The only time I’ve lived away from my hometown was during my sophomore year in college when I moved to Beaufort, a small town on the coast of North Carolina. I lived there for a few months before traveling for a month down the Eastern seaboard to study marine zoogeography. That semester changed my life, and I’ve continued to process the memories over the years. Periodically I’ll share stories here on Willow Bird Baking from that time.
. . .
I stared willfully at the horizon, waiting for the wave of nausea to subside. As if it were having great fun at my expense, the boat rolled over another giant wave. My stomach followed. I was determined not to succumb to the sensation and end up hanging over the railing like several of my friends, so I squinted even harder at the steady line between sky and land.
We’d woken up at an absurd hour to climb aboard the R/V Susan Hudson that morning. We’d all become accustomed to rolling out of bed, pulling on a pair of salty old sneakers, and plowing through the fog of sleep to begin our adventures. Luxuries like showering and hairstyling and even, say, deodorant had long since been abandoned. There was a high likelihood that on any given day we’d find ourselves traipsing through mud up to our thighs (I’m not exaggerating), swimming to a nearby island, or cuddling with sea cucumbers in the shallows. There was no point in getting pretty.
This was our first deep sea expedition. We were traveling miles out into the ocean to dredge and trawl for invertebrates that we would take back to the lab, observe, and then release. I’d been on the Susan Hudson around Pivers Island, home base for the Duke Marine Lab where we lived, but I soon discovered that this was an entirely different experience: one in which I did not have sea legs. Or a sea stomach.
The briney smell of the critters we poured out onto the ship’s deck didn’t help. We quickly flipped fish back out into the sea and scooped heaps of clams, snails, and squids into buckets of seawater. A cacophony of seagull chatter above us reminded us to toss a bit of our impressively fresh sushi into the air now and then.
On our way back with our spineless loot (the squids’ inky water suggested they were none too happy with their temporary accommodations), we docked near Cape Lookout to explore the seashore for a bit before eating lunch back on the boat. The dining hall had packed us sweet little bag lunches complete with a sandwich, apple, and cookie, but the thought of lunch sent my stomach back into a lurch.
Fortunately, one of the guys in our group had grown up on the water in Charleston. Will had battened down hatches, swabbed the deck, shivered some timbers, and every other nautical cliche I can muster up. He saw my decidedly green gills and said, “Make sure to eat.”
I was skeptical. “Well, I’m feeling really sick — is it a good idea to eat anything? Isn’t that just asking for trouble?”
“Trust me: eat. You’ll feel better.”
I unfolded the wax paper around my sandwich and took a cautious bite. (By the way, if you’ve never wrapped a sandwich in wax paper for your lunch, you should. The sensory experience of unwrapping that crinkly, smooth paper to eat a humble little sandwich is one of my favorite things in the world.) I don’t remember what sort of sandwich it was, but it tasted otherworldly after an entire morning on the boat. My hunger caught up to me and I finished devouring my sandwich with gusto. I headed for the cookie after that, offering my apple to one of my friends (the peel gets caught in my teeth and drives me batty, so I never eat them).
My trust in Will, given tentatively and mostly out of desperation despite his obvious experience, paid off. I felt better almost instantly. So much so that instead of clenching my bench and staring at the now-bright horizon the entire way back to the lab, I was able to get up and survey the surrounding sea, broken by waves and playful dolphins.
. . .
I’ve moved from research boats to potato boats since my time in Beaufort. In fact, I haven’t stepped foot on an actual boat (unless you count a kayak) in years. And I wouldn’t trust these sweet potatoes to be particularly sea-worthy.
They are fantastic, though. I love twice baked potatoes for their soft, creamy filling, and this play on the theme boasts that same lovely texture. In addition to that, it has a phenomenal collection of flavors: sweet potato, cranberry, salty pancetta, sage, goat cheese, and a sweet balsamic glaze. The pretty presentation is just the icing on the cake.
Twice Baked Cranberry & Pancetta Sweet Potatoes with Balsamic Glaze
Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yield: 2 twice baked sweet potatoes
These gorgeous twice baked sweet potatoes are fancy enough for a holiday meal, but simple enough to make any night. You can even prepare them a day in advance so they’re ready to pop in the oven before a big meal. A few tricks (like using a zip top bag to pipe the mixture into their sweet potato boats) speed up the process. The best thing about them, though, is the fantastic combination of flavors: salty pancetta, sweet and tart cranberries, tangy goat cheese, fresh sage, and a sweet balsamic glaze. It’s every sweet potato’s dream.
2 large sweet potatoes (look for ones that are shaped like a fat oval)
4 ounces cubed pancetta
2 ounces goat cheese, plus more for crumbling on top
2 tablespoons butter
1 heaping teaspoon of loosely packed sage leaves, finely chopped
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup half & half
salt to taste
1 1/2 cups balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
In a small bowl, cover dried cranberries with hot water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit for about 10 minutes to rehydrate the berries. Drain them and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Poke each sweet potato several times with a fork and bake them on the oven rack (with a baking sheet on the rack below to catch any oozing) for 1 hour or until a knife will slice them easily.
While they bake, sauté the pancetta in a skillet over medium-high heat for a 8-10 minutes or until crisp. Drain it on a plate lined with a paper towel.
Once they’re ready, let the baked sweet potatoes cool for 10 minutes before slicing the top third off of each. Use a spoon to carefully scoop out the flesh (leave about 1/8 inch of flesh in the skin to give it some sturdiness). Mix the sweet potato flesh in a medium bowl with the butter, 2 ounces of goat cheese, and half & half (add this slowly while mixing so you get the consistency you’d like). Once the mixture is smooth, stir in the cranberries, sage, and pancetta. Salt the mixture to taste. Spoon it into a large zip top bag and cut the bottom corner off. Squeeze the mixture into the sweet potato skins. (At this point you can cover the potatoes and refrigerate overnight or bake immediately. If you chill them overnight, just let them come to room temperature before you bake them the next day.) Bake the potatoes for 10-12 minutes before removing them to a cooling rack.
While the potatoes are baking, combine the balsamic vinegar and sugar in a saucepan and boil them over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is reduced to about 2/3 cup (this can take anywhere from 18-25 minutes). Be careful — vinegar fumes are strong! When the glaze is about ready, preheat the broiler. Top each potato with a generous amount of goat cheese and broil, watching very closely, until goat cheese is toasty brown and bubbly. Remove the potatoes and drizzle on the balsamic glaze. Serve immediately.
P.S. This dish will be entered in the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission‘s No More ‘Mallows Recipe Contest. I love me some sweet tater and marshmallow casserole, but I also love that sweet potatoes pack a lot of savory potential.
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