Sioux-eet Potato Maduros!

Nebraska’s climate baffles me.

There’s such variety – for whatever local weather the Panhandle experiences, the Sandhills, the far northeastern corner of the state (Sioux Empire? Siouxland?), “God’s Country,” Omaha, and Lincoln can get vastly different outcomes.

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February 18, 2016 was, by nearly all accounts, a lovely day across the state of Nebraska.

Not exactly sure what’s going on with that strip of land on the former side of the Kansas-Nebraska state line. Hopefully it’s some kind of irredentism on the part of Nebraska, perhaps a legal fiction held over from the time Nebraska “sank in hell.”

It’s the First of March, and we have muddled through February without much bad weather to speak of…Other than the bad weather we’re probably having every day without a frost in February. In fact, it’s been quite nice.

Stupidly nice on weekends, actually. October nice. Just…with a leading edge of warmth, not chill.

Certainly compared to last year in Somerville, Mass., when we lived through 94.4 inches of snow from January 24 to February 22, 2015.

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View of municipal snow dump, taken from the Assembly Square T stop in Somerville, MA., early March, 2015.

As the weather warms up and Spring rises through our feet with a shudder, it’s time to consider again cooking en plein air.

Late last October, in the warm and heady labour of watching the Mets’ surprise World Series run, Kellie and I secured Cyrus in his car seat, stowed Lola (our family rescue pup of 5 years this April!) in the cargo hold of our 2002 Subaru Outback, and made for Sioux Falls, South Dakota – our first trip out of Nebraska since moving from the East Coast in August.

This is precisely how we do – and we’ve done it like so for pretty much as long as Kel and I have lived together, so going on 6 years now! We’ll just up and drive from Central Jersey to Bethlehem, PA for the best Italian fare in the Lehigh Valley for certain, possibly ever (by our count…seriously); to my family’s old vacation spot in Lake George, upstate New York; Portland, Maine from our old triple-decker in Somerville; Kansas City, MO; Manhattan, and northeastern Kansas from our new base of operations in Lincoln.

Having 2-year old Cy onboard giggling away and coloring in his car seat has made these kinds of trips a lot easier and more pleasant; all too many drives out of Boston last year were spent listening to his frustrated wails of betrayal and milkthirst echo throughout the state of Connecticut…Or, worse yet, while sitting in bumper to bumper traffic in the dilapidated brick conduits of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, en route to visit my folks outside of Toms River, NJ.

Perhaps that day will return in Cyrus’s third year…when we drive to Winnipeg and never look back.

Our first autumn in Nebraska would be a memorable one. Visits from family and friends, in addition to playoff baseball and encouraging temperatures kept spirits buoyant against the expectation of an early freeze. As evidenced above, for a month-long stretch last fall, Lincoln’s mature white oaks and maples shimmered like quetzal feathers, a showy canopy of fireworks over bungalow-lined streets.

We left Nebraska via the Omaha’s Mormon Bridge, a twin span built and dedicated at the onset of the Korean War steel shortage like its cousin straddling the Hudson, the Tappan Zee Bridge.

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Along the Mormon trail, go straight across the twin span Mormon Bridge carrying Interstate 680 through North Omaha to the loess hills of Iowa. Sisterwife Span A begrudges you not for taking Sisterwife Span B.

We followed Interstate 29 through the broad floodplain of the Missouri River as it collected the Little Sioux, Big Sioux, and Vermillion Rivers. The Loess Hills of Western Iowa flanked our right side as we drove north – a front range of slumping and sheer razorback hills formed in the aftermath of the last Ice Age, when final glacial retreat left the area adrift in windswept, pulverized bedrock.

Western Iowa boasts some of the largest loess deposits in the world outside of the central plateau of China’s Yellow River valley.

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Conspiracy.

The spindly hills soon bolted from sight. We rolled smoothly between yellowing shortgrass, down a four-lane concrete trail pressed into a landscape that seemed to resist the warp and weft of the last eleven thousand years.

The hard, flat, inscrutable landscape suggested a kind of Biblical resilience; should the Deluge begin here, the floods will only strum the grass and gather elsewhere – moving outwards with the voluble insanity of all the great steppes of the world that have spun off thousands of languages, beached and afloat.

…6×9 and counting down in one after the other
They’ll go running up and down the road, angry as their mothers
Over senseless acts of selfishness on made up English oceans
And made up English stomach contents tied to senseless notions…

Drive-By Truckers, “English Oceans” (2014)

But for all I know, this could be the part of South Dakota that gets the bigger share of rain, and grows a nutritious grain…

We took a brief detour through Vermillion, South Dakota – long enough to pick up a local NPR member station. On FRESH AIR, Dan Ephron discussed the trajectory of Israeli politics in the two decades since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Coverage of the approaching anniversary continued, transitioning on the sun-drenched hour to an episode This American Life hosted by Ephron’s partner and TAL’s producer, Nancy Updike, who spoke with Rabin’s chauffeur on the night of November 5, 1995, Menachem Damti. Damti retold the events of the night with a note of regret, recalling a wrong turn en route to the hospital to deliver the critically wounded president as he lay bleeding in the back of the car.

We hummed over hundreds of thousands of slabs of grey, jointed pavement, tires hissing and skating across the gaps.

Cyrus slept soundly the whole way.

Baby snores puffed up every few minutes. Lola’s excited panting broke in time with the skipping of tires on the concrete highway. The two adults listened with brows low and serious, enthralled by the spoken moments and charmed by what sneaked between the words.

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Sioux Falls, South Dakota is a vibrant city of maybe 200,000, threaded along the cascades of the Big Sioux River.

In anticipation of our family adventure, we packed a blanket, bottled up some water, and threw together a lunch spread to tide us over as we explored South Dakota’s most populous city.

The night before, I fired up our charcoal kettle grill and set out to cook up a savory dish of quartered sweet potato “fries” (though had I only gotten my hands on the dayum-big, super-colossal kinds featured on Littlesundog) for the trip. Typically, I’ve pan fried these after parboiling them to a firm-but-not-woody consistency – but I hadn’t tried pan frying them over hot coals. The idea was to replicate the maduros (fried plantain) Kel and I used to order at one of our favorite cozy corner places in the Northeast, Zafra in Hoboken, NJ.

Sadly, we didn’t pack along ingredients to make Zafra’s house special white sangria. Our loss. But really, folks.

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Zafra’s maduros…just right for a warm March day…

The soft, mealy fruit, glazed a pipestone red with a ceremonial streak of char down the center – this form carries within it the heavy dampness of summer evenings, a sliver of pure convection orange as dusk sunshafts…as fiery coals inviting beneath waves of tear-wicking heat.

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Pan goes on.

Crackling in the densely packed pan, each parcel was drizzled with an admixture of olive oil and whiskey smoked demerera sugar, rubbed with a 50/50 blend of sea salt and ground black pepper, then carefully enveloped in non-stick foil for the crucible to come.

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Smoking jackets come off.

After cooking each spear in the pan, I gingerly pried off the searing hot aluminum foil jackets, taking care to burn only the most receptive tips of the laziest fingers. Now fiery beady with sugar and hot oil, I navigated my cooking surface by radiance only – the sun had set, solar lanterns became suddenly plump with chilly October colors.

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Yard view, October 2015.

Eyelids stinging with the force and thermal expression of the grill at full-blast, I guided each sweet potato onto the gridiron. Sear lines accomplished, each oil burnished piece was removed from the fire back to the steel pan, cooling in a pan of lukewarm water on a folding end table. A few of the bigger pieces stayed in their foil wraps until the desired consistency tested positive by fork tine.

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Where the action is.

I retreated to the kitchen, light-blinded, breath rapidly cooling as I waded through the thinning fall night air. There, the flavorwork began. Supple skin of fresh key lime was threshed through a grater. Black pepper, crudely ground, was lashed on the succulent fruit. I sprinkled some Tuco Sibarita seasoning over the sweet potatoes, too – this is a Peruvian spice blend that has a deeper, nervier flavor profile than paprika, and brought a tenebristic note to the spice level, perfectly complimenting the black-crisped edges of the meat.

To keep the sweetness in check, the briny complexities of homemade Bulgarian hardcheese were called into play.

The prior weekend, Kel, Cy, and I wandered about Lincoln’s historic Haymarket district to try some of the fresh produce available at the farmer’s market, which was slated to wrap for the season within a week or two. I wish I had remembered the vendor’s name or moniker – I’d drop them a line here to thank them for giving this dish its characteristic kick.

I’ll keep digging in the meantime.

Rough crumbles of the Balkan cheese were tumbled into place like upturned plinths on the warm sweet potato quarters. Handfuls of freshly torn cilantro topped off the presentation.

(Not quite sure what could serve as a substitute for cilantro, should the reader have an aversion to the herb.)

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Much like the triad needed to sustain fire, this dish is enlivened by a primal trio of salty fat, bracing citrus, and cooling herb. Pepper and spice work to massage these three key flavors.

We spent the day at Falls Park, climbing through abandoned quartzite mines and taking in the crisp 55-degree air. This unassuming city, Sioux Falls, is like Lincoln and countless other small cities nestled in their regional interiors – inland melting pots, where refugees and immigrants from less fortunate bread baskets come to be absorbed into new, rushing streams of American society.

James Fallows, in this month’s The Atlantic:

The most dramatic display of this era’s assimilation process is at a huge pig slaughterhouse, one of the dominant features of downtown Sioux Falls’ cityscape. The plant was set up in the early 1900s by the John Morrell company; for many years it was the city’s largest employer, and it still employs more than 3,000 people; eventually it was sold to Smithfield and in 2013 to the Chinese firm Shuanghui (which hoped that American-raised and -processed meat would be popular among Chinese customers wary of tainted-food scandals). Through the 20th century, the Morrell plant was a site of representative struggles in American society: the violent efforts to unionize the workforce in the 1930s and the corporate efforts to de-unionize it in the 1980s, as wave after wave of newcomers arrived from overseas or farm towns to work “at Morrell’s” as their entrée to urban life. University professors, bankers, newspaper reporters, and tech workers in Sioux Falls told me that their families had first moved to the city to work at the plant.
The workers at the slaughterhouse are now largely immigrants and refugees. The safety and work-rules instructions are posted in 30 languages. The workers on the line, cutting up pig carcasses, include Muslim women from Sudan or Somalia, saving money to send their children to college. Deb met two young sisters from Darfur, one of whom was in high school and had joined ROTC there. Her main regret was that she was not allowed to wear her ROTC uniform to school on dress days, because ROTC rules forbade wearing the uniform with a head scarf. (Yarmulkes were acceptable, since they fit under the uniform cap.)

We heard a few months later that the rule had been waived. The young woman wore her ROTC uniform, with her head scarf, to school.

James Fallows, “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together”

The Morrell plant sits a short walk downstream of the abandoned mills that were built over a hundred years ago to harness the power of the Big Sioux cascades, and within eyeshot of the metamorphosed sandstone quarry where South Dakota’s first penitentiary inmates removed thousands of tons of quartzite to build themselves a prison.

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It’s a steep climb, but this kid’s got it.

We took our lunch amid the raw, ebullient beauty of the falls, under a perfectly blue sky. Lola and Cyrus chased each other chasing geese; Kel and I found time for our thoughts and let the day lead us.

The sweet potato spears I prepared by firelight were still tender, and exceptionally flavorful when matched with seasoned rice. Hints of lime and raucous bursts of black peppercorn charmed and surprised, as did Sioux Falls.

We drove home through the bottomlands of the Missouri River floodplain, and Kel pulled up a streaming broadcast of Howie Rose calling Game One of the Mets-Cubs NLCS – you could hear Harvey’s plus pitch singe the Flushing night air so sweetly, clearly over the bluffs of Omaha.

Recipe below, my Hungries.

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What Lola wants…Lola usually has to wait for someone to fumble – usually Cyrus.

 

Sweet potato maduros

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes, including time to boil sweet potatoes

Servings: ~4

Ingredients:

  • 4 medium-to-large sized sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 4 cups of fresh brined cheese (such as sirene or fresh feta), cubed
  • 1 cup olive oil for drizzling and sauteeing
  • 1 bundle fresh cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt (to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lime rind, mixed with salt and pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon Tuco Sibarita, or smoked sweet paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon whiskey smoked sugar, such as Jansal Farms brand

Feel free to experiment with the measurements: adjust the spice-to-salt ratio to suit your tastes or dietary requirements. Ideally, a non-melting cheese would be best, but if you discover a cool new kink, give me a holler and leave a comment below!

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Find a nice, roaring brook, waterfall, or ocean to sit beside and enjoy these!

 

 

 

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