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Griffin to Go: A Taste of San Antonio in Upstate New York

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I had to leave town in order to get a unique taste of San Antonio.

I am in upstate New York as part of my master’s degree program, and just after leaving the airport in Albany, my friend Carol decided she need to stop at Michael’s to pick up a picture frame. So, off we went to the store, and while she was shopping, I started browsing the aisles. That’s where I found a cookbook from Burt Wolf and Andrew F. Smith titled “Real American Food” (Rizzoli, $12.98). The front promised “Authentic Regional Cuisine” as well as “Restaurants, Markets, and Shops Plus Favorite Hometown Recipes,” while the back listed San Antonio as one of the 10 cities included, along with Boston, San Francisco, Richmond, Chicago and New Orleans among others. It was the only city in Texas to be included.

The volume, which came out in 2006, was wrapped in cellophane, so I couldn’t tear right in and see what San Antonio treats lay in store and from which restaurants.

But once in the car, I removed the wrapper and opened to read only what was included about San Antonio. I first found some fairly generic pictures included shots of margaritas, chiles and cascarones. Good, certainly, as descriptive as the images from Miami, Philadelphia and New Orleans, though I would have preferred one or two landmarks in view. (Mariachis and Christmas lights at Mi Tierra, for sure.)

The information was also some tasty morsels on the city’s culinary history, including Fritos, puffy tacos, Church’s chicken, Tex-Mex and chili, while highlighting restaurants such as Azuca, Rosario’s, Liberty Bar, Josephine St. Cafe, Ray’s Drive Inn, “Biga on the Bank” (sic), and Schilo’s. (Just seeing Schilo’s name made me long for a mug of their house-made root beer.)

But it’s the recipe area where such a book’s reputation stands. Here, Wolf, who hosted the PBS series, “Burt Wolf’s Table,” and Smith have provided us with several expected favorites: huevos rancheros, chili con carne, tortillas, enchilada sauce and pecan pie.

But there was one curiosity that I’ve never seen in the city: BBQ-Rubbed Sweet Potatoes. According to the legend that precedes the recipe, “Sweet potatoes originated in the tropical areas of the Americas and they were widely distributed throughout the Caribbean in pre-Columbian times. European explorers exported sweet potatoes to Europe, where they became popular enough to be mentioned by Shakespeare in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor. Europeans also introduced sweet potatoes to Africa, where they were quickly adopted due to their similarity to the yam. It is through the slave trade that sweet potatoes and yams were introduced into the American South, where they were commonly grown by slaves and poor whites. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the sweet potato became popular throughout the United States. This recipe for BBQ-Rubbed Sweet Potatoes is a real American creation fusing traditions from Africa with those of barbecue.”

I guess the word “barbecue” is what makes it a San Antonio dish. Regardless or its origins, the recipe sounds so good and so easy to adapt to your tastes (less cumin, more chili powder, no brown sugar, maybe a touch of cayenne — the choices are endless and yours to play with) that I can’t wait to get home to give it a try.

BBQ-Rubbed Sweet Potatoes

2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons BBQ spice
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
4 medium sweet potatoes
4 tablespoons salted butter
4 tablespoons light brown sugar

Sweet potatoes

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

In a medium bowl large enough to fit each of the sweet potatoes, mix together the paprika, chili powder, BBQ spice, garlic powder, cumin, poultry seasoning, salt, oregano and onion powder.

Wash each sweet potato thoroughly under cold running water. Carefully pierce each potato 4 to 5 times, with the tip of a small knife or the tines of a fork. With the sweet potato still wet, dredge each potato into the spice rub and place on the prepared baking sheet.

Bake the sweet potatoes for about 1 hour 20 minutes, or until they are very tender when pierced with a fork. To serve, split each potato open, lengthwise, and dollop each with 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar.

Makes 4 servings.

From “Real American Food” by Burt Wolf and Andrew F. Smith

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