Back in the late 1990‘s at the original NORMAN’S restaurant in Coral Gables we had a young man who became our Lunch Chef named Eliecer Garcia. Like many young chefs he was very interested in cuisines from all over and when we talked about what to put on our lunch menu his ideas ranged from France to Hong Kong. I loved that but sometimes I’d say, “Eliecer. I want you to show me flavors your Cuban Grandmother would make and then we can twist them a little. Okay? Why don’t you show me how she would cook with … oh… boniato for instance? And then we’ll go from there.”
Many WLRN listeners already know I am the person who introduced the term, “Fusion Cooking” into the lexicon of global cooking. I know that some don’t like me for it. But ’m not sure how many folks ever heard or read the original thesis I presented in Santa Fe, New Mexico on Fusion Cooking back in 1988. It was not about mixing food in an “anything goes” mindless way. It was about a wedding… yes… or a ‘fusion’, to put it another way, of conservative or rustic cookery with progressive cooking as an inquisitive chef --as I am—would seek out. I like to think of it as the best of both worlds. Grandma’s cooking with knowledge of physics and such.
So I listened to Eliecer and how his abuela prepares boniato at her home in Kendall… knowing full well I was not going to go exactly in her tracks but be guided by them as any smart cook would.
Boniato has a number of other names. Cuban Sweet Potato and Batata are two of the more common ones. This may get confusing, but here we go.
"In the 1930's a very sweet orange fleshed sweet potato was introduced as a Louisiana 'yam,' a marketing ploy that was intended to distinguish it from the similar, but firmer variety that was grown in the Northeast. That orange variety is not in any respect a true yam."
It is boniato, called that primarily because Cuban people are the main growers and consumers of this starch in the US and that's the name they know it by.
In Central America, where this potato originated, it might be called camote. The Cubans called it boniato because the words mean "sweet and harmless" to them as opposed to hot, or picante. It may be harmless but it is also very good… and it is less sweet than our sweet potato. Its flavor is chestnut-like.
Boniatos are not as sweet and moist as other sweet potatoes, but many people prefer their fluffier consistency and more delicate flavor. In Spain it is common to see boniato and chestnuts in a combined mash. I think I’d like that!
“In certain parts of the world, sweet potatoes are locally known by other names, including: goguma, man thet, ubi jalar, ubi keledek, shakarkand, satsuma imo, and ‘el boniato’”.
Chef Eliecer came up to me one day back then and said, "I have a lunch special I'd like to run at tomorrow, Chef. If you approve, of course… It would be "Soy Glazed and Grilled Local Mahi on a Mash of Boniato with Mojo".
Is that what you meant by twisting my Cuban dishes around?
I replied. "EXACTO!"
And you know what?
I think his Grandmother would love it.
BONIATO HASH CAKE
©2002 All rights reserved by Norman Van Aken
2 Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
2 boniato “ “ “ “
4 teaspoons butter
½ medium red onion, peeled and chopped medium
2 scallions, root discarded, chopped crosswise (some of the green included)
1 Tablespoon garlic cloves, sliced thinly
1 Tablespoon chopped basil
½ teaspoon cilantro leaves, chopped
½ teaspoon thyme leaves, chopped
1 egg yolk, beaten
1 Tablespoon Roasted Garlic
¼ teaspoon cayenne
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
Oil, (as needed) for sautéing
Put the potatoes and boniato in a pot of water and bring them to a simmer. Simmer until barely done. Drain well and chill. (Do not chill in water; chill in the refrigerator uncovered so that they don’t steam.
Heat a large, heavy skillet at medium-high heat and add the butter. Allow to get foamy. Sauté the onion, scallions, and garlic, stir to coat and caramelize. Remove pan from heat. Add the fresh herbs and cool slightly.
Put vegetable and herb mixture in a large bowl. Mix in the egg yolk, roasted garlic, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper.
Peel the potatoes and boniato and shred them on the large holes of a box grater.
Combine the potatoes and boniato with the egg, vegetable and herb mixture. (If you do this with your hands you can toss it more delicately and it will stay lighter) Taste for seasoning.
Preheat oven to 375F
Put half a cup of the mash into a wet #80 ring mold, and shape. Slide the ring mold off and continue until you have 4 cakes.
Heat up a heavy skillet at medium heat; add vegetable oil. Sauté for 1 minute or until golden brown on each side. Cook through in oven for about 5-8 minutes.