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Early Girl’s sweet potato scramble
The origins of Early Girl’s sweet potato scramble: leftovers that had gotten a little too “mushy,” and bacon and sausage that happened to be around that day.
“It has molasses in it,” my husband says. My mother starts to ask how much, and then: “no, just don’t tell me.” She’s in Roanoke for the afternoon, and can’t stay long enough for the stack cake to finish baking, and she loves molasses.
She grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, in Page County farmland between those old mountains. Annual homecoming suppers at our little country church were baked beans, country ham, deviled eggs, homemade coconut cake. I was back there not long ago, sadly, for a family funeral, but it’s the sort of place and time that I can go back and feel I’ve never really left – the lunch afterwards was as nourishing as the sermon and the fellowship, with – yes, deviled eggs – fried chicken, country ham, coffee, lemonade, and fully four different kinds of Jell-O salad, and they were not on the dessert table. And yes, the desserts get their own table.
Phil, my husband, who is not from the mountains, or the south at all – he grew up in Pennsylvania and New York (as in City) – is the cook in our house, and I sent him the recipe for Apple Stack Cake that’s up on Asheville, N.C.-based restaurant Early Girl Eatery’s website. He’s a cook, as I said, not a baker, and so this may have been as much a challenge for him as it would be for me (I cannot remember how to make a grilled cheese sandwich) but a few hours later, we were slicing the stack cake among – who else? – church friends following an evening service, these days at a little urban parish two and a half blocks away from our house, not a 40-minute drive up the valley, but the same thing.
Desecration may have occurred. Phil substituted lemon and ginger for the cloves and brown sugar, and he didn’t dry the apples, as the recipe instructs – “I cooked them on the stovetop the way I would start an apple crisp.” He skinned, cored and sliced the apples and cooked them with sugar to soften them. His other tweak: a cup of apple cider reduced to a syrup, added to the apples.
Desecration or no, the resulting stack cake – “an Appalachian torte, basically,” Phil reflected – was quite good, with dollops of whipped cream.
We’ll make more for my mother the next time she comes to visit.
In the meantime, I asked five regional restaurants for their signature mountain dishes. Here they are, from the traditional to the traditional-with-a-twist – including one recipe for deviled eggs.
Sweet Potato Scramble:
Early Girl Eatery, Asheville, N.C.
John Stehling likes to keep his kitchen small, even if Early Girl does see 500 people in a day.
“I got a couple big, 12-inch cast iron skillets I use,” he says – also some 25- to 30-gallon hash pots from South Carolina for pork cracklings, a food processor – “another fryer would be amazing.”
But really, small is better. “I’m good at making do with what’s available to me. I’m thrifty, I’m frugal…. I have a plan for my leftover mashed potatoes.”
Which is how the Local Sausage and Sweet Potato Scramble came to be. “All the ingredients were all things we had around at the restaurant.” The menu had included sweet potatoes, and they’d been kept in the steam well to stay warm a little long that day and gotten “mushy,” as Stehling puts it.
“We cook a lot of bacon at the restaurant, so we have a lot of bacon fat around” – and there was local sausage. The end result was “a salty-sweet combination that fit.”
“People loved it – I couldn’t believe people love it!” said Stehling. “There’s dishes I spend all day on and I can’t give it away.”
John and his wife, Julie, who co-own the restaurant, aren’t from western North Carolina originally – John grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C. and Julie is from Detroit. They met while working at The Hominy Grill, a restaurant owned by John’s brother Robert. They clicked, got married, traveled around India and the Midwest, and ended up in Asheville, where they helped open Tupelo Honey, still a neighbor to Early Girl’s downtown Wall Street location. They opened Early Girl (named after a tomato variety) in October 2001.
“We grew up lower middle-class and we had a garden and a farmer who had a cow and would slaughter it for us,” John remembers. “It’s what I knew. I grew up in the south, cooking southern food, and had worked in lots of kitchens that were pretty straightforward Southern. If I had grown up Italian, I might have cooked Italian food.
“…I try to concentrate on Appalachia – that’s why we do so much corn, and sweet potatoes and squash.” John and Julie, who have two children – Henry, 9, and Milo, 7 – garden: “strawberries, peppers, squash, a little bit of everything, nothing too amazing.” The garden is on hold this year because they’ve opened a new chicken and waffles restaurant, King Daddy’s, in west Asheville.
The Recipe: Early Girl Eatery's Local Sausage and Sweet Potato Scramble
- 2-3 strips bacon
- 2-3 ounces sausage
- small handful shiitake mushrooms
- ½ cup prepared candied yams
- 2 eggs
- 1 Tbl. scallions
- salt and pepper to taste
Cook bacon, chop and set aside fat. In a large sautee pan, heat bacon fat on medium high. Add sausage and cook until done.
Add shiitake mushrooms and yams.
Sautee until everything is piping hot.
Add chopped bacon, eggs and scallions. Cook until eggs are done.
Add salt and pepper if needed.
To Make the Candied Yams:
- 15 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 1 lb brown sugar
- 1 cup lemon juice
- ½ cup oil
- 4 dashes tabasco sauce
- 1 tsp. nutmeg, grated
- 1 Tbl. salt
- 1 tsp. black pepper, ground
Toss sweet potatoes with other ingredients. Bake in the oven at 400 degrees until tender.
Looking Glass Creamery, ashevillecheese.com
Imladris Farm, Fairview, N.C., imladrisfarm.com
Green Toe Ground, greentoegroundnc.com
Hickory Nut Gap Meats, Fairview, N.C.,