To me, sweet potatoes are exotic. My mom didn’t like them and rarely served sweet potatoes when I was a kid, so I didn’t discover them until I was an adult. Now I’m glad I did, as they are one of my favorites. Traditional holiday meals often feature sweet potato casseroles topped with marshmallows. For me, that casserole is just too sweet and is ready to be replaced with a side dish that plays up the savory side of sweet potatoes.
I encountered this sweet potato gratin recipe while traveling in Virginia. The waiter gave me a sketch of the recipe and I experimented at home. I never would have thought to combine thyme and sweet potatoes, but these flavors go well together.
This past Christmas our big family get-together featuring ham with the following sweet potato side dish was a winner. This is not nearly as sweet as the traditional casserole, and is really quite easy to make. Give it a try:
Sweet Potato Gratin
4 medium sweet potatoes
¼ cup butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried French thyme
½ cup pure maple syrup (not pancake syrup)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Wash and peel the sweet potatoes. Using a mandolin grater or food processor, slice the sweet potatoes into very thin, circular slices. Using butter-flavored cooking spray or additional butter, grease the bottom and sides of a round 9-inch pie plate. Combine salt, pepper and thyme in a small dish. Place one-third of the sweet potatoes in the bottom of the pie plate. Sprinkle one-third of the salt mixture over the sweet potatoes. Add another third of the sweet potatoes and sprinkle another third of the salt mixture over the sweet potatoes in the pie plate. Thinly slice the butter and place pats of butter over the top of the salt mixture on the sweet potatoes. Use half of the butter.
Finish by placing the remainder of the sweet potatoes in the pie plate and press down on the potatoes, adjusting them to get a flat surface. Sprinkle the last third of the salt mixture over the sweet potatoes and dot with the remaining butter. Pour the maple syrup over the top of the sweet potatoes filling in any gaps in the potatoes with the syrup. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes or until the potatoes are soft when tested with a fork. Remove from oven and let sit for a minute or two before slicing into six or eight pie-shaped pieces. Serves six to eight as a side dish.
For a more savory sweet potato side dish, try this combination with leeks and garlic in a similar side dish:
In a sauté pan on the stove, heat one to two tablespoons of olive oil with three finely chopped cloves garlic, two medium leeks finely sliced with the green tops, and two tablespoons of fresh herbs including thyme, rosemary, Italian flat-leaf parsley and/or oregano.
Sauté vegetables until tender, stirring occasionally. Peel and slice the sweet potatoes as in the first recipe, placing one-third in the bottom of a 9-inch round greased pie plate. Place half of the leek mixture over the sweet potatoes. Add one-third sweet potatoes, top with remaining leek mixture, and finish with remaining sweet potatoes. Top with salt and pepper to taste and pour ½-cup vegetable or chicken stock over the sweet potatoes filling in any gaps in the potatoes with the stock. Bake as above until potatoes are tender when tested with a fork.
The second option features leeks, which need to be well washed before use, as they are usually sandy. If leeks are not available, substitute a sweet onion or shallots. Don’t save sweet potatoes for a holiday meal; try these side dishes with any combination of main dish options, or try serving large slices of the sweet potato “pie” as a main dish with a tossed green salad and crusty bread for a meatless Monday dinner.
Carolyn Eichin owns B Street House Bed and Breakfast in Virginia City.