Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sweet Potato Soup (and an ode to fall)

Since publishing last week's post (Apples, Nature's Delightful Bounty), I've had a number of requests for the Sweet Potato Soup recipe I briefly mentioned there.  This recipe in prticular and sweet potatoes in general seem appropriate now, as the nights have gotten cool and crisp and the fall colors here in central Virginia have begun to show.  And really, who isn't already making Thanksgiving plans?

An Ode to Fall (a serious digression)

 Every year I am absolutely mesmerized by this season.  It surprises and delights me each time it comes around (unlike the end of daylight savings time, which surprises  and annoys me).  I have yet to tire of the brilliant red and fiery orange of the maples, the rich scarlet of the dogwoods (usually the first to show), the crunchy, rust-colored leaves of the poplars and sycamores and the deep yellow-gold of the beeches.  Luminescent, iridescent, phosphorescent, I can't seem to get enough of it, I want to drink it, bathe in it.  And this is what I realized the other day - that the leaves in autumn seem to somehow, contrary to the laws of nature and physics, give off their own light.  I'm really not kidding.  As I drive to work in the barely-sunlit morning or drive home in the not-quite-dark dusk, the leaves glow, they practically shine, and not, mind you, from any reflected sunlight, but rather as if from within.  It's almost eerie but certainly astonishingly beautiful.  It's captivating really (and I do sometimes have to remind myself to keep my eyes on the road), an experience of nature I find completely compelling.
There is a particular stretch of road I drive almost daily that to me is the quintessence of fall color.  Route 6, where it straddles the Albemarle and Nelson county line is a state-designated "Scenic Byway" (a designation I'd agree with more if it weren't for the trash that's so often strewn along it).  For me it's about a 5-mile ride along Irish Road (as it's also called) and for much of it, the tall trees overhang it, their ends touching and overlapping the center in many places, no sky visible above.  It's beautiful in spring, of course, as the buds burst forth and the young green leaves begin to show themselves.  In summer too, I love the effect of driving through this long, dark, green tunnel, a worm-hole of dense vegetation.  But in October, it's magical.  It's like drifting, slowly, gently and effortlessly into a soft warm quilt; plush, deep and soothing.  It's an envelopment, a surrender. I can close my eyes and feel it embrace me.

Obviously my literary skill is not up to the task as adequately describing this.  Believe me, I've written many a lame poem about it in my attempt to somehow capture what I see.  My strategy here is clearly to just throw lots of descriptive words out and hope they stick. 
The other thing that struck me about fall this year as I've been watching the leaves turn for the past few days is its sort of yearning or waning quality.  If you think about it and give it its place in the cycle of the seasons (and see it in relation to all the other daily, life and cosmic cycles of which all life is a part), fall is, quite literally the dying time.  I'm not being morbid here.  It's the slow descent, like a late afternoon sunset, from the prime of summer, with all its heat, strength and vitality into the dark, quiet hibernation of winter.  I think that's perhaps why I'm drawn to it - there's a wistful something about it, a nostalgia, an obvious, but gradual, ending that is at once beautiful and sad.  It's kind of likr how my children make me cry sometimes.  No, not because they're being awful, but because they're so precious, guileless and innocent and yet I know how fleeting time is and I know that they will, soon enough, not be exactly what they are now.  I can't imagine there's not a parent who hasn't felt that.  Or maybe it's just me.  Maybe I just have a hard time with transitions.  I do, actually.  And speaking of transitions...
Back to Potatoes

Okay, okay, we get it, fall is here and I've got emotional issues, but isn't this a blog about food?  What about these damn sweet potatoes?  A brief word, then.

As humble as they may seem, making their quiet appearance in fall markets just in time for the Thanksgiving season, sweet potatoes are quite significant from a world-historical perspective (that's my thing now you know).  During the Neolithic Revolution, which began around 12,000 years ago, early humans in 6 or 7 different regions of the world, independently of each other, began for the first time to deliberately cultivate and domesticate wild plants.  It should be obvious to the reader here that this development radically altered the course of human history.  It's the event that marks the transition between the first human era (that of the hunter-gatherer) and the second, the agricultural era.  (We're of course in the third era, the industrial).  If you really want to see perhaps the best 9-minute summary of the Agricultural Revolution, watch this.  This guy is awesome.

Well it turns out that one of the crops grown by these earliest farmers (around 7000 B.C. in Highland New Guinea and 3000 B.C. in Sub-Saharan Africa) was the yam (not quite a sweet potato, but you get the picture - cultivation of the sweet potato proper dates to around 2000 B.C. in Mesoamerica and the Andes).  So the next time you bake, roast or puree one, stop to remind yourself that you're part of a (very) long line of humans that have been nourished by and enjoyed this food.  Comforting, isn't it?

Sweet Potato and Ginger Soup

Finally.  This recipe comes from a great cookbook, The Joy of Ginger, which I'm pretty sure I mentioned back when I wrote about ginger, here.  My wife loves when I make this, and I've made it for quite a few other people, all of whom have raved about it.

  • 6 cups cubed sweet potatoes
  • 3 1/2 cups stock (chicken, soy, vegetable)
  • 1 tbsp minced ginger
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 3 tbsp lime juice
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
  • 1/4 cup fresh coriander (cilantro)
  • 1 tsp lime zest
  • In a saucepan (or stockpot) combine sweet potatoes, stock and ginger and bring to a boil.  (the liquid should just cover the potatoes - use water if you don't have enough stock)
  • Reduce heat and cover.
  • Simmer for about 10 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.
  • Transfer to a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.  (Be careful!  It's hot!  You may need to do it in batches depending on how much you're making.  BIG TIP - use an immersion blender - I love mine, and this way you can just puree it in the pot.  You still have to be careful, though!)
  • Return to the saucepan (if you've used a blender) and whisk in coconut milk, lime juice and salt and pepper
  • Cook over low heat until just heated through
  • Ladle into individual bowls and garnish with almonds, coriander and lime zest
This soup is hearty and delicious.  It sticks to your ribs and warms you up - mm mm good!!!!  As a matter of fact, I feel a batch coming on this weekend!
Two important notes:
  1. I  have NEVER made this recipe exactly as shown above.  First of all, if I make soup I want to have leftovers.  Lots and lots of leftovers.  Heck, when I make this soup, I want to have at least a gallon to freeze for later (it freezes quite well, by the way).  So when I make it, I usually quadruple the recipe (that's 4 times for the mathematically challenged) and make it in my monster Calphalon 14-quart stockpot.  This is the stockpot which, when my wife and I opened it at the brunch the day after our wedding, made me squeal like a little girl.
  2. There's no way that 4 tablespoons, let alone 1 tablespoon, of ginger is enough, at least not for me.  I don't really measure, but when I quadruple the recipe, I'm sure I put in close to a cup, if not more.  And you don't really need to mince it since it all gets pureed.  I've found slicing it is fine.
Another great way to enjoy sweet potatoes is to make sweet potato pancakes (not latkes, just regular pancakes with sweet potatoes in them.  But that does remind me that I have a pretty good recipe for sweet potato latkes, too).  Anyway, puree the sweet potatoes (steam them in the microwave for about 10 minutes wrapped in wax paper, then break them up a bit, add some water and throw them in the blender - or better yet, use the immersion blender) and add the puree to your pancake batter (like my delicious fat-free vegan pancakes).  Great way to get kids to eat these super-nutritious tubers, because really, what kid doesn't like pancakes?
Well, happy fall again - eat well and be well!

1 comment:

  1. Love your "ode to fall" -- mother earth has sunken (sunk?) her teeth into you -- yeee haaa ... and sweet potatoes are one of my faves! I'm so hungry right now :)