Adam Erace Adam Erace battles adult on-set diabetes and cankles as the restaurant critic for the Philadelphia City Paper. He also writes about food and travel for publications like Details, Fodor's and Southern Living. He lives in South Philly with his wife, Charlotte, and two rescue mutts, Lupo and Marco.
Each month, Adam Erace picks a crop that’s in season locally right this very minute and asks some of the city’s best chefs how they’re preparing it. This month, we’ve got a super-sized edition featuring sweet potatoes—plus four chef-tested recipes to get you started.
Our In Season column is dedicated to the strange, the exotic, the unusual produce that grows in the Delaware Valley; natural oddities like the tropical paw paw, husk-sheathed cape gooseberry and spiraling Romanesco. Never something as common as a sweet potato. Yet here we are, in the thick of a whole cover package dedicated to Ipomoea batatas. It might not be as sexy as a wineberry, as weird as scorzonera or as crazy as cardoons, but there’s no denying the appeal of this humble, delicious root — especially at this time of year.
“Being a Southern restaurant, it’s almost required that we serve sweet potatoes,” says Rex 1516 chef Justin Swain, who turns the orange vegetable into fries, cookies and a bourbon-spiked, brown-sugar mash all year long. But it’s not until the weather chills that he breaks out his sweet-potato panna cotta topped with tart cranberry preserves and cinnamon-cookie crumbles. “I specialed it for New Year’s Eve last year and I loved it so much, I kept it filed away in the back of my head till fall.”
Swain steeps his panna cotta base with pumpkin-pie spices, then folds in the sweet-potato puree. “People expect those spices in a fall dessert, and sweet potatoes make a great alternative to pumpkin, which I find to be an overused cliché. Plus, sometimes you need a little savory in your desserts.”
Hence the soul-food staple sweet-potato pie, which former Industry chef Pat Szoke riffs on at his new Alla Spina post, with roasted-sweet-potato puree in a chef Marco Pierre White tart dough, topped with a tower of brûléed cinnamon marshmallow. “They add a natural sweetness that people don’t expect,” Szoke says. “And they’re good for ya.”
Rich in fiber, beta-carotene, vitamins, manganese and potassium, sweet potatoes are nutritional powerhouses. “They also have … a gazillion percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin A,” says Rachel Klein, whose Miss Rachel’s Pantry vegan catering clients go nuts for her sweet-potato lasagna.
Sweet potatoes are staple crops in African and Asian countries, where the leaves as well as the tubers are eaten. At brand-new BYOB Laurel, Nick Elmi accents Jersey wolffish with fresh sweet-potato leaves, sweet-potato-leaf puree and grilled fingerling sweets. “The greens taste like a stronger spinach,” says the Top Chef contestant, who started working with the vines after discovering them at Washington Avenue’s Huong Vuong supermarket. “I like taking one ingredient and highlighting it in a couple different ways.”
“For me, sweet potatoes are a quintessential vegetable of fall,” says Russet’s Andrew Wood. “They are sweet and earthy, and pair very well with the rich, savory meats of autumn.” Or just with their underground buddies, as in the root-veggie pot pie chock full of sweets, turnips and carrots on Wood’s current menu. And they’ll only get better: “As the season goes on and the sugars from the rest of the plant are stored in the root to supply enough energy to survive the winter, the quality of potato improves. They bring to mind all the warm spices of winter, holidays and family.”
While elaborate lasagnas and complex pot pies are impressive, sweet potatoes are just as satisfying solo. “They’re naturally sweet and approachable, and you don’t have to do a whole to them,” says Szoke.
We’d never argue with that, but we’ll take the tart just the same. Fortunately, it’s not going anywhere: “It took me quite a few tries to get it right,” says Szoke, “so it will hopefully be around for the next couple months.” Wonder if he’ll take Thanksgiving orders.
French fare done just right by Bibou's Pierre and Charlotte Calmels
Most 21st-century parents have one or two kids. Pierre and Charlotte Calmels have five. Roll call:...
The week in eats
Pizza & Beer Happy Hour at Nomad Roman, Thu., March 6, 4:30-6:30 p.m., pay as you go ...
New restaurants and cafes
Baker’s Jar | We’re happy to say that the cupcake’s moment in the sun has passed. The...