Dear Rustic Plate:
I am awash with anxiety. My little Johnny refuses to eat his sweet potatoes. Lord knows I’ve tried everything, even the marshmallows! I’ve told him how healthy and nutritious they are. I’ve even shared how Dr. Andrew Weil, the Harvard-educated medical doctor and best-selling author, says they are better for you than regular potatoes. But he won’t budge.
I’ve taken to sneaking them, pureed, in dishes like pasta and soup, but tricking him is tearing me up inside. How can he ever trust me again if he finds out? He almost caught me putting some puree in a batch of cookies last night, and was forced to spoon it into our fish tank instead. Johnny looked at me as though I was crazy, even as I explained that I was ‘experimenting’ with a new diet for our goldfish. Of course, it took me three hours to clean the fish tank afterwards and, even worse, the fish are now scared of me.
I can’t continue living like this. What can I do? Please help me.
Despairing Trickster Mom
Dear Despairing Trickster Mom:
First of all, please don’t despair. Your love for your sweet potato-shunning son oozes all over your letter. And where there’s love, there’s always a solution.
Second, I have found that uttering words like ‘healthy’ and ‘nutritious’ next to even marginally-questionable foods is tantamount to the kiss of death for kids. You may as well say ‘Eat this Johnny. If you can survive the sludgy consistency without chocking and the putrid taste without retching, you’ll grow up big and strong.’ If you feel compelled to describe them at all, consider using words like ‘cool,’ ‘rad’ or any other expression that’s currently ‘mod’ in the vernacular of little Johnny’s age group.
Third, to use the words of The Dog Whisperer’s Cesar Millan, be the alpha dog of the house. Yes, lovingly take charge! Children long for leadership, even the Veruca Salt-wannabes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory infamy (you know…immature, overindulged, petulant or manipulative in their worst moments). Inside, perhaps deep, deep down inside, they scream for an authoritative voice of calm and reason to navigate them through life’s many confusing food choices. Guide Johnny towards the foods you choose by asking him to help you make something absolutely scrumptious that contains them. Really get him in the thick of things. It will be difficult for him to reject all of his hard work.
And don’t be afraid to enforce the “you must taste everything on your plate” rule, either. They say 13 tries is often all it takes to begin appreciating a new flavor. You are exercising love at its finest and hardest here. You are also easing him into a lifetime of food appreciation and openness that will serve him in good stead, especially at his in-laws.
Finally, make sure that whatever you decide to make is truly spectacular. If it’s new and questionable, it’s got to hit him like fireworks on the palate. It needs to be so delicious that YOU would gladly forsake a slice of Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory for another serving. Otherwise, it’s like treating Johnny to his very first baseball game, a game you want him to love, and having him sit in the very last row of the nose-bleed section in an almost empty stadium. In the rain. A cold Spring rain.
Good luck and be strong, my sweet trickster. I’ve included what I consider to be a pretty remarkable, kid-friendly recipe for you to try. I could be wrong, but it may just rock Johnny’s world.
Disclaimer: Ok, this wasn’t a real letter. But it does accurately reflect many, many conversations I’ve had with parents over the years.
Also, consider yourself warned…it’s hard to eat just one or two of these patties. They are so invitingly warm and soft on the inside and gold and crispy on the outside. They also have that unmistakable musky sweet meatiness about them, while also offering the hint of jalapeno and red bell pepperiness. And there’s no need to fear jalapeno’s heat…removing the seeds takes away all of its bite, allowing it to contribute just the mellow flavor of green bell peppers. You may, however, want to use those thin, disposable gloves that medical people often use when handling the jalapeno and, in particular, the seeds. I once just used my hands and experienced some slight burning on the tips of my fingers for the rest of the day. NOT fun. They were also a little red to boot, which wouldn’t have been a big deal except for the smarting part!
making sweet potato latkes
Pierce 1 washed medium-sized sweet potato with a knife several times and wrap with a couple sheets of damp paper towels. Put it in microwave and cook on the highest setting for 10-11 minutes. Allow to cool. The sweet potato will look all shriveled up on the outside but have no fear, it will still be decadently soft and moist once you break the skin.
Spoon out the cooked sweet potato into a large bowl.
Peel 3 sweet potatoes. Cut into pieces that are small enough, width-wise, to fit into the grating funnel of your food processor. You can also use a manual grater to do this.
Once grated, add the potato shreds to the bowl with the cooked potato. Add 4 large eggs, 8 green onions that have been thinly sliced into rounds, the finely chopped flesh of 1 jalapeno pepper and 1/2 of a red bell pepper, and Kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper to taste.
Mix very well. Add 3/4 cup of chickpea or unbleached white flour.
Mix well again.
Pour just enough oil so that it completely covers the bottom of a 12-inch nonstick pan. Heat on medium-high until the oil starts to swirl in the pan but is not yet smoking. By the spoonful, drop the mixture carefully into the hot oil. Press the mixture gently with a spoon to slightly flatten it.
Work in batches of 5 or 6 patties to make sure you don’t overcrowd the pan. Cook for 3-4 minutes on each side, or until golden.
Place on a plate or tray lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil.
Serve with a dollop of sour cream, 2 green onions sliced on the diagonal and a few drops of lime juice. Makes 8 servings.