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African Yammes Frites and the REAL Miracle Whip

April 13, 2010

Journey in the Bronx

On my way to a panel on “Latinas and Politics”, diligently organized by my roommate with The New Latino Movement, I took an unintentionally productive detour.  After getting off on the wrong 4 train stop in the Bronx, I was driven further off course by a disturbingly familiar smell.  I followed my nose down 167th street, and was led to an African Market serving hot fufu, a traditional West African dish composed of pounded, boiled yams (or unripe plantains), accompanied with spicy groundnut (or palm nut) stew.  I grew very fond of fufu during my stay in Ghana, and gluttony nostalgia compelled me to take advantage of the unexpected opportunity.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to enjoyably stuff my face.  And bringing the highly aromatic dish with me to an enclosed room full of prominent, political activists was out of the question.  In a state of panic, I made an impulse purchase.  I bought a 2 lb 12 x 4 fresh African yam to make my own fufu; I carried it with me to the panel, which drew minimal suspicion (among all options considered).

As I lugged the painfully heavy tuber back home, I reconsidered my ambitious idea.  What was I thinking?  I had no idea how to make fufu.  I also dreaded carrying the big baby with me up and down the 8 flights of stairs to and from the subway.

But I sucked it up.  The yam was too expensive to abandon ($8.60).  And although I knew I wouldn’t be able to make the fufu (at least until I get a personal cooking lesson from my Ghanaian buddy’s Mama), I knew that I would be able to make my favorite snack in Ghana – yam fries!

Now Jenny, I know you used to have a little (and now you have a f&#$ing lot), you always had access to the fufu.  So now, more than ever, I perceive the “rocks that you got” as an accurate representation of your privileged present and past.

x

Yam vs. Sweet Potato

When I refer to yam, I am referring to the true yam, which is completely unrelated to the sweet potato.  There is a huge confusion in this country between yams and sweet potatoes, so I’ll explain the difference to you, once and for all.

Yam

The yam is the tuber of the tropical vines of genus Discorea.  There are over 600 species of yam, and over 95% of them are native to Africa.  Tubers should not be confused with storage root vegetables.  A tuber is the swollen tip of the plant stem that stores nutrients, while a storage root is the swollen, tubular root of the plant that also stores nutrients, but also serves to provide structural support, and to absorb water and inorganic nutrients.  Potatoes are also tubers, but sweet potatoes are storage roots.

The yam tuber has a brownish black skin that resembles the bark of a tree, and an off white or purplish flesh, depending on the variety.  Yams have more natural sugar (in the form of starch) than sweet potatoes, despite sweet potatoes’ sweeter taste.  In reality, the yam tastes very much like a potato (not sweet potato), but slightly drier and denser.

Yams are much larger than potatoes and sweet potatoes on average, and can grow up to 8.2 feet and 154 lbs!

When I cut one open for the first time, I was very shocked by its natural smell.  A raw yam smells like mild bleach, which smells a lot like….. well, if you don’t already know, then forget about it.  But wow, the similarity is freakishly uncanny!

Sweet Potato

The sweet potato is the root of the plant Ipomoea batatas, which is also the producer of morning glory flowers.  Sweet potatoes are native to the tropical parts of South America, but are now cultivated in all warm temperate regions with sufficient water to support their growth, including the American South.

The sweet potato root is long and tapered, and has red, purple, brown or even white skin.  Its flesh can be yellow, orange, white, or purple.  Sweet potatoes are classified into two main categories – firm or soft.  When cooked, those in the firm category remain firm, while those in the soft category become soft.  The soft varieties are often mistakenly labeled as yams in the United States.

The confusion

The firm varieties of sweet potatoes were grown in the U.S. before the soft.  So when the soft varieties were produced, they had to be differentiated from the hard varieties.  African slaves in the south had already been calling the soft sweet potatoes “yams” because their dark brown exterior resembled the yams in Africa. Thus, the soft sweet potatoes were referred to as yams to distinguish them from the firm sweet potatoes.

Next time you buy a can of “yams” to bake up with toasted marshmallows, brown sugar, and pecans, check the ingredient list. I guarantee you there will be no yams!

x,
Not-so-skinny dipping

I had yam fries at least once a day during my stay in Ghana.  Yam fries are actually very similar to the American potato based fries.  The differences are that they lack uniformity in shape (always hand cut), are served with a fresh tomato based sauce (more like salsa than ketchup), are fried in distinctly flavored palm oil, and have a slight natural bitterness.

My favorite yam fries throughout the entire trip were cut roughly into cubes and eaten with forks, because these particular yam fries were extra crispy (maximum surface area exposure), and evenly cooked, with the utmost potatoey yammy interior.  So I decided to cut my yam fries in this square manner.

I didn’t actually like the fresh tomato based sauce that accompanied the Yam fries, because its high water content made the fries soggy.  So I decided to make two original, creamier and fattier, complimentary dips, inspired by a couple of great sources:

Ghanian Curry Dip

The yummy curry ketchup at Pommes Frites in NYC inspired me to make this dip.  But instead of using a ketchup base, I planned to use a homemade mayonnaise and sour-cream base, and the awesome curry I brought back with me from Ghana.

Gochujang Dip

The Sriracha mayonnaise in the Fish Chaca La Vong sandwich at Xie Xie in NYC inspired me to make this dip. But instead of using spicy sweet Sriracha, I planned to use Gochujang, a savory, subtly sweet, and pungent Korean paste made with naturally fermented red peppers.

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Overcoming Mayophobia

Jeffrey Steingarten discusses his food phobias in “The Man Who Ate Everything”, which I have been reading for the past few days with complete gratification.  Consequently, I’ve been reflecting on my own food phobias, which are few in number.  But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to you considering my general lack of fear, and ghetto-refined palate.

One of my food phobias is actually relevant to today’s recipe(s): mayonnaise.  But only in obviously processed form. This is largely due to the fact that I thought Miracle Whip (blech) was mayonnaise for the majority of my life.  But with consideration to the fact that Americans eat 31% more packaged food than fresh food, according to a recent article in the NY Times, I don’t judge myself one bit for this misunderstanding.

Besides, I actually really like mayonnaise (which explains how I love the Whopper), so long as I do not see the jar or squeeze bottle (God have mercy) it came from, during consumption.  In fact, I have made chicken and tuna salad a countless number of times using a jar of Hellman’s.  Of course, it helps that these particular dishes are great chilled, which gives me an opportunity to step away and forget about how I made it before eating it.

But my new solution is simply to not cook with non homemade mayonnaise, which I believe, is not the worst habit in the world.  So we will be making a homemade mayonnaise for both of the dips we will make today!

Lady Gaga is a shameless tool (literally) for Miracle Whip (blech) in her latest video Telephone, featuring Beyonce.  But the video is still hot!  Just a little scary.  Although it’s gotten less scary each time….this could very well be my supplementary solution…

xx
Perfect Yam Fries

Since I couldn’t find resources that provided information on frying the perfect yam fries, I had to rely on the fact that yams and potatoes are both tubers with similar cellular structures and compositions.  So I looked at resources that provided information on frying the perfect French fries.  I’m also fairly certain that tips intended for frying potato based fries are actually more relevant to you anyway, since you might not regularly chill out at the African Market on the corner of 167th street and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx.

The best French fries are made with high-starch potatoes with low water content (Russet), because they absorb less oil upon frying.  Minimal oil absorption is what gives the fry a light and fluffy interior, and crispy exterior.  Fortunately, yams have both a higher starch content and lower moisture content than all varieties of the potato, making them ideal for frying!

1. Soaking

Soaking the raw cut potatoes/yams in cold water for several hours before frying is one of the most important steps.  Soaking removes the excess starch on the surface of the potatoes/yams, which cause them to stick together during frying.  Removing the excess starch also allows the steam from the inside of the fry to escape for even cooking.  Finally, the starch converts to simple sugars in cold water.  Simple sugars brown more quickly than starch, which gives the fry a nice crispy exterior!

2. Oil

The best oils for deep frying have the highest smoking points.  The smoking point is the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke, which you never want to see.  Canola oil and peanut oil are great choices for frying fries, because their smoking points range from 420º- 445ºF, which are safely well above the ideal potato/yam frying temperature range (360º-375ºF).  Also, peanut and canola oils both have relatively mild flavors that will not overpower the flavor of the potatoes/yams.  I thought about using palm oil, which has an even higher smoke point (455ºF), but I couldn’t find it in my local grocery store.  So I chose peanut.

3. Temperature

The oil for deep frying potato/yam fries needs to be between 360º and 375º F.  If the temperature is below this range, the potatoes/yams will absorb too much oil; conversely, if the temperature is above this range, the outsides of the potatoes/yams will burn before the inside cooks through.  If you don’t already have a cooking thermometer, it is absolutely necessary (for good results and safety) that you get one for making fries!

4. Pre Frying

Make sure that the potatoes are well drained and patted completely dry with paper towels before frying.  Mixing water and hot oil is dangerous.

5. Post Frying

I learned a great tip from the best fried chicken fryer I personally know: crumple paper towels into loose balls for draining oil.  This creates a larger surface area for oil absorption.  Three paper towels crumpled absorb much more than 3 paper towels stacked on top of each other.  Also, make sure to salt each batch of fries immediately after they come out of the fryer.  This is when the salt will stick best to the surface!

Make sure to save the bottle your oil came in.  Deep frying uses a lot of oil, so you should definitely reuse it.  Just strain your oil through a coffee filter or cheese cloth, and then refill the original bottle.  Just make sure to label it so that the yam fry oil does not end up in your boxed brownies.

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Let’s get REAL miracle whippin’ and fryin’!

HHC’s Homemade Grapeseed Oil Mayonnaise

**if you aren’t bothered by jarred mayo, feel free to skip this step… although if you have never had homemade mayo, you NEED to give this a shot!

Ingredients

•    1 egg yolk (grade A or AA, organic certified)
•    ½ tsp salt
•    ½ tsp sugar
•    2 tsp lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
•    1 cup of grapeseed oil

Directions

1. Whisk together the egg yolk, salt, and sugar in a small bowl.

2. Squeeze the lemon juice into a large bowl.  Whisk in half of the yolk mixture.

3. With an electric blender, start whisking the mixture briskly, then start adding the oil a few drops at a time until the liquid thickens and lightens.  You are creating a beautiful emulsion!

4. Increase the oil flow to a constant, thin stream. Once half of the oil has been added, add the rest of the yolk mixture.

5. Continue whisking until all of the oil is incorporated. Leave at room temperature for 1 hour.

HHC’s Ghanaian Curry Dip

Ingredients

•    1 tbs Ghanaian curry powder (or other variety of curry powder, such as Madras)
•    ¼ cup homemade mayonnaise
•    ¼ cup sour cream
•    1/8 tsp onion powder
•    1/8 tsp garlic powder
•    1 tsp fresh lemon juice
•    Salt and freshly ground black pepper (according to taste)

Directions: Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and whip together until well combined, using an electric hand mixer.

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HHC’s Gochujang Dip

Ingredients

•    2 tbs Gochujang (Korean fermented red pepper paste)
•    ¼ cup homemade mayonnaise
•    ¼ cup sour cream
•    1 tsp fresh lemon juice
•    Salt and freshly ground black pepper (according to taste)

Directions: Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and whip together until well combined, using an electric hand mixer.

x

HHC’s African Yammes Frites

Ingredients (serves 6-8)

•    1 ~2 lb African yam (or an equal weight of russet potatoes)
•    Canola or peanut oil (enough to be ~2-3 inches deep)
•    Salt

Directions

1. Skin the yam/potatoes and rinse them under cold running water.  If using an African Yam, wear gloves.  Raw African yams are actually mildly poisonous!

I sliced my yam into 4 cross sectional pieces (since the yam was so big), and then skinned them using a paring knife (since the skin is much thicker than potato skin).

2. Chop the rinsed yam pieces/potatoes into ~1-2 inch cubes.  Place the pieces in a large bowl and fill the bowl with cold water until all of the pieces are completely submerged.  Allow it to soak in the fridge for at least 1 hour, and up to 8 hours.

As you can see, I had a very difficult time cutting the pieces into uniform cubes.  But I like the rustic, unrefined look, anyway.

3. Drain the yams/potatoes well and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels.

4. Pour the oil ~3 inches high in a deep pot.  Clip on your cooking thermometer.  Turn on the heat to high, and readjust the amount of heat until a stable temperature is reached between 360º and 375º F.

5. Once the appropriate temperature has stabilized, fry the yams/potatoes in small batches.  To avoid splattering, place the pieces (~20) in a wire mesh sieve and slowly lower it into the oil.  Make sure not to place too many fries in one batch.  Otherwise the temperature of the oil will dip below the ideal frying temperature range, and your fries won’t be as crispy!

6.  Fry the yams/potatoes until they float to the surface of the oil (~3-5 minutes).  They should have a golden brown color.  Using the wire mesh sieve, pull out the yam/potato fries.  Gently shake off the excess oil (in the sieve) over the pot, and then transfer the fries to a plate with 3-5 crumpled paper towels for draining.  Immediately sprinkle with salt.

7.  Allow the fries to cool for 1-2 minutes.  Serve with the creamy Ghanaian curry and Gochujang dips!

Before we dig in, let me remind you – no double dipping please!

Ooooh wait a minute.  That’s not an issue with these bite-size cuts!  Very nice.  This will come in handy when I expect gross guests.

Ok let’s try ’em.

Mmmmmmm…. so crunchy, yet so fluffy.  And the dips are so flavorful and creamy.

The left over curry dip will be great for my chicken, raisin, and walnut curry salad.  Hm… I wonder how the Gochujang dip would work into a salad?  Perhaps with chicken, cashews, and crisp asian pear chunks?  Time for some more experimentation.

Until next time…..

xoxo

HH Contessa

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. wtkitchen permalink
    April 13, 2010 9:29 pm

    Oh man that looks awesome!

    now where the hell do i find a yam around here…

  2. sopong permalink
    April 14, 2010 11:45 am

    This Ghanaian boy totally digs this post. I can practically taste the perfectly crunchy yam fries. Ahhh memories of West Africa… I really like the idea of having Ghanaian curry and Gochujang dip. A sort of best of both worlds combination. If you let me know a time and place a fufu lesson can easily be arranged 🙂

    • April 15, 2010 12:39 am

      The ever pervasive smokiness, intense equatorial/prime-meridial cross-sectional heat, continuous flow of music, fat dotty-eyed babies………. I miss Ghana.

      But thank God for food. It’s really the best way to feel the soul of West Africa yet again (aside from pictures). I might just have to take in on your offer!

  3. April 14, 2010 4:43 pm

    At last, a blog post about a real yam. And yes I do know that raw yam/mild bleach aroma you are talking about.

    • April 15, 2010 12:44 am

      Rocquie,

      Glad to know I’m not completely delusional. I couldn’t find a single website that described its smell in that way!

      HH Contessa

  4. April 15, 2010 9:21 am

    Wow, very extensive post. You could’ve easily split it into 3 or 4 recipes. I was directed to your blog by my friend Matt at Mattatouille.com. Your technique in frying the yam frittes reminded me of this pretty helpful book on simple food science How to Read a French Fry. I’ll have to explore your bog more

  5. April 18, 2010 6:00 am

    Lynn, Aaron was the food buddy with whom I went to Eleven Madison Park. He’s a superb writer himself and has taken on the NY food scene since studying law in Manhattan. We used to eat through the ethnic neighborhoods of L.A. back in the day. Keep taking photos during the day.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    August 30, 2011 8:54 am

    What is 1 serving of african yam? I mean, how many grammes or cups constitute one servinf of yam? Does anyone know any authoritative source of information for this question? Thanks.
    Vic.

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