Eats: Taking sides — squash or sweet potato? Or both!

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We sat across the table from one another, snickering with our mouths full. My partner in crime was a 90-year-old woman who had hired me to cook Thanksgiving dinner for her family. What had started out as an innocent sampling of our efforts had turned into the two of us making a rather substantial dent in a large bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.

So what if there weren’t enough sweet potatoes to snuggle up beside the turkey and stuffing the following day? Would they really be missed? One more bite . . . four more bites. We were in deep; just two sweet potato scalawags who couldn’t control themselves.

Earlier that afternoon as I had put on my apron, I had explained to Rosemary, my employer for the day, that I had grown up in a household where the Thanksgiving side dish was always squash, never sweet potatoes. She was going to have to guide me. Warming to the task, Rosemary, who reminded me of Julia Child, settled in the corner, stretching her long legs out on the curved kitchen banquette. “I’m going to show you how to prepare sweet potatoes properly,” she pronounced with a gleam in her eyes.

After I peeled the cooked tubers, I brought them to Rosemary, who took over in a queenly fashion with her masher and her wooden spoon. She asked for a stick of butter, brown sugar, salt and pepper. She then directed me to the liquor cabinet to retrieve the bottle of Captain Morgan’s rum. Gaily and generously sloshing the liquor straight from the bottle onto the sweet potatoes, she tasted, sloshed in some more, then proceeded to chow down like a long-haul driver at a truck stop.

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She eventually came up for air and said, “Where’s your spoon? Dig in!”

That was the day I fell in love with sweet potatoes.

Now, I am not as sophisticated as Rosemary and do not, nor have I ever, owned a liquor cabinet. I do, however have a pantry shelf where the wine and spirits are kept. When I prepared to make the sweet potatoes for this story and went to retrieve the bottle of rum, I was faced with the sad fact that I didn’t have any. What I did have was a bottle of brandy and some amaretto. I made a small bowl with each and was quite happy with the results. (I also considered the butterscotch schnapps, but decided to save that for another time.)

This mash is an excellent holiday side dish that can double as dessert. It can be spooned into elegant parfait glasses and lavished with cinnamon whipped cream. Bake it into a pie with or without a top crust or make a galette as explained below. It can also be topped with your favorite fruit crisp topping and baked until crunchy. Layer with apple slices if you like. Toasted pecans can be stirred in or sprinkled on top. Just be sure to set aside an unspiked portion for the children!

Oh, I adore the sweet potatoes, but I’m also crazy for squash, especially one of my daughter Rachel’s signature dishes. Happily, I’ve devised a way to have both at one meal. If the sweet potatoes are served as a side or dessert, the squash galette recipe included here today can be brought to the table as an appetizer perched on a bed of fresh greens with sliced pear and walnuts.

A family favorite, the galette, which is a word to describe a free-form pastry, is delicious served with a spoonful of cranberry sauce or relish. Flavored with garlic, onion, cheese, maple syrup and sage, it can be sliced into squares or triangles or fashioned into individual galettes or hand pies. (I have eaten it straight out of the refrigerator for breakfast on more than one occasion.)

I use frozen puff pastry when I make the galette. Rachel uses a homemade pizza dough recipe. This dish has plenty of play, so make it your own. As a side dish, the mash can also simply be spooned into a casserole. Cover and heat in the oven at 350 degrees if you don’t want to bother with the pastry.

Other ways to get this delectable squash to your table include combining it with shredded soft cheese and bechamel sauce, then layering it between lasagna noodles or fold it into rigatoni for a satisfyingly different pasta bake. Also try it as a pizza topping with the addition of caramelized onions and fresh herbs.

Both the sweet potatoes and squash can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to three days. You can freeze them, then defrost and warm them in the oven or microwave. An unbaked galette can also be assembled ahead and stored in the refrigerator or freezer, then thawed and baked on a sheet pan at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.

Karen Schneider is the editor of Northern Journeys Magazine, a quarterly publication that supports the arts. She is also a book editor, and a writer who has contributed to the Lewiston Sun Journal for 20 years. She can be contacted at iwrite33@comcast.net.

Can’t decide between sweet potatoes or squash for your holiday meal? We give you permission to serve both! (Karen Schneider photo)

Butternut squash galette, whether served as a savory side dish or an appetizer, may very well steal the show on Thanksgiving Day. (Karen Schneider photo)

Rosemary’s (s)mashed sweet potatoes

Serves 6

4 large sweet potatoes

1/2 cup butter

From 2 tablespoons to 1/3 cup brown sugar

2-4 tablespoons rum, brandy or Amaretto

Salt and pepper to taste

Ground cinnamon, cloves and/or ginger to taste, optional

Toasted pecans, optional

Scrub, prick and bake the sweet potatoes in their jackets at 375 degrees until they are soft and mashable, about 1.5 hours. Cool and peel. (Alternatively, peel the potatoes and boil them in salted water.) Place in a large bowl with butter and brown sugar. Add liquor and seasonings. Mash.

The measurements are a guide only. The amounts are up to you. When using amaretto, cut back a bit on the brown sugar, but you should absolutely not back off on the butter in any case. (If Rosemary found out, she would be extremely displeased with you.)

Rachel’s butternut squash galette

Serves 4-6

1 butternut squash

8 cloves garlic

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 large onion, sliced thin

1/2 cup parmesan, shredded

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 bunch fresh sage

Salt & pepper

Pastry for 1 pie crust or dough for one 10-inch pizza or 1 sheet puff pastry

Set oven temperature to 375 degrees. Cut squash in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Place unpeeled garlic cloves in squash hollows and brush garlic and squash with 1 teaspoon oil. Cover with foil and bake until tender enough to be easily mashed.

Meanwhile, caramelize onion in the remaining olive oil over low heat. When squash is done baking (about 1.5 hours), allow to cool. Peel and place in a bowl with the garlic that has been squeezed out of its peels. Mash. Fold in onion, cheese, maple syrup, 4-6 minced sage leaves, salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon squash into prepared pastry and form as desired, bringing up sides of pastry around filling and folding over top as desired. Cut vents if needed. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, until pastry is golden and squash is bubbling. Garnish with sage leaves.

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