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Dishing it Out!
Yam it up for the holidays

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Yam it up for the holidays
05 December 2011

As seen in Monterey County The Herald

Posted: 11/16/2011 01:43:14 AM PST                                                                                                   Updated: 11/16/2011 08:18:24 AM PST

Todd Fisher: Yam it up

for the holidays

So I learned something the other day that I thought I would share with you because, well, I need something to write about and figured I could entertain and teach at the same time. A question that has been asked for centuries (OK, at least several decades) is: “What is the difference between a sweet potato and a yam?” I won’t bore you with the embryonic seed leaf differences or the scientific names and horticultural family breeds, but I will break it down to a fairly simple explanation.

Yams are native to Africa and Asia. There are more than 600 varieties of yams, with 95percent of the world’s crops being grown in Africa. Yams vary in size from that of a small potato to a rumored 130 pounder that holds the much coveted world record for yams. They have a deep, red skin with vibrant orange flesh, which is why they are sometimes referred to as garnet yams. Compared to sweet potatoes, yams are starchier and drier.

Sweet potatoes, an American crop with numerous varieties, have skin color that ranges from white to yellow to red, or even purple. The flesh also ranges in color from white to yellow to orange or orange-red. Sweet potato varieties are classified as either firm or soft. When cooked, those in the firm category remain firm, while soft varieties become soft and moist. It is the soft varieties with the reddish-purple skin and orange-red flesh that are often labeled as yams in the United States.

Here is why it is confusing: In the United States, firm varieties of sweet potatoes were produced before soft varieties. When soft varieties were first grown commercially, there was a need to differentiate between the two. African slaves had already been calling the soft sweet potatoes “yams” because they resembled the yams in Africa. Thus, soft sweet potatoes were referred to as yams to distinguish them from the firm varieties.

The firm varieties have all but vanished, leaving only the soft sweet potatoes to mistakenly be called a yam. When shopping for yams, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires labels with the term yam to be accompanied by the term sweet potato. So unless you specifically search for yams, which are usually only found in an international market, you are probably eating sweet potatoes!

I cannot talk about sweet potatoes and not think of my mother-in-law. She makes an awesome sweet potato pie, with a smooth, dense, creamy custard that is cloyingly sweet. Yet the deep caramelization gives it a sultry, savory balance that is magnificent.

Now, anyone who knows me even a little knows I am no baker. In fact, I hate to bake. I can when I need to, but try hard to not be in a position where I need to. I prefer to leave the scaling and sifting to the highly meticulous, uber accurate, saintly patient and finely calibrated peeps.

When you’re talking pie, it’s all about the crust. The crust makes or breaks the pie, flakey and tender yet crisp. Some pies call for sweet dough, some employ a touch more neutral shell as the canvas for the guts of the confection, while a crumb crust can be called upon to harbor any one of the limitless possibilities.

Apple, berry, pumpkin, cherry, rhubarb, peach, lemon, (deep breath), pecan, chocolate, banana cream, coconut cream, Boston cream, French silk, buttermilk, shoe-fly, key lime, mincemeat … well I think you see the dealio with pie. It is an inexhaustible creation that also transcends every season. But I would have to say that no one season gets more pie action than Thanksgiving. Nothing says “gobble-gobble” like a slice of pumpkin pie with whooped cream to put a wrap on the festive day.

Although a slice of pecan pie says a lot, too. And I have heard an olallieberry pie can be rather eloquent as well. I mean, who can have just one conversation on Turkey Day?

Now, not every pie has to be sweet, yet another example of the versatility of pie. Meat pies are far less common here in the United States as, say, England, but delicious all the same. We know them as pot pies when they are of the savory selection. Guess that’s because pot pie sounds just a tad better than meat pie or kidney pie.

A quiche is a kind of custard pie, often filled with cooked vegetables and sometimes meat, and real men do eat it. Shepherds pie, yummo-licious! Tender meat in a rich gravy baked under a cheesy mashed potato crust. And, of course, no one should forget the cheese pie known by some as pizza.

But I digress. With Thanksgiving next week, here is a recipe for a Bourbon Pecan Pie that will speak volumes to your guests and is one of my favorites.

Now, you might be saying, “Why do I want a pie recipe from a non-baker?” Good question, To which I will answer, seriously, I may not like to bake ’em, but do I look like I don’t know how to pick ’em? Which is why you should listen to me when I tell you that The Farm — in, might I say, “cute as pie” Spreckels — bakes up awesome pies. Call ahead to order, because they only make what they bake.

 Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours and may you find several reasons to be thankful from here to there! Cheers! Don’t be shy with the bourbon, either — add a little to your whooped cream.


Celebrity chef Todd Fisher is a Herald columnist, chef de cuisine at Stick’s at the Inn at Spanish Bay and a brand consultant. E-mail him at

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