

Sonker is not a slump, grunt or any of those other unattractively named fruit-based desserts. Nor is it a fussy, biscuit-topped cobbler. Pie? Absolutely not. And it would never carry so common a name as Betty.

Sonker is unique to Surry County, N.C., in the foothills, and those who were raised there. Over time, they have acquired cobbler- or pie-like qualities, but true sonker is different. My expert source on sonker is “North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery” By Beth Tartan, the late longtime food writer in Winston-Salem, N.C. (my hometown). The book, which was first published in 1955, contains historical information and recipes primarily from the foothills area and the Moravian community of Winston-Salem. A new edition was published in 1992 by University of North Carolina Press.

Beth Tartan (the pen name of Elizabeth Hedgecock Sparks) is pretty clear on sonker. Although no one knows its exact origins, she writes, “Like other items made with dough, chances are a thrifty cook simply put together biscuit or other dough and fruit or sweet potatoes to make a dessert.”

Yes, sweet potatoes. When I interviewed the organizers of Mt. Airy’s annual sonker festival a couple of years ago, they said that sweet potato is the traditional sonker flavor. It’s served with a topping of sugar and milk typically called a “dip,” for some reason. My thought about the sweet potatoes is that, in the days before refrigeration, fruit was perishable. Sweet potatoes would keep even through the winter, and were available to be turned into a dessert.

Tartan’s book adds that sonkers are traditionally large, meant to feed a crowd of farm hands. They are baked in deep pans, and chock-full of filling with a lesser amount of dough.

Try a traditional sonker with this recipe from Tartan’s book. It’s from someone referred to as the “Julia Child of sonker.”

Maxine Dockery’s Sweet Potato Sonker

6 to 8 sweet potatoes

3 to 4 cups sugar

3 to 4 cups self-rising flour

1/2 pound (1 cup) butter

Pastry to cover top of pan

Topping

Use a baking pan 11 by 13 inches and 3 or more inches deep. Cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of sliced sweet potatoes. Sprinkle with sugar and flour and dot with butter. Continue making layers until the pan is filled. top with a layer of pastry. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 40  minutes or until the pastry is done.

Topping: Stir 1/2 cup or more of granulated sugar into 1 to 2 cups sweet milk. Heat, stirring. Remove from heat and add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Pour the hot topping over the hot sonker. Serve warm.

A spicy sprinkle

I baked some sweet potato fries the other night. I love them, but they do not get crispy like deep-fried fries. They stay a little soft in the middle, but they’re still great. It’s just part of who they are. Cutting the potatoes no more than half an inch thick helps with crispiness, as does keeping the skins on.

I gave them extra oomph with this spicy salt. I don’t heavily salt my food, so I like it to count. This blend, based on a recipe from “Fast, Fresh and Green” by Susie Middleton (Chronicle Books, 2010) could be used on white potatoes, or even grilled salmon or chicken. I used a Hawaiian salt, but any kosher or sea salt would do.

Spicy Seasoning Salt

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon strong spicy cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cardamom

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon paprika (regular or smoked)

Combine everything in a small bowl. Store in a covered glass jar.

The story of Sweet Potatoes

I have to like a cookbook that starts with the dessert recipes. It indicates an author who has her priorities straight. And that’s how “Well, Shut My Mouth!: The Sweet Potatoes Restaurant Cookbook” by Stephanie L. Tyson (John F. Blair, $19.95) begins.

I met Chef Tyson and her life and business partner, Vivian Joyner, several years ago at their popular restaurant in the arts district of Winston-Salem, N.C. It’s taken until now for them to get a book together because, well, they’ve been a little busy. The book’s introduction describes the winding road that Tyson and Joyner took which ended in opening the restaurant in 2003. It’s a little long for cookbook intros, but worth the read, because it gives a good sense of how difficult the process is – particularly for minority women.

The recipe for the sweet potato biscuits that I remember from my visit is in the book. As are recipes for such things as Cheerwine-Glazed Country Ham and Sweet Potato, Corn and Country Ham Risotto. Tyson also includes a plea for readers to fry their own chicken – right on. And the lead-off desserts? Lots of pies, in keeping with the casual, homey nature of the restaurant.

Most of the recipes seem accessible, with a few exceptions that might require some time. One is the intriguing Three Little Pigs: Pork loin wrapped in bacon and stuffed with chopped barbecue. Sounds like turducken for pig lovers.

Tyson will hold book signings in the Triangle area in September: McIntyre’s Fine Books at Fearrington in Pittsboro, N.C., Sept. 4, 2 p.m.; Barnes & Noble in Cary, N.C., Sept. 13, 7 p.m.; and Southwest Regional Library in Durham, N.C., Sept. 25, 3 p.m. She will do a signing and cooking demo at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Sept. 3, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

From sweet potatoes to chocolate

Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. That’s what everyone talks about for Valentine’s Day. And I have absolutely no problem with that. None. As long as it’s dark chocolate. Send it on over.

White chocolate is not chocolate, so don’t start with me. I believe that you could save yourself the calories and just eat the wrapper the white chocolate came in – it has just as much flavor.

If you’re looking for an appetizer before the chocolate, I made some baked sweet potato fries for lunch today. Baked sweet potatoes will stay moist, so don’t expect the super-crunchy texture of conventional fries. But the spicy sprinkle and dipping sauce add even more flavor. This recipe is from “Fast, Fresh & Green” by Susie Middleton (Chronicle Books, 2010).

Sweet Potato Mini-Fries with Limey Dipping Sauce and Spiced Salt

1 pound unpeeled sweet potatoes

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Spiced Salt: 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander, 1/4 teaspoon paprika

Limey Dipping Sauce: 1/3 cup mayonnaise, 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lime zest, 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic, pinch of kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Line a large rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper.

Cut the sweet potatoes crosswise on a slight diagonal into 3/8-inch slices. Cut each slice lengthwise into sticks between 1/4 and 3/8 inch wide. Put the sticks in a mixing bowl and combine thoroughly with the olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt. spread the sweet potatoes out in one layer on the baking sheet, making sure to scrape all the oil and salt from the bowl onto them.

Roast for 20 minutes. Using a spatula, flip the sticks over and continue cooking, flipping once or twice more, until the fries are nicely browned, about 10 minutes more.

Make the Limey Dipping Sauce: Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl, let sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Make the Spiced Salt: Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl.

Sprinkle some of the Spiced Salt on the fries (be generous), toss well and serve with the dipping sauce.

Serves 3 to 4.

From pizza to sweet ‘taters

When I was in college, back when dinosaurs walked the earth, all I asked about the location of my food was that it be near my hand and not make me pull out a lot of dollars. And the closest thing to an actual recipe in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel was a coupon for Pizza Transit Authority. Now, the DTH has a food column written by junior Alex Walters and senior Blair Mikels. In this entry, the pair fail in their attempt to steal sweet potatoes, but eat well anyway.

The column is another sign of increased awareness about food and its sources on area campuses. According to the column, UNC-CH also has a campus garden. And several campuses, including N.C. State University, have on-campus farmers markets.