Small, Good Things: Easy Does It

By Joe Dizney

Just as simplicity is not always easy, complexity isn’t necessarily daunting.

Simplicity can imply an elegance — a beauty or clarity only achievable through a thoughtful and resolute paring away of the inessential. It’s a constant dialectic: how simple can you make it versus how complex does it have to be.

And complexity, far from being a Rubik’s Cube of disparate elements, can just as easily be appreciated as an accumulation of relationships manifest in a unity greater than the sum of its parts.

There is something further to be said for exploring the tension between the two, in taming and consolidating these supposed opposites.

Scalloped Sweet Potatoes with Chipotle Cream (Photo by J. Dizney)

What does this have to do with food and cooking? How much time have you got? I love to cook and have produced that classic French marathon recipe, the cassoulet, which was, admittedly, worth it, but nothing to consider when you’re hungry on a Tuesday night. Likewise, Diana Kennedy’s 25-ingredient mole poblano was worth every drop.

But avant-garde extremes like Thomas Keller’s high-end food porn in The French Laundry Cookbook, Ferran Adrià’s experiments at elBulli and Nathan Myhrvold’s scientific investigations (requiring equipment such as rotor-stator homogenizers and a centrifuge) just make me feel inadequate.

Much more to my opening point is a recipe like this, adapted from Bobby Flay, who I’ve known since 1988 when he was making a name for himself at the Miracle Grill in the East Village.

Bobby always had a way of combining big flavors with earthier elements. This classic recipe with its three ingredients — sweet potatoes, chipotle peppers and cream — is representative of his simple artistry.

The preparation couldn’t be simpler, either. If you have one, a mandolin makes short work of slicing the potatoes; a quick whirl in a blender accomplishes the rest. A slow roasting unites it all.

Sweet, hot, smoky and assertive, the potatoes satisfy the promise of the best comfort food. They are an excellent accompaniment to roasted or grilled beef, pork or chicken and would undoubtedly make a surprising replacement for your Thanksgiving sweet potato purée.

Before preparing the dish for a potluck, I was told that a couple of guests were avoiding dairy, so I made an alternate version substituting coconut cream, which provided an unexpected Asian inflection.

Just make it easy on yourself.

Scalloped Sweet Potatoes with Chipotle Cream 

Adapted from Bobby Flay, 4 to 6 servings

2 cups heavy cream (or full-fat coconut milk)
2 tablespoons (or more) chipotle peppers in adobo
3 to 4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced thin (about 1/8-inch)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a blender, puree cream (or coconut milk) and chipotles until smooth.

In a 9-by-9-inch casserole, arrange potatoes in an even layer. Drizzle with 2 to 3 tablespoons of the chipotle cream. (Note: Do not overdo this part or the final result will be soupy.) Season with salt and pepper and repeat the process, pressing down each layer with your hands or a spatula. Repeat until the casserole is just barely topped off. Press down once more and drizzle with a bit more of the chipotle cream (remembering the note above).

Cover in foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking 45 minutes to 1 hour longer, until the cream has been absorbed and the potatoes are cooked through and browned on top. Allow to sit for a bit to absorb the loose cream and serve hot.

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