The typical sweet-on-sweet approach to sweet potatoes—that is, pairing them with brown sugar or marshmallows or other ingredients that double down on, rather than balance, the root vegetable’s sugary side—rarely does them justice. One-note over-the-top sweetness seldomly is satisfying; already sweet ingredients almost always benefit more from a touch of salty or savory.
This was our thinking as we considered ways to bring the classic sweet potato side to the holiday table without veering into cloying. Our search first led us to the American Southwest before looping back to the East Coast.
We took our initial inspiration from New Mexico-based author Deborah Madison, a pioneer in treating vegetables right. Madison has a well-honed sense of how to make the most of produce, bringing out and balancing their best attributes. Her recent cookbook “In My Kitchen” focused on creating light, fresh approaches to cooking with vegetables. We were especially drawn to her recipe for pan-griddled sweet potatoes with a miso-ginger dressing.
She creates a vibrant counterpoint for caramelized sweet potatoes with a dressing of bright ginger, tangy rice vinegar and savory-salty miso—all of it simultaneously enhancing and balancing the natural sweetness of the potatoes. “It’s a great dressing for sweet potatoes, even those that are super sweet,” she explains in the recipe.
Our next stop was New England, where Gary Kim—chef-owner of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, restaurant Mr. Kim’s—takes a similar approach to flavors: He, too, uses miso-based dressings, but in his kitchen, those dressings may be spiked with sherry vinegar rather than rice vinegar. It seemed like a minor change, but we loved the way the more pronounced flavor of the oak barrel-aged vinegar complemented both the sweet potatoes and the umami-rich miso, while adding extra depth and complexity.
With our miso-sherry dressing all set, we brought freshness to the dish with the addition of cilantro, scallions and baby kale, all of which helped lighten the otherwise hefty sweet potatoes. A scattering of toasted walnuts echoed the nuttiness of the miso and sherry, while also adding a bit of crunch.
Briefly soaking garlic in an acid, such as lime juice, tames its bite and mellows its pungency without sacrificing flavor.