You know that consummately un-green, late-winter feeling? The one you get from not having enough fresh vegetables in your refrigerator (not to mention your diet)?
If you're reading this from California or somewhere in the southern hemisphere, please skip directly to the recipe at the end of this post. For the rest of you, commiserate with me for a moment on the subject of winter vegetation, or lack thereof, in the colder nooks of the globe. Gone are the lively farmers markets of May through November, and everything leafy that crosses my path looks a bit limp from a recent cross-country or inter-hemispherical journey (I certainly am no locavore).
I'm not taking anything away from the deliciousness of certain cold-weather stars, like squash or cabbage. In fact, these hearty vegetables are some of my favorites. But with the more advanced months of winter (I was going to say "last" months of winter, but who are we kidding, here?) comes a kind of vegetable malaise that often results in cooking the same things over and over again. Squash: cubed and souped, cabbage: braised and stir-fried, cauliflower: roasted and curried, and spinach: frozen, frozen, frozen.
While I like - even love - these dishes, my winter vegetable situation lacks the spontaneity that I find in the summer, whether in the form of found objects at the market or an impromptu snack of fresh, raw peas straight from the pod. Eating vegetables in the winter takes time and planning, and tends to be fairly predictable.
So it's no small victory to find a new vegetable dish or a sassy tweak to an old standby that brightens up the table on a chilly February night. The dish I have in mind features the humble sweet potato, a wintry vegetable if ever there was one, and one that, I think, is unfairly stigmatized for its various Thanksgiving applications.
Believe it or not, sweet potatoes don't have to be relegated to their traditional buttery, maple-y, cinnamon-y role. They don't have to be sweetened (they're already pretty sweet as it is), they don't have to be mashed, and they certainly don't have to be dressed in warm spices.
We had a few friends for dinner last week, and the idea that popped into my mind was Greek-style oven fries, which are based on a dish I used to eat at a Greek restaurant near my parents' house that combines thick, fried cross-sections of potato with lemon, fresh herbs, and feta. How's that for sassy?
Well, there was no frying involved, and I added some sweet potato slices to the mix, but the results were wonderfully flavorful. I roasted the sweet potato slices with plenty of olive oil, herbs, and lemon juice, and upon serving, added a bit more lemon juice and a sprinkle of crumbled goat cheese. They were the perfect antidote to the winter vegetable blues, and they made the most fabulous leftovers-for-breakfast that I've had in a while.
The technique is pretty basic - similar to any other vegetable roasting - but the mix of flavors is what makes these oven fries special. I used fresh mint in addition to some dried herbs, but you could also use fresh oregano and dried mint, or add some dill - you get the idea. It's important not to skimp on the lemon juice here, as the tartness creates a welcome contrast to its starchy, sweet vehicle. And the cheese? Its saltiness makes the whole sweet-savory-sour combination complete. I like cutting nice round slices of sweet potato for these fries, which makes it easy to scoop up the herbs and cheese. I could also see adding leftover rounds to sandwiches (if you don't gobble them up straight, like I do).
In any case, this dish is proof that winter vegetable eating can be exotic and exciting, which is definitely a good thing. It's rather warm in Boston today, but I have a feeling spring is still quite a ways away. Enjoy!
Greek-style Sweet Potato Fries (serves 3-4 as a side, scale up as necessary)
2 large sweet potatoes
2 garlic cloves, pressed
juice of 1 juicy lemon, plus more for serving
1-2 tbs. chopped fresh mint
~1 tbs. mixed dried herbs (make sure there's some oregano in there!)
1/4 c. olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
crumbled goat cheese or feta for serving
Peel sweet potatoes, then slice crosswise into 1/4 in. slices. In a large bowl, combine sweet potato slices, oil, lemon juice, garlic, herbs, and salt and pepper, and mix to coat. Line a large baking sheet with foil and place sweet potato in a single layer on the sheet. Don't overlap slices; use two sheets if necessary. Roast in the oven at 400 degrees for 15-20 min., then flip slices and roast until golden brown and tender, about 15-20 min., more (In my super-fast oven, I roasted my potatoes for about 25 min. total. They are done when they have plenty of golden-brown spots on them and are soft and creamy on the inside). Serve with an extra squirt or two of lemon juice and a generous sprinkle of crumbled cheese.