I don’t know about you, but it’s going to take me a while to remember what true wanderlust feels like. The last two years, painful and disorienting as they have been, have seen most of us lean hard into comfort and familiarity, both in our daily activities and our cooking.
So, we enter, perhaps more eagerly than we should, the season that calls for maniacally luxurious mac and cheese and stews laden with meat and wine. For me, it means anything I can smother with gravy, even though this instinct never really aligns with the idea that the new year is a time to reset and refine, both mentally and physically.
Last month, we set out on a road trip to visit my mother in New Mexico, trying our best to eat and drink both well and safely along the way. It was nice to be out in the world again, seeing the hills and valleys, the rivers and lakes, the dive bars and convenience stores. It was also weird in some ways. It’s been a long time since I took a drive across America, and it’s gotten intense out there.
We did find the best turnip greens I’ve ever eaten in Little Rock, Ark.; perfectly baked fish in an Oxford, Miss. meat-and-three; and enough good bourbon to last the winter (probably). As always, near the end of a trip like this, I found myself eager to get home. I was ready to sleep in our bed, cook our own meals, and recognize the folks in the grocery store.
While we drove (you kind of can’t imagine how long that drive is), we listened to podcasts — mostly about either food or movies. At some point, in episode 10 of her podcast “Home Cooking,” Samin Nosrat, the author of the amazing cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, recommended that we all start steaming sweet potatoes. She admitted that she had almost always roasted sweet potatoes in slices until they go brown and crisp at the edges, but that trying this method once had made her a believer.
Steaming is not the sexiest cooking method. We usually think of it as a punishment, like a juice cleanse or calorie-counting. But I am here to tell you that Samin is right. An alchemy occurs when you steam a sweet potato that makes it both fluffy and custardy at the same time. The flavor is ultra-concentrated, the texture is ethereal, and it’s really, really hard to screw up.
There are only two mistakes you can make steaming sweet potatoes. The first: undercooking the potatoes — depending on the size of the potato, they should take somewhere between 30 and 50 minutes. Longer is better; it takes a lot to over-steam a potato, and you want these to be completely soft. The second: scorching your pot, which is exactly what I did the first time I made these. Keep a kettle nearby to top up the steaming water when you check on the potatoes.
The fact that you haven’t imparted any fat in the cooking process gives you a little extra wiggle room with the acceptable decadence of your topping. The first time I made these, I creamed salted butter and white miso paste together, then added a little lime zest and juice. It was one of the saltiest things I’ve ever tasted, and I was afraid I messed up big-time by using salted butter in addition to the salty miso.
But then, we slathered our steamed sweet potatoes with it, and the balance between the unbelievably sweet, tender flesh, the umami blast of the butter, and the acidic zip of the lime made all three of my dinner companions look solemnly at me and say, “Dude, these sweet potatoes.”
Has anyone ever said that about your sweet potatoes? No? Well, it’s a new year, darlings. Don’t punish yourselves with a juice cleanse — steam a sweet potato and find a new comfort food.
Steamed Sweet Potatoes With Miso-Lime Butter
2 sweet potatoes
1 Tbsp. white miso paste
1 Tbsp. salted butter, softened completely
Zest of 1 lime
Juice of ½ lime
Roasted sesame seeds* and cilantro for garnish
Steam sweet potatoes in a bamboo steamer or steamer basket (or just a metal colander set into a pot it fits in) for 30 to 50 minutes, or until completely fork tender all the way through. After 30 minutes, check on them every 10 minutes or so.
Mix the butter and miso paste together until well combined and fluffy. Add the lime zest and juice.
To serve, carefully split the hot potatoes open, top with lime butter, sesame seeds, and cilantro.
*I keep a container of roasted sesame seeds in my fridge at all times — I usually find them in the Asian foods aisle of my supermarket. If you can’t find them, you can just toast regular sesame seeds in a pan until they just start to brown and smell toasty. But watch them carefully — they burn really easily!