“But they look so plain!” I whined to my mom as I was plating my latest concoction.
She looked at me with a happy grin on her face as she licked the last dollop off her finger, shrugged and said, “Plain can be good.”
And, for the 4.7 millionth time in my life, I had to concede that my mother was right.
I got the inspiration to make for this delightful (and not at all uncommon) dish from a memory – a distant, but fond food memory that I’ve carried with me for years. Though I’d like to kick myself for not having gotten the exact recipe when I had the chance, the memory is so dear to me that I’m willing to try my hand at recreating it.
When I was a little girl, my parents and I used to spend a lot of time with my godmother, Mimi, and her mom, Doña Pilar. My mom and Mimi were best friends for decades, so time spent with her and Doña Pilar was like spending time with a favorite aunt and a tiny little spitfire of a grandma.
Like most grandmas, Doña Pilar’s cooking was not to be rivaled. Hailing from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, her dishes were always filled with sensational aromas, explosive flavors, and a huge helping of heartwarming life lessons. Watching her make tortillas by hand was not just a work of art in progress; it was a lesson in hard work and perseverance. Making menudo wasn’t just about getting the right seasoning ratio down; it was about appreciating the importance of family.
Those moments we spent with Doña Pilar in her kitchen were invaluable lessons in life, love – and ridiculously good Mexican food. Many years we’d join together for holiday dinners, swapping hosting duties between Thanksgiving and Christmas. My dad, forever a fan of my mom’s Thanksgiving cooking, had an extra special spot in his heart – and stomach – for Doña Pilar’s food (probably because it came with a healthy dose of grandmotherly ass-kicking).
While I can’t recall the exact menu we’d enjoy, I do remember we’d go home raving about one thing in particular: the whipped spiced carrots. It’s not rocket science, nor is it the latest in modernist cuisine. It’s just one of those dishes that’s almost perfect because of its simplicity.
Because I was quite young the last time I had these, I don’t remember everything involved in their preparation. What I do know is that the carrots’ natural sweetness was complemented beautifully by several warm spices, the most notable being anise.
Now, I’m not the biggest anise fan in the world because it tastes like black licorice, but despite my general dislike for it, I have to admit it lends something special to a simple dish like this. Along with allspice, nutmeg and a bit of ginger, it brings out the comforting sweetness of the carrots without overpowering them. In my version, I added sweet potatoes to the mix and found the anise had a similar effect: it enhanced their natural flavors subtly but memorably.
And that, right there, was the lesson of the whipped, anise-scented carrots I used to hug Doña Pilar just a little more tightly for, because I loved them (and her) so much: simplicity can be beautiful; memorable. This is just a mix of root vegetables, milk and spices – nothing that special. But when put together they are special, because their own special flavors & textures get to shine through with minimal interference.
Whether it’s in art or in food or in general acts of kindness to one’s fellow humans, if it’s simple and good, there’s no need for bells & whistles to make it stand out. The simple things – family, good friends, amazing food – those are the things that will linger in your memory for years and put a fond smile on your face when you least expect it.
Spiced Sweet Potato & Carrot Puree (makes 6-8 servings; total cost per serving: $0.75)
I bought my anise star pods in bulk at my local food co-op, but you should be able to find these in the spice section of the ethnic foods aisle of your favorite store for about $2/bag. If you can’t find them, a couple drops of anise extract will give a similar result.
4 large garnet sweet potatoes, peeled & chopped into 1” cubes
8 large carrots, peeled & chopped into 1” cubes
2 T olive oil
Pinch of salt & pepper
1½ c nonfat milk
2 T butter
½ t freshly ground nutmeg
¼ t ground allspice
¼ t ground ginger
3-4 anise pods
1. Preheat the oven to 400º. In a large bowl, toss the sweet potatoes and carrots together with the olive oil and a large pinch of salt & pepper. Place in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with foil and roast for about 20-25 minutes, until tender.
2. In a large pot, combine the milk & spices and bring to a simmer. Add the butter and whisk together until melted. Simmer over low heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and remove the anise pods from the milk.
3. Add the sweet potatoes & carrots to the spiced milk. Working in small batches, puree in a blender* until almost smooth (a little texture is fun for both visual and mouth appeal). Garnish with extra star anise if you have it, serve as a side with meats or as part of a vegetarian meal, and enjoy!