The months of October and November are packed with festivals of all kinds in the South,
“When the leaves turn golden, red and brown
spin in the air and fall on the ground
when the moon turn yellow and the hoot owl fly,
Grandma make my sweet potato pie.” ~ Carrie Higgins
The months of October and November are packed with festivals of all kinds in the South, from music festivals to harvest celebrations to wine trails. I recently had the pleasure of being a guest judge for a sweet potato baking contest during a small-town festival in East Texas. It was called the Golden Sweet Potato Festival, in the tiny town of Golden, home of the popular country artist Kacey Musgraves.
The festival celebrates the sweet and abundant crop of sweet potatoes that emerge from the dirt in that part of Texas. Golden sweet potatoes truly are deliciously sweet and have a creamy texture, as opposed to the stringy texture some have. They’re so good that Oprah added them to her “Favorite Things” Christmas list a few years ago.
I was excited to get to judge the sweet potato baking competition at the festival. Southern cooks creating treats with their town’s famous crop seemed like a great opportunity for me to try some new ways to prepare sweet potatoes while meeting a lot of wonderful small-town folks. What a perfect way to spend a fall weekend!
I arrived at the judging station, met the two other judges, and got down to business. We tasted numerous sweet potato pies, sweet potato cheesecake bars, sweet potato cupcakes, sweet potato bundt cakes, and more. The winning entry was a sweet potato gooey-butter cake, and it was perfectly delicious and chewy. Had I not been so full of all the other tastes of sweet potato this and sweet potato that, I’d have been inclined to finish the whole piece of that cake.
When the contest was over, my sister, two of my sons and I wandered around the festival to see what everyone was selling. It’s always fun to see what the local artisans bring to festivals, which ranged that day from handmade jewelry to hand-painted “Merry Christmas” signs to jams and relishes made by local ladies. We tasted cinnamon-sweet potato ice cream from a local cafe, and it was incredible., like a creamy sweet potato pie in frozen form. Heavenly.
We went home after a fun afternoon, and of course I brought home with me a full box of sweet potatoes I purchased from a local farmer, still nicely coated in the soil he grew them in. I’ve used them for baked potatoes, I’ve mashed some with cinnamon and butter, I’ve had some cubed and roasted and topped with a sunny-side up egg, and various other things. I still have plenty of them left for Thanksgiving dinner, when I will actually make my mom’s marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole with some. It’s not Thanksgiving dinner without it!
Obviously, most folks think about sweet potato pie and casserole first and foremost when it comes to cooking with sweet potatoes, but these glorious orange root vegetables lend so much flavor to savory dishes that it’s a shame if they're not being used that way, too.
Here are two of my favorite sweet potato recipes that you can easily make in your own kitchen. Believe it or not, neither of them include cinnamon or marshmallows, and I think you'll be fine with that when you try them!
Cheddar-sweet potato grits
• 1/2 cup old-fashioned grits (you can also use quick grits; NEVER instant.)
• 2 cups water
• 1 tablespoon salted butter
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 cup cream or half and half
• 2/3 cup grated cheddar cheese
• 2/3 cup cooked mashed sweet potato (about one small potato)
1. Combine water and salt in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Whisk in grits, then turn burner to low, and cover the pan, leaving lid ajar for steam to escape. Stir occasionally during cooking, about 15 minutes for old-fashioned grits.
(Note: Consult your package for actual cooking time, especially if using stone-ground grits, which take much longer to cook, and will typically need more liquid.)
2. When grits are done, stir in butter and mashed sweet potato, whisking or stirring until the grits are smooth. Add cream, and whisk in, followed by the grated cheese.
3. Taste for saltiness; you might want a bit more salt if the cheese doesn’t add enough for your liking.
Serve while hot , dividing among four bowls; if desired, top with a sunny side-up egg. These grits be reheated in the microwave, or in saucepan with a bit of added liquid to loosen.
Alternate recipe idea: Omit cheese and make a sweet breakfast form of grits by adding a bit of cinnamon and a drizzle of maple syrup when serving.
Now, breakfast is over, so let’s have some soup for lunch! Sweet potatoes work wonderfully here, too. Make sure to cut them into small cubes for this soup, so they’ll become tender quickly.
Sweet potato-kale soup with sausage
* 1 tablespoon olive oil
* 1 large onion, diced
* 2 cloves garlic, minced (or use 2 teaspoons jarred garlic)
* 1 pound bulk Italian sausage (hot or mild)
* 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (optional)
* 4 cups sweet potatoes, cut into small dice
* 4 cups chicken broth
* 4 cups chopped kale or other greens
* 1 cup small pasta shells or small elbows
* salt and pepper
* Grated parmesan cheese
1. Heat the oil in Dutch oven or large soup pot. Add onions and garlic, and saute until onions are translucent.
2. Add the ground sausage and red pepper flakes, if using, and cook until no pink remains in the meat.
3. Add the diced sweet potatoes, broth, 2 cups water, and bring to a boil.
4. Add pasta, and cook for 4 minutes. Reduce pot to a gentle simmer.
5. Add greens, and simmer soup until pasta is tender and greens are wilted. (four or five minutes.)
Top with grated Parmesan and croutons, if desired.
I hope these recipes inspire you to try something new, so you can enjoy the savory side of sweet potatoes, too!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph". She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who can eat a sweet potato pie in one sitting. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she'd love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.