Saturday, April 30, 2011

Yams, Sweet Potatoes and Cassava

I went to the store recently to buy a mixture of yams (red yams 
and purple yams) 
 and sweet potatoes (whitish-skinned 
and reddish skinned) 
with the idea of cooking them and doing a post on the differences between yams and sweet potatoes, in general, and those types in particular. I picked up a cassava as well, 
to see how it compared. What I have learned has turned everything I thought I knew about yams and sweet potatoes upside down. To me, yams were orange and very sweet. It is what I ate with some reluctance on Thanksgiving, often cooked in brown sugar and with apples or marshmallows. However, what I have always known as yams are actually sweet potatoes. What the rest of the world knows as yams, the true yams, are actually white-fleshed and bland. They are usually used as background food and hard to obtain in the U.S. In the U.S. the true yams are known as tropical yams. The tropical yams are not even related, botanically, to sweet potatoes. Yams are more closely related to lilies and grasses, their skins are more rough and scaly, or shaggy, and their flesh is more starchy and dry. There are over 600 varieties and the vast majority are grown in Africa. Sweet potatoes have thinner and more smooth skin, and their flesh is more moist and sweet. They originated in South America, are related to morning glories, and the very sweet orange types we call yams are only eaten in the U.S. (oh, the U.S. sweet tooth).  There are two dominant types of sweet potatoes: (1) the harder, lighter, tan-skinned varieties with pale yellow or creamy flesh, and (2) the softer, darker red-skinned varieties with orange flesh. I have read that the softer varieties were called yams in the U.S. to distinguish them from the harder varieties and that the slave started calling some varieties yams because they reminded them of the yams they had in Africa. 

The garnet yam and jewel yam, which are actually sweet potatoes, are the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes Americans think of as yams. They are rarely labeled clearly and they are very similar to each other. Both have orange moist flesh. The garnet yam is slender, ovate (egg-shaped) and cylindric (like a cylinder), tapers at the ends, and has a pale salmon color. The flesh is golden orange and turns a vibrant golden yellow when cooked. The jewel yam is also ovate, cylindric, and tapers at the ends. 
It has been variously described as having a copper-colored skin, or a rose hued pale orange skin. The color of the jewel's brilliant orange colored flesh 
actually increases when cooked. Both the garnet and jewel yams are sweet and starchy and absorb accompanying ingredient flavors. It appears that the major differences between them are that the garnet yam is more slender and the jewel yam's flesh is more orange than the garnet yam's flesh which is more yellow. 
I believe that the yams (sweet potatoes) I got, which were labeled "red yams," were jewel yams. 

I bought what was labeled as a "purple yam" which is actually an Okinawa purple potato or Okinawa yam. 
It too is a sweet potato, native to the island of Okinawa, Japan.  It is ovate, tubular and has tapered ends, and a buff colored skin with earthy spots. It has violet to purple flesh 
and is very starchy. When cooked, the purple color intensifies. 

I believe the sweet potatoes I bought with a tan colored outside 
and cream-colored flesh may be the Nancy Hall variety. 

The Kotobuki is also known as the Japanese yam, Japanese sweet potato and mountain yam. It is not a traditional U.S. sweet potato. It is roughly oblong, has a thin, rusted red colored skin 
and a densely textured cream colored flesh. 
It is not as moist as the "yam" sweet potatoes. One source says it has a nutty flavor, sort of like a roasted chestnut. Another source says the flesh is dry, starchy and subtly sweet. 
It is native to China and Japan.

Cassava is native to South America and is grown for its starchy tuberous root. 
It is the third largest source for carbohydrates in the world. It is also called mandioca or manioc in the U.S. and we saw it referred to as yuca in Peru, where we ate yuca fries, and confused it with yucca. The cassava root is long and tapered and encased in a rough, brown, detachable rind. 
The flesh is white to yellowish.  
Portuguese traders introduced cassava and maize to Africa in the 16th century and they have replaced native African crops as the most important staple foods. Cassava is known as the "bread of the tropics" and Nigeria is the world's largest producer. Cassava must be cooked properly to detoxify it as it contain cyanide. 
When soft-boiled it can replace boiled potatoes and deep-fried it can replace fried potatoes. Tapioca is made from dried cassava root. 

For my taste-testing, I boiled all of the tubers. In reading later, I found suggestions that sweet potatoes are best, baked, that boiling reduces some of the sweetness. Below, the boiled jewel yam (orange), Nancy Hall sweet potatoes (white) and purple yam (purple)
and Kotobuki (to the left) and cassava (to the right).
I mashed each with a fork and tried them with plain and with salt. 
I then added butter and salt. 
I found the orange-fleshed jewel yam (sweet potato) to be the lightest, easiest to mash and most sweet of all the varieties. I really loved the smooth texture and it would rank no.1 among the five varieties I ate. The Nancy Hall sweet potato was also very good - not quite as sweet as the jewel, but it would serve the same purpose and be nearly as good. The purple yams, or Okinawan purple potatoes, were much more dense than the jewel or Nancy Hall's. Where the other two floated in the boiling water, the purple yams sunk to the bottom. They were much more difficult to mash and not anywhere near as sweet. I did not really like them until I mixed them with butter. Once mixed with butter, I did enjoy the bites that were very buttery. I suspect they may be much better baked and if I got them again, that is how I would try and cook them. The Kotobuki was also much more dense and less sweet. I think I probably liked it even less than the purple yams. It may have been my least favorite of all of them. The cassava had a completely different texture. It did not mix as well, was a little more disconnected. I didn't care for it at all plain or with salt, but when mixed with generous amounts of butter I quite enjoyed it. It was good in a more potatoey, less sweet, sort of way. As I have delved into this topic with all these varieties, I am finding I have just begun to scratch the surface. I need to spend some more time testing varieties and preparing them in different ways. I had no idea that cassava was such an important food source. 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Cheese: Myzithra, Cotswold and Aged Cheddar with Irish Whiskey

Myzithra or Mizithra cheese is primarily produced on the island of Crete (where it is the most widely used cheese), but it is produced in other areas of Greece as well. 
It is made with leftover whey from the production of Feta and Kefalotiri cheeses, along with raw sheep or goat milk, with a ratio of milk to whey of about 7 to 3. It is available three ways: (1) Fresh, unsalted and soft, in egg-shaped balls with a pungent aroma and mild flavor; (2) Sour; and (3) Aged, which is hard and salty. Aged myzithra, which this was, is used as a grating cheese in pastas, soups and casseroles. I was taken back when I first tasted it. It was unlike any cheese I've ever tasted. As dementors (in the Harry Potter series) are to spirit, Myzithra is to spit. It just seemed to soak up all the spit in my mouth and overpower it. 
It is described as "pungent." 
Pungent is defined as "sharply affecting the organs of taste or smell, as if by a penetrating power; biting; acrid." That is an accurate description. My initial reaction was not pleasant. I have been sampling it multiple times over the last couple of weeks and I am starting to get used to it. Rachael says she had it on spaghetti at the Spaghetti Factory and really loved it. It is probably very good as an ingredient cheese. As for a cheese on a cracker on a cheese sampler plate, I would go with other choices. 

On the opposite end of the scale of the Myzithra, the Kerrygold aged cheddar with Irish whiskey was a salivary delight. 
It is made from pasteurized cow's milk. The Kerrygold website describes the Irish whiskey as providing "undertones" of a "smooth, woody and nutty taste." It is relatively soft and creamy, but has a very sharp, distinctive and prominent taste: the kind of cheese that you want to eat in small bites and savor, as the taste is complex - multiple flavors assault your tongue. One reviewer notes that it would be very good on mac n' cheese, or in a cheese sauce on potatoes, cauliflower or cabbage. 
That is a cheese sauce I would love to have. If I were making up a cheese plate, this would be a choice for that plate. One of my favorite cheeses.

Gloucester cheese is an unpasteurized semi-hard cheese made in Gloucestershire, England, since the 16th century and comes in two types. Single Gloucester is made from the milk of Gloucestershire breed cows within Gloucestershire and is crumbly and light in texture. Double Gloucester is allowed to age longer and has a stronger and more savory flavor. Cotswold cheese is made by blending Double Gloucester with chives and spring onions. 
It is a trademarked name and can only be made by Long Clawson Dairy. It is creamy, tangy, rich and has an overwhelming taste of chives. The dominant image in my mind as I eat this cheese is that of a cup of sour cream infused with chives, ready to spread on to a baked potato. In fact, I would love to eat this cheese melted on a baked potato. 
It is a wonderful stand-alone cheese which would also be a great served on  a cheese plate. 

Each of these cheeses is very different from any other cheese I've ever eaten. They were a fun combination. None of these are milk-toast cheeses - each has a very prominent and distinctive taste. The Myzithra was not my favorite, but as an ingredient in a pasta, or something similar, I can see that it would be a good choice because it is very strong. Given a choice of only one of the above, as a stand-alone sampling cheese, the aged cheddar with Irish whiskey would be my overwhelming choice, but the Cotswold is very pleasing and good. I would view the Cotswold as more of a comfort cheese, probably very good on a grilled cheese sandwich.

After doing this post, I made a grilled cheese sandwich, 1/2 with Cotswold
and 1/2 with the aged cheddar with Irish whiskey. 
Both were good, but the Cotswold, as I suspected, is wonderful in that capacity. Hard to imagine a more perfect cheese for a grilled cheese sandwich.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Starfruit or Carambola

Starfruit, also known as carambola, has five ridges running lengthwise, 
and when cut into cross-sections, the cut sections are the shape of a five-pointed star, or a starfish. 
They are grown in tropical areas such as Florida, Hawaii and Puerto Rico and originated and are particularly popular in Southeast Asia. 
I recall eating it a few times in Hawaii. 
I bought one at an Asian market recently and have also seen them at our local Albertson's. Wikipedia says they are ripe when yellow with a light shade of green and have brown ridges at the five edges. 
They are overripe when they start to get brown spots. The one I purchased had quite significant green toward the ridges and I think I let it sit too long before eating it as it had the brown spots, but it was still fine. 
The skin is sort of waxy and the flesh is very crunchy and juicy, but does not have a lot of taste. Part of its popularity in the tropical areas is the fact that it is so juicy which helps to counter the sweltering heat. In that way, it is compared to watermelon, although I believe the watermelon has significantly more flavor in its juice. Starfruit is one of the 1001 Foods You Must Eat Before You Die. 1001 says it has "notes of pear, melon, and gooseberry" while Wikipedia says it "has been likened to a mix of apple, pear and citrus family fruits all at once." It is supposed to be a good palate cleanser. I added some sugar, sucralose and lime juice to various pieces and liked the additional flavor that was added to the juice, particularly by the sucralose. Best, however, was some starfruit we were served in the Amazon Basin rainforest outside of Puerto Maldonado, Peru. 
We were served a fruit plate that included starfruit and honey. Honey on the starfruit was very good. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Infrared Cooked: Capon

Capon is the name for a rooster that has been castrated to make it grow larger and to make the meat taste better. 
In 162 BC when there was rationing of grain, Rome forbade the fattening of hens with grain. Some ingenious Romans got around the rationing by castrating roosters which resulted in their doubling in size. The process of turning a rooster into a capon is called caponization and it must be done before the rooster matures,  either by castration, or by using estrogen implants. The roosters become less aggressive, allowing capons to be kept together. As they are less active, their meat is more tender and fatty and the lack of hormones makes them less gamey. 
Today, with the advent of industrial raised chickens, capons have become rare. Today, chickens are raised to mature very quickly, often in five weeks, and the capons raised under the same conditions taste very similar to conventional chicken, so many advantages of caponization have been lost. I purchased my 7.45 pound capon from Gerrard's Market. 
After thawing it and taking it out of the package, I was struck by two things: first, how big it was, and second, how much it resembled a small turkey. 
I put it in the infrared cooker 
and cooked it about an hour. 
I took it to Rachael and Nate's for Easter lunch in a pot and cut it up there. 
I brought much of it home and had some for lunch on Monday. The legs, thighs 
and wings 
were much larger than a normal chicken, 
but also much smaller than the normal turkey. They were easier to eat and tasted better than normal turkey legs, thighs and wings. A turkey really is too big for most families for a meal and a chicken can be too small. The capon is a nice size because of that. I found it to be very moist, as advertised, and think I would prefer the capon to a turkey or chicken on most occasions. It really was a very fun find. Much of the information for this post came from Wikipedia.