The Kitchen Garden
Be It Ever So Humble
Sweet potatoes and apples, the perfect pair
By Jan Leitschuh
Come November, when the days (finally!) can crisp up and take on a chill, I crave a favorite fall dish. It’s a superstar in our household for four simple reasons: It’s simple to make; it’s seasonal; it’s highly nutritious; and it tastes splendid. It’s a humble dish, but so very satisfying on so many levels.
Perhaps you’d like a crack at it, too.
The recipe pairs two iconic fall superstars, sweet potatoes and apples, and the resulting marriage blends as comfortingly as turkey and stuffing. You can make a big dish of it at the beginning of the week and spoon it onto your plate as a side dish (or, dessert) all week.
Sweet potatoes and apples — one is a root vegetable, and one is a fruit. Just use regular old orange sweet potatoes and any apples. I’m especially fond of Granny Smiths and Honeycrisps in this dish, but often use several varieties — whatever is available. The recipe is simple: Chop up some of both, drizzle with some wet stuff and spices, and roast until soft and bubbly. More on that later.
Of course, this simple dish is not Thanksgiving-worthy, but only because every family has their own iconic dishes to trot out each Turkey Day. Otherwise, sweet potatoes-and-apples are the belly-filling, late-fall dish at our house, great to serve with pork, turkey leftovers, grilled cranberry and Brie sandwiches or just by itself.
We know we’re supposed to eat five to nine fruits and vegetables a day for better health. I find this dish a most pleasant option to knock out at least two.
Apples are rich in gut-friendly pectin, according to the North Carolina Apple Growers Association. Pectin and mild acids found in apples help fight body toxins, aid digestion and pep up the whole system. Pectin also has been associated with helping to keep cholesterol levels in balance and is significant in helping to reduce the incidence of certain types of heart disease.
And, as we approach cold season, November is the time to consume apples. Studies have demonstrated a correlation between regular apple consumption and a reduced incidence of colds and other upper respiratory ailments. The old saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” has its roots in fact.
Sweet potatoes are full of soluble and insoluble fiber — good for gut health — and packed with vitamins, too. Incredibly rich in beta-carotene, the antioxidant responsible for the vegetable’s bright orange color, sweet potatoes promote eye health and support the immune system. In fact, one cup of baked orange sweet potato, with skin, provides more than seven times the amount of beta-carotene than the average adult needs per day
So much for health. Then there’s the seasonal/local aspect.
You couldn’t eat more local. For almost 50 years, North Carolina has been the top sweet potato-producing state in the nation. While we may wilt in heat and humidity, the humble sweet potato thrives. In 2016, North Carolina dug and marketed over 1.7 billion pounds of sweet potatoes, nearly three times as many as California — the second highest producing state. North Carolina grows more sweet potatoes than the rest of the United States combined.
And the Tar Heel State holds its own with apples, too. North Carolina ranks seventh nationally in apple production. North Carolina growers favor apple varieties such as Rome, Golden Delicious, and Delicious, Fuji, Gold Rush, Honeycrisp, Jonagold and Pink Lady. Up to 4 million bushels of apples can be produced in a given year. How about them apples?
As for taste, these two fall friends not only marry well, they invite others to share their autumnal happiness. At various times, with a free hand, I have tossed in a number of other additions that really upped the flavor quotient, nutrition and/or visual interest.
To the chopped (or cubed, or sliced) dish I have added, variously, a drizzle of maple, sugar-free ginger syrup, or honey. Some prefer brown sugar — or no sweetener at all. For fall spices, I like cinnamon (especially with a tiny dash of warming cayenne to kick up the heat), fresh or chopped crystallized ginger, or pumpkin-pie spice — even a little curry or chai spice, if I’m feeling adventurous.
Chopped orange peel (not the white pith, but the outer orange rind) also adds a nice variety and flavor. Even crumbled bacon adds a compatible twist.
For variety, I might top with roasted pecans or walnuts, or throw in a handful or two of fresh, washed cranberries. A can of Mandarin oranges mixes in well with the basics too.
Cautious cook? Give yourself permission to experiment with this dish and your favorite flavors. Mix and match — combine ginger-orange, say, or maple-pecan, or even cranberry-walnut.
In our house, we top the whole shebang with dabs of butter or coconut oil — hey, it’s fall, and it’s chilly! — but you may prefer a non-fatty apple cider or orange juice to get things bubbling and the flavors mixing. Near the end of the cooking, you could even add a splash of bourbon, rum, Calvados or Grand Marnier to class up the humble fall fare.
This is one of those dishes that tastes better and better as the days move along. By the third day the flavors have married so well, and we eat it so heartily, it’s time to make another batch.
So, chop up some sweets and apples, and toss them in the oven to roast. Still want a recipe? Here is a good starting point, from Bon Apetit magazine. Adjust it to fit your tastes. The basic recipe is very forgiving — and tastes just like fall.
Maple-Roasted Sweet Potatoes
3 pounds orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (about 3 very large), peeled and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
1 3/4 pounds tart green apples, (or any apples), peeled, halved, cored, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
3/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup apple cider
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 375°F. In 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish, alternate potato and apple slices in rows, packing tightly. Combine remaining ingredients in heavy medium saucepan and bring to boil over high heat. Pour hot syrup over potatoes and apples. Cover dish tightly with foil and bake 1 hour. Uncover casserole. (Can be prepared 3 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature, basting occasionally with pan juices.)
Reduce temperature to 350°F. Bake until potatoes and apples are very tender and syrup is reduced to thick glaze, basting occasionally, about 45 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes. PS
Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table cooperative.