Farm Beat: Sweet potatoes star in Slow Food feast

11/08/2013 5:31 PM

05/02/2014 3:52 PM

The last time I lingered over sweet potatoes was when I tried to feed them to my baby daughter a decade ago. Try as I might over what seemed like an hour, she wasn’t going for the bright orange stuff in the jar.

Thursday night in Turlock, about 200 grown-ups lingered over their own sweet potatoes, and they were loving them. The local chapter of the Slow Food movement held an annual dinner that featured this truly local food in every course.

The movement, as its name suggests, rejects the idea of fast-food joints and microwave meals in favor of leisurely dining on wholesome dishes in the company of family and friends.

“It means advocating for good, clean and fair food for everybody – good for the planet, good for the farmer, good for the farmworker and good for the consumer,” said Charity Kenyon of Galt. She is the governor, as the movement calls it, of the Slow Food chapter in our part of the Central Valley.

The $50 tickets for this three-hour event at the Larsa Banquet Hall bought a meal prepared by some of the area’s best-known chefs. For appetizers, they put sweet potatoes into chowder, salad and Norwegian pancakes known as lefse. They served them with roast chicken in the main course and in bread pudding for dessert.

“We had several conference calls so we were not repeating each other,” said Bryan Ehrenholm, executive chef at the Manteca Unified School District’s new culinary academy. His students prepared the appetizers, including salads with shredded sweet potato in three colors.

“In America today, everything is so fast and it’s about convenience and being as quick as possible,” said Ehrenholm, who owned the Lunch Pail restaurant in north Modesto.

He oversees the feeding of several thousand Manteca-area students each school day, but even this has some of the Slow Food flavor. The school menu features a turkey-and-gravy dish that takes a few days to prepare.

Slow Food started in 1986 in Italy and has grown to about 100,000 members around the world. Some critics call it elitist, but supporters say the principles can work on a regular family budget.

And it isn’t just about fresh food. Preserved items such as vinegar can be made with extra care, using the right ingredients and aging methods.

Jesse Layman, former chef at Galletto Ristorante in Modesto and other places, is making vinegar and olive oil in Ceres under the Sparrow Lane label. He offered samples at the dinner and talked about the Slow Food movement. “I believe that people are becoming more aware of where their food comes from,” he said.

Sparrow Lane does not have a sweet potato vinegar among its many flavored products, but nearby, dinner guests could try vodka distilled in Atwater from some of the local crop. Fourth-generation grower David Souza started the brand, Corbin, named after his son.

The stuff does not taste like sweet potatoes, but it does have a notable mouth-feel, said Sharon Ambrosia, operations manager for the three-employee company. “It has a creamy, buttery texture to it,” she said. “There’s no burn going down your throat.”

The dinner’s keynote speaker was Jana Nairn, who last year co-founded Ag Link, an online service based near Ballico that connects growers with school districts looking for local food. It has branched into Ag Link Connect, which allows farmers and food processors to post videos to iPhones and iPads belonging to people seeking local products.

Nairn also talked at the dinner about sweet potatoes, grown in abundance in the sandy soil around Atwater and Livingston and parts of southern Stanislaus County. Some folks call them yams, but that’s actually a different plant, widely consumed in Africa.

Dinner chairwoman Rosie Burroughs, a diversified organic farmer in the low foothills east of Denair, noted the nutritional value of sweet potatoes. They have loads of antioxidants and vitamin A, and if you leave the skin on, as much fiber as a bowl of oatmeal.

Burroughs also noted the death last week of “Sweet Potato Joe” Alvernaz, 93, a well-known grower and civic leader in Livingston. “He was called Sweet Potato Joe because he was very passionate about growing sweet potatoes and being a farmer,” she said.

So, there you have it, one heaping helping of sweet potato news. And some Thanksgiving menu ideas that go beyond marshmallow-topped casseroles.

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