Sunday, November 7, 2010

Kitchen Challenge: Warm Sweet Potato Salad

I make no bones about it: The sweet potato salad at Fat Casual BBQ is magnificent. With its combination of creamy and tender sweet potatoes, the fabulousness from the smoky bacon, and the amazingly tart dressing, I've said it before and I will say it again ... they really have a winner! Done in the style of a traditional warm German potato salad, I decided a few weeks ago to try my hand at making something similar, but with my own twist. I chose not to document my previous attempt because I was simply playing around in the kitchen, unsure of the final result. However, it turned out so well that I decided to recreate it today in order to serve it with dinner tonight for my grandmother and myself.

Being that today was the last outdoor market for the Howe Meadow Farmers Market (don't worry, the indoor market starts in just two weeks), I was curious to see what I could scrounge up from the vendors today. After my customary stop at Humble Pie Baking Company for my Ohio pumpkin pie (I'm getting a start on Thanksgiving early this year), I asked proprietor and friend Diane Sikorski if anyone at the market today was selling sweet potatoes. She directed me a few tents down where I found an abundance of multi-hued tubers just waiting to be bagged up. I also looked for onions, another of the few primary ingredients in the salad, but alas, I found none. Fortunately, on my way out, I spotted some gorgeous looking leeks and decided to substitute one for the other since they have such a similar taste.

I then stopped at the Giant Eagle supermarket closest to my grandmother's condominium to pick up the final few ingredients: bacon and fresh tarragon. Fortunately, Giant Eagle has started carrying nitrate-free bacon, so I picked up a 12 ounce package of that (you could certainly use regular bacon, too, but be aware that it usually comes in 16 ounce packages). While there was a single lone box of fresh tarragon in the herb section, it looked absolutely pathetic; "fresh" was not an adjective I would've used to describe it. As it turned out, just below the box of tarragon were plenty of boxes of fresh chervil (which has a similar anise flavor). After a quick search for the freshest looking box, I was out the door and back at grandma's, unpacking my goodies.

Here were the basic ingredients for the salad:

Sweet Potato Salad Ingredients

For the salad, I needed:

2 pounds of sweet potatoes (or yams)
1 large onion (or 2 good sized leeks, cleaned), diced
12 ounces bacon
1 package fresh tarragon (or chervil), chopped
Warm bacon dressing
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

To prep the sweet potatoes, I simply peeled them with a vegetable peeler and cut them into bite-sized pieces. I attempted to make them all a similar size so that they would finish cooking at the same time. For the bacon, I stuck the entire package in the freezer for about ten minutes to firm up the meat. This allowed me to quickly and easily slice across the strips without the bacon fat fighting with the knife:

Prepped Sweet Potatoes and Bacon
I placed the sweet potatoes into a pot of salted boiling water, turned it down to a simmer and cooked them until a paring knife could be inserted and removed easily. I made sure to keep the water at a gentle simmer so that the potatoes didn't break up as they cooked.

Simmering Sweet Potatoes
I then drained the potatoes and kept them aside in a large mixing bowl. At the same time that the potatoes were cooking, I started to cook the bacon in a large saute pan which had been pre-heating over a medium heat. The point of cooking the bacon was not only to get it crispy, but also to render out all of that wonderful bacon fat that I would use for the bacon vinaigrette.

Rendering Bacon
After the bacon was nicely crisped, I used a slotted spoon to remove the bacon from the pan while leaving the drippings behind. After the bacon was removed, I poured most of the bacon fat from the pan into a small glass dish (don't use plastic or it might melt) and reserved about 2 tablespoons of the fat in the pan. I then added the diced onions (or leeks) and a healthy pinch of salt and freshly cracked pepper (remember, bacon fat can be salty, so be judicious) and sauteed them until they were translucent and soft.

Sauteed Leeks
Here was a shot of the reserved bacon bits and the small bowl of lovely bacon fat from which I built the dressing for the salad:

Crispy Bacon and Rendered Fat
At this point my sweet potatoes, bacon, and leeks were cooked completely. To the cooked potatoes already in a large boil, I scraped in the contents of my saute pan and added about 3/4 of the crispy bacon bits:

Cooked Sweet Potatoes, Bacon, and Leeks
I next turned my attention to the warm bacon dressing. Here were the ingredients necessary (except for the chervil ... somehow that managed to get in the shot, too):

Dressing Ingredients
For the dressing, I needed:

1/3 cup bacon fat
1/3 cup sherry vinegar (red or white wine would also work well)
1 fat spoonful of Dijon mustard
1-2 teaspoon honey
salt and pepper to taste (be careful with the salt as the bacon fat can be salty)

The goal for the vinaigrette was balance: sweet, salty, smoky, and tangy. Use my numbers as a jumping off point for how you prefer it. Place the contents into a small mason jar and give it a good shake, or do what I did and simply whisked them together in a mixing bowl. With the dressing finished, I added all of it to the bowl with the potatoes, onions/leeks, and bacon. I then threw in a handful of chopped tarragon (chervil) and with a large wooden spoon, GENTLY tossed the mixture to combine. Because the sweet potatoes only absorbed some of the seasoning from the salted boiling water, I needed to adjust the salt and pepper to get the final salad where it needed to be.

Here was a shot of the finished salad, tossed to perfection:

Finished Warm Sweet Potato Salad
Et voila! You are done and can happily serve this right away (to what I am sure will be a very eager and hungry crowd), or you can let the flavors sit and marry overnight in the refrigerator. I would, however, let it at least come to room temperature before serving it the next day. This will easily make between 4 and 6 servings, depending on how hungry your guests are and what else you are serving.

Tonight we paired the warm sweet potato salad with some homemade Sloppy Joes (or, as my friend Judy suggested, Untidy Josephs) and a nice cup of mixed fruit:

Dinner with Grandma
And, of course, I couldn't leave you stranded without the gratuitous close-up shot of just the potato salad:

Gratuitous Close-Up
Bon appetit!


BONNIE K said...

This looks wonderful! Your lucky grandma!

Tino said...

I have a funny feeling that this salad may make its way onto our Thanksgiving Day table this year instead of the more traditional baked yams.

Mahala said...

What a fabulous fall side dish and a great new way to use sweet potatoes. I love 'em, but run out of interesting ways to make them. This gets 5 stars!

Kay said...

Looks FABULOUS, Tom! Yum! My fiance' would LUV this!

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