As I sat down to lunch with a friend last week, our eyes drifted to the foods on my plate — sweet potato fries, lightly fried and delicious shrimp, French bread coated in butter and a small salad. A blush rose at the display. I might have tsked at my fried and fatty carb frenzy, but I ate. Sigh. I ate.
In a desperate attempt to save face and make sense of my cravings, I looked, as others before me, online. And, oh goodnesss, what a relief to find where to point a finger! Nature. As you know, the foods the Earth generates change in the fall. The bounty of colorful seasonal foods that seem designed to catch your eye help our bodies build up a layer of fat to survive the cold, fat-burning time to come — aka winter. Think of the potatoes, apples, squash, pumpkins, dates, figs, pears and more that are at the grocery and likely on your Thanksgiving table recently, Mira and Jayson Calton say in the food blog Mark’s Daily Apple. Such beautiful colors. Nature’s call to indulge. Succulent meats such as turkey, duck, venison, beef and fish that we enjoy much of the year also are on offer, the blog says, but it’s the produce and fruits that mark this season.
The Caltons say to take a look at that fall food list: potatoes, apples, squash. They’re starchy carbohydrates and high-sugar fruits — tasty, energizing and addictive. The work these nutrients do with proteins signal the body to get ready for the next season. Mother Earth knew we needed a push to store up for winter.
Because I’m not a scientist, I cannot vouch for the idea that our bodies still work this way. It could be ridiculous to think that we reset in the fall. But old wives, always among my favorite humans, say it’s true — that our bodies get ready to go through a period of time when we have less daylight, are less active, when we — with any luck at all — burn fat to keep our body temperature comfortable. But then, these foods of the harvest are what they are — ready when they are, flush with carbs and flavor. Coincidence?
So, even though we have indoor heat now, let’s make an all-out push for decadent autumnal food. You know, just in case we need a little extra under the belt to get us through. Use butter.
CANDIED SWEET POTATOES
2 pounds sweet potatoes
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup salted peanuts (optional)
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
Cover sweet potatoes with water, bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes until done. Prep time can be made faster if you boil or bake your sweet potatoes a day ahead and refrigerate them overnight in their jackets. When cooled, peel and cut into chunks. Place in a 2-quart baking dish. Add peanuts if you are using them. In small saucepan, combine remaining ingredients, cook and stir until mixture boils. Take off heat and add the optional cayenne if you like a little heat. Pour mixture over sweet potatoes. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.
Nina Furstenau teaches food writing in the Science and Agricultural Journalism program at the University of Missouri. She is the author of “Savor Missouri, River Hill Country Food and Wine” and “Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland.” This column appeared in “A Spiced Life,” on December 10, 2013, in the Columbia Tribune.