November 18, 2009 1:15 PM
Sweet potatoes with orange-piloncillo syrup and chile de árbol

Our friends Tamara and Sean are crazy foodies and fans of the richness and versatility of chilies. So after receiving the invitation to join them next week for their Thanksgiving feast, I started playing with options on what to bring; with chilies of course.

This is one of the things I came up with and can't wait for them to try:  creamy and soft sweet potatoes bathed in a buttery orange-piloncillo syrup sprinkled, with toasted chile de arbol. How good are they? That fork in the picture I just shot accounts for my third consecutive serving today. How easy are they to make? Read below... 

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I am fond of sweet potatoes. Called camotes in Mexico, and eaten since Pre-Hispanic times, they tend to be eaten with a sweet spin. The most popular versions are either steamed and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, honey or syrup as the plantains I recently posted; or cooked into a sweetened paste, molded, caramelized and turned into addictive candies.

However, they are also cooked in many other ways. Through my travels and research I have tasted them in soups, puddings, warm salads, purees and even flans. Yet one of my favorite versions is how my mother makes them.

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She boils, peels and slices them. Then she adds chunks of butter, brown sugar or piloncillo, chile de arbol and into the oven they go. I started from her idea, but opted to make a syrup with what you see in the photo above: butter, brown sugar or shredded piloncillo, orange and lime juice for an extra layer of flavor.

Its simple: just place those ingredients in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Once the butter dissolves, let the mix turn into a light syrup, which takes about 4 minutes of gentle simmer. This syrup is so good, it could be drank out of a cup...

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Instead of drinking it all...  you can drizzle most of it over the sliced sweet potatoes in a buttered baking dish. For an incredibly earthy, deep and spicy kick, sprinkle some toasted and chopped chile de arbol on top.

If you are not familiar with the chile de arbol, this is what they look like.

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Chile de arbol have become widely available outside of Mexico. They are thin, elongated, have a beautiful red/orange color, and are spicy with a rich, deep flavor.

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To use them for this dish just remove the stems, make a slit down their sides and take the seeds off. See how I am opening them up? The seeds just come right off. It takes a minute.

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In an already hot dry skillet or comal set over medium-low heat (takes 3 to 4 minutes to heat up), toast the chilies for about 20 to 30 seconds on each side. Their inner skin will become opaque, they will let some aroma loose, and their outside skin will gain a toasty dark brown tan. Be careful not to let them burn all over.

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  They should look similar to this...

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 Then, just give them a friendly chop. And after you do, wash your hands with soap and water... you don't want to rub your eyes with chile de arbol. If you made more than you need, store them in a closed bag or container. They will keep forever.

Once you drizzle the syrup and sprinkle the chopped chile de arbol, add a bit of salt on top. Place in a 425 degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes. And you are set.

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 Ok, that's before my fork went in!  These are sweet potatoes with a delicious citrusy sweet spin and a flavorful spicy kick.

By boiling the sweet potatoes before placing them in the oven, you are getting a creamy and soft texture that can't be achieved by just roasting them in the oven. The quick finish in the oven, thickens the syrup further as it gives the already soft sweet potatoes a nicer outer finish. It is a great combination. I might as well finish what's on the plate...

Serves 4-6

3 pounds sweet potatoes
1/2 cup orange juice, preferably fresh
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice
3/4 cup grated piloncillo or brown sugar
1/4 cup or 2 oz unsalted butter
4 to 6 chile de arbol, stems and seeds removed, toasted and chopped
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, more or less to taste

Rinse and scrub the sweet potatoes. Place them in a large pot, cover them with water, over medium heat. Once it comes to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover the pot, and let it simmer for about 25 to 35 minutes. You will know they are ready, just like with boiling potatoes, when the tip of a knife can easily go through. Drain and let cool.

Remove the stems from the chile de arbol, make a slit down their sides and take out the seeds. On a preheated comal or dry skillet over medium-low heat, toast the chiles for about 20 to 30 seconds per side. Their inner skin will have become opaque and the outer skin will achieve a brown tan. Be careful to not let them burn.

To make the syrup, place the butter, piloncillo or brown sugar, orange and lime juice in a sauce pan over medium-low heat. Once the butter dissolves, let it simmer 4 to 5 minutes until it gains a light syrupy consistency.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and butter a baking dish (I use a 9 x 13).

Once the sweet potatoes have cooled, peel and slice them into about 1/2 to 1 inch rounds. Layer them in rows, pour the syrup on top, sprinkle the toasted and chopped chile de arbol and sprinkle some salt on top. Place the dish in the oven and bake anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes. Halfway through, spoon some of the syrup on top of the sweet potatoes. Bake them until the syrup has thickened to your liking and they have achieved a glazed crust. They are specially delicious if eaten while still hot.