Vivian Howard will admit to being one of those moms who made all of her kids’ baby food. It was one way for her work as a chef to be meaningful to them. She used the baby food aisle as a guide, mimicking the textures and combinations that coincided with their increasing age. Vivian started with this combination of sweet potato, ground turkey and spinach when her twins were eight or nine months old, and she just developed the same healthful ingredients over time into something we all like to eat. From “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South,” by Vivian Howard (Little Brown and Company, 2016).
Sweet Potato Parmesan Topping
4 to 5 medium sweet potatoes
¼ cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon salt
⅔ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 medium yellow onions, diced
2 teaspoons salt, divided
3 cups quartered button mushrooms
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon ground chipotle powder
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons turmeric
8 ounces tomato sauce
8 ounces water
10 ounces frozen spinach
Make the topping:
Peel the sweet potatoes, and cut them into rough 2-inch chunks. Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan and cover them with water. Bring them up to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the potatoes are very tender.
Drain the potatoes and return them to the pan. Place the pan over low heat and add the brown sugar, butter, and salt. Using a fork or device of your choice, mash the potatoes so that they are nearly smooth and the butter and sugar are fully incorporated. Set aside.
Make the filling:
In a 12-inch saute pan or Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and 1 teaspoon of salt. Sweat for about 5 minutes, or until the onions are translucent. Push the onions to the edge of the pan and force them into a tight mound.
Add the remaining olive oil and the mushrooms. Allow them to sit and caramelize in the hot pan for about one minute. Resist the urge to shake the mushrooms around, as you are trying to develop flavor by letting them brown. After 2 minutes, stir together the onions and the mushrooms, making sure you scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
Transfer the onion and mushroom mixture to a plate, and add the final tablespoon of olive oil to the pan. Add the turkey and begin breaking it up with a spatula. Season the turkey with the remaining salt, garlic, chipotle powder, paprika, turmeric, and cumin. Allow the turkey to brown and the spices to toast. This will take about 4 minutes.
Stir in the onion mixture, tomato sauce, water, and spinach. Let this all cook down until it’s very thick and saucy. Remove from the heat.
Assemble and bake:
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Spread the turkey mixture in the bottom of a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish, a 12-inch cast-iron skillet, or 8-ounce ramekins. Spoon the sweet potato over the top so that it’s in an even layer. Sprinkle the sweet potato with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Bake for 1 hour uncovered. Allow it to cool for about 10 minutes before serving. My kids like this on its own, but I generally eat it with a green salad on the side for balance.