I have always found the inclusion of so-called “candied yams” among the typical Thanksgiving roster to be highly suspect. Even as a sweet-toothed Midwestern child, I held no truck with the notion of a root vegetable dish doused with brown sugar and bedecked with marshmallows masquerading as something savory. That cloying Wonka-esque confection, aside from being incongruous next to turkey, gravy, and mashed potatoes, seems to me a waste of a vegetable that is pleasantly sweet to begin with.
Following that logic, I much prefer dishes that provide a counterpoint that noble tuber’s earthy sweetness. To that end, I matched it with smoky, piquant harissa (a North African chili paste typically spiced with cumin and caraway) and tangy goat cheese in the form of a creamy, luscious gratin. The combination might seem exotic, but the bold flavors ultimately serve as backup players, letting the sweet potato take a well-deserved starring role.
After all, even if no one is counting calories, it seems fair to leave some sugar for dessert.
Sweet Potato Gratin with Goat Cheese and Harissa
Makes 4-6 servings
- 1½ cups heavy cream or half and half
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, coarsely chopped
- 2 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into ¼ inch thick slices
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
- 4 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled
- 1-2 tsp harissa*, depending on your preferred level of spice
- ½ cup grated pecorino Romano or Parmesan
- 2 tbsp chopped parsley, for garnish
- Preheat oven to 425º.
- In a large, wide pot (or Dutch oven) with a tight-fitting lid, bring cream, garlic, thyme, and 2 teaspoons of kosher salt to a boil over medium heat. Stir in the sweet potato, tossing with a wooden spoon or spatula to coat evenly with the cream mixture.
- Return the mixture to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cover. Cook until the sweet potato pieces are just tender enough to be pierced with a paring knife or skewer, about 15 to 20 minutes, uncovering and stirring every 5 minutes or so to ensure even cooking.
- Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan or casserole with the butter. Use a slotted spoon to transfer half of the sweet potato slices to the greased pan, spreading them to form an even layer.
- Sprinkle the sweet potato with half the goat cheese and dot with the harissa. Cover with the remaining half of the sweet potato slices, spreading to form another even layer. Pour the cream mixture left behind in the pot evenly over the sweet potato before sprinkling with the remaining goat cheese and the grated pecorino.
- Bake for 35-45 minutes, rotating halfway through, until bubbling and golden brown (lowering heat as necessary to prevent over-browning).
- Let cool for at least 10 minutes before sprinkling with parsley and serving.
*Harissa is now widely available in the international aisles of well-stocked grocery stores, as well as online.