baked sweet potato wedges

Savoury, sweet and moreish.
Savoury, sweet and moreish.

Once upon a time in a vegetable patch far far away, a pumpkin fell in love with a potato. Their eyes met across a crowded plot and after a sweepingly romantic courtship amidst the tubers and the squash, they got married and started a happy little Plantae family.

And that, boys and girls, is how we came to have sweet potato.

Brilliant rows of low-GI goodness
Brilliant rows of delicious low-GI goodness

Okay, so the story isn’t at all scientifically sensible or even morphologically accurate, but it’s as good an explanation as any as to how sweet potatoes manage to combine the best elements of two wonderful vegetables: the caramel-toned taste, gently yielding yet toothsome texture and brilliant orange hue could only be a result of true love.

We never grew up eating sweet potato. I vividly remember my sister cooking them for us once, baked whole in the oven with cinnamon sugar and butter, which was sadly far too sophisticated for my twelve-year-old tastebuds. I didn’t like them, didn’t understand how they could be starchy-but-not-really and sweet-but-not-really, and it all seemed to me to be a rather confusing, unwelcome distraction from my love of potatoes.

So I have a lot – a lot – of catching up to do.

Ready for the oven
Ready for the oven

And yes, it is really pushing it to call this a recipe, but it’s how I finally came to understand sweet potatoes in all their glory. I like to enhance the sweetness of the potato with brown sugar, and the savouriness with smoked paprika. If I want to go crazy with the complexity of flavours, I’ll finish it off with a sprinkling of sea salt before serving to create a sweet-salty-savoury mouthful, slightly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside – the perfect accompaniment to pulled pork and coleslaw.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Baked sweet potato wedges
1kg sweet potatoes, cut into wedges
1 tbsp oil
1 tbsp brown or muscovado sugar
1 tsp smoked paprika

Toss the wedges in the oil, sugar and paprika.

Bake the wedges at 200C for 45 minutes-1 hour, until golden and the edges turn crisp.

mayo-free coleslaw

You know you’re in trouble when you’re rifling through the vegetable bin on a mad search for the most photogenic carrot in the bag.
You know you need serious help when you’re rifling through the vegetable bin on a mad search for a ‘photogenic carrot’.

I get the feeling that it’s not quite cool to love cabbage. I mean, there’s the trendy purple sprouting broccoli, showy rainbow collards and the ultra-chic kale, but you don’t really hear about artisanal cabbages, do you? And that’s a little sad. It always strikes me as somewhat underappreciated and overlooked; a steady and consistent performer, but hardly ever invited to be the star of the show.

Except, of course, in coleslaw.

Coleslaw is one of those mad concoctions that has the rather unexpected capacity to blow your culinary socks off. It’s a riot of colours and textures, a positive festival of flavours. Homemade coleslaw is a world away from its commercial counterpart, which tends to be a damp and colourless collection of mystery vegetables swimming in a sort of mayonnaise soup. If you have the chance, it’s worth the extra effort.

Mayo-free healthy coleslaw
It’s time to celebrate the humble cabbage, don’t you think?

Since it’s so often served with meat (like the weekend’s pulled pork), I think it particularly important that it be able cut through that rich density with a bright, crisp zingyness.

This mayo-free coleslaw is all zesty freshness and isn’t remotely heavy. You can serve it as a traditional side dish, but in my opinion it also stands on its own as a delicately balanced, intensely crunchy salad.

Mayo-free coleslaw
For the slaw:
4 x spring cabbage leaves, finely sliced into ribbons (you can use a quarter of a white cabbage if you prefer)
Quarter red cabbage, finely sliced into ribbons
Half a red onion, very finely sliced
1 carrot, grated
Juice of half a lemon

For the dressing:
4 tbsp olive oil
Juice of a whole lemon
1 tbsp honey
Half tbsp wholegrain mustard

To take the punch out of the onion, squeeze half a lemon over it and leave it to soak as you get on with the other ingredients. You can skip this bit if you’re fond of the taste.

In a large bowl, toss all your salad ingredients.

In a separate bowl, whisk the salad dressing ingredients together (you can also shake in a jar). The juice output of lemons varies, but you’ll know when you’ve got it right because it will form a light, citrusy emulsion. Season with a pinch of salt, or to taste.

Pour the dressing over the coleslaw and mix well. I tend to like mixing it ahead of time so the cabbage has time to lose a little of its rawness. The dressed or naked salad keeps well overnight.

pulled pork

Pulled pork: the ultimate comfort food.
Pulled pork: the ultimate comfort food.

‘So here’s the deal,’ I said. ‘I’m going to set this up right. I’m going to do the work, give you a lot of love, and make sure you’re all good to go. But once you’re in that oven, it’s over to you, buddy. I’ve done my bit. And we both know that if you don’t pull correctly at the end of it, that is not entirely my fault.’

Such is the conversation I had with a shoulder of pork this morning.

Sugar and spice. And a few other things.
Sugar and spice. And a few other things.

Slow cooking is meant to be a relaxing process, but I can’t deny that there’s a little anxiety that always goes along with making pulled pork. Will it actually pull? Will it burn before it gets to pulling stage? At the end of this rather nerve-wracking day of cookery, will I have something to show for all my patience and devotion?

If you read any articles about the art of barbecue, you’ll discover that there’s an entire science behind it. You need a good amount of fat in the cut of meat, because there needs to be plenty of collagen running through the muscle fibres. The pulling texture occurs when the network of collagen denatures, turning into gelatine. This starts to happen at 70C (160F), so most recipes recommend cooking pork low and slow until it reaches an internal temperature of 87C (190F).

Wonderful. But do I sound like the sort of person who would have a meat thermometer handy?

Is pulled pork that hasn't been pulled just a roast?
Is pulled pork that hasn’t been pulled just a roast?

Reassuringly, I’ve never made pulled pork that hasn’t – well, pulled. Sometimes it’s been slightly more difficult than other times, sometimes it needs a bit of extra cooking, but it always comes good in the end.

Good pulled pork is smoky and rich, sweet and dense, moreish and juicy with that silky mouthfeel from all that gelatine. It speaks of long summer evenings with friends, a barbecue and an icy beverage, as well as cold nights huddled over deeply satisfying winter suppers. Since it’s cheap to make and feeds more people than you’d expect, it almost always features on my party menu.

Rich, dense and moreish – who can resist pulled pork?

Pulled pork
1.5kg pork shoulder
2 tbsp salt
2 tbsp dark muscovado sugar
1 tbsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
3 onions, roughly sliced
6 cloves garlic
1-2 cups apple juice

Preheat the oven to 220C.

Oil the bottom of a baking dish and place the onions and garlic in it.

Rub the mustard into the pork, then mix the salt, sugar and paprika together and work it over the shoulder. Make sure you get it into the nooks and crannies.

Place into the baking dish, skin side up.

You want to blast the shoulder at a high temperature for about 1 hour. After that, take it out, add a cup of apple juice and cover with foil.

Cook at 150C for 4-5 hours. The hotter your oven, the more likely it is that you’ll need the extra cup of apple juice, so check it halfway through. If you’re away all day, you can lower the temperature to 125C for 8-9 hours. Always give yourself an hour at the end before you need to serve it, in case it hasn’t cooked to pulling temperature.

Remove from the oven and stand with foil on for 20 minutes. This helps the meat relax so you can pull it. It’s easiest to do this with two forks – I do it in the pan so the meat soaks up the juices at the bottom.