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Food Stories: A new book by N.C. chef Stephanie Tyson

Published 12/14/2011
The Independent Weekly in Durham, NC

Chef Stephanie L. Tyson and her partner, Vivián Joiner, struggled to open Sweet Potatoes restaurant in Winston-Salem in 2003. "People didn't have confidence in us, two black women wanting to open a restaurant. Members of the city loan committee suggested we tone it down with a hot dog or hamburger stand instead," she says.

But Tyson and Joiner decided to take a chance and started the first restaurant in the city's art district. They financed Sweet Potatoes with some credit cards and a second mortgage on their home. Soon, city officials, residents and visitors flocked to the trendy Trade Street eatery for its creative Southern fare.

That fare includes drunken pork chops—grilled boneless chops served with sweet potato cornbread dressing and apple brandy gravy—and stuffed whole trout, a bacon-wrapped boneless rainbow trout stuffed with sweet potato cornbread stuffing, greens and crabmeat, topped with cold tomato-caper relish and served on creamy stone-ground grits.

Tyson shares about 100 recipes of the restaurant's famous dishes in Well, Shut My Mouth! The Sweet Potatoes Restaurant Cookbook (John F. Blair, $19.95).

If you can't get to the restaurant, where the music of John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald fills the orange-walled room and floats over the mahogany bar, you can get a taste of her food via the cookbook. She includes dishes such as gullah shrimp and crab pilau, Cheerwine-glazed country ham and sweet potato cornbread.

Tyson learned how to season food from her maternal grandmother, the late Ora Porter. She recalls that during Christmas Porter would cook ham and sweet potato pone: "It was like pie without the crust. She would put coconut and pecans in it," says Tyson, who studied culinary arts at Baltimore International College. "If she didn't have crust or didn't feel like making crust, she would make pone. It was good with butter pecan ice cream."

Sweet Potatoes' menu blends traditional Southern fare with low country and Cajun cooking. Tyson acknowledges she has visited New Orleans only once, but the flavor palette—a mix of African-American, French and Creole—stuck with her. Her interpretation of the mélange of those flavors is executed in her Catfish NOLA, panfried catfish fillet topped with spicy Creole sauce served over rice.

While Tyson runs the kitchen, Joiner runs the front of the house. She comes from a restaurant management background, working for many chain restaurants including Planet Hollywood. Joiner says the most popular dishes are the Southern fried chicken and the barbecued duck, but she prefers not to describe the menu as soul food. For Joiner, soul food conjures images of a fried bone-in pork chop sandwich on white bread.

Their version is a boneless fried pork chop on a sweet potato biscuit with a mango mayonnaise served with lettuce and tomato on the side. "It's food that is good for the soul" but not "artery-clogging," Joiner explains.

The atmosphere is intimate and friendly, with strangers often sitting together at the bar and making friends over a plate of hot food. You may see a theatergoer dressed in a tuxedo, a couple sharing a meal or a jeans-clad visitor. "If you want to finish that duck leg with your hand, it's OK," Tyson jokes. "It's not a white-cloth restaurant; it's down-home."

Sweet Potatoes also draws diners from the Triangle. Raleigh children's book author Kelly Starling Lyons describes the cuisine as "nouveau Southern with a unique spin on soul food." Her children love to share a basket of red and white fries, seasoned sweet and white potato fries, plus chicken tenders breaded with sweet potato pancake mix. Her husband is more adventurous, trying the drunken pork chop in one visit, the smothered yard bird the next.

Lyons is partial to the Carolina salmon florentine, a blackened salmon filet with sautéed spinach and shrimp remoulade atop toasted sweet potato cornbread. "All the flavors blend together perfectly," she explains, adding that she loves how the chef pairs sweet potatoes with other dishes like seafood, chicken and chops.

Andrea Lawson, performing arts director at the N.C. Arts Council, agrees. (Disclosure: I once worked in communications at the council.) She drives to Winston-Salem to attend performances but heads to the restaurant for the fried green tomato and okra basket served with sweet potato aioli sauce. "I don't like fried okra but I love theirs. It's slamming. During the National Black Theatre Festival, the wait was long but the food is worth it. The owners come out say hello and make you feel at home."

Stephanie L. Tyson's Sweet Potato Pie

Makes two 9-inch pies

2 medium-size sweet potatoes, enough to yield 2 cups when cooked and mashed
1 cup sugar
1 tbs. flour
3 eggs, beaten
14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 cup melted butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. lemon extract
1/4 cup sugar (optional)
1/2 cup water (optional)
2 sliced sweet potatoes (optional)
2 unbaked 9-inch pie shells

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake sweet potatoes for 45 minutes to an hour. Let cool for about 15 minutes. Peel and mash them in a bowl.

Combine the mashed sweet potatoes with the sugar and flour. Stir in the beaten eggs. Add the sweetened condensed milk and add cinnamon, nutmeg, butter, vanilla extract and lemon extract, mixing well.

Evenly divide the sweet potato mixture between the two pie shells and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until done. Pies should rise, and middles should no longer look shiny or wet.

Notes: For the most flavorful sweet potatoes, bake, then peel and puree them. Do not boil: By boiling them, a lot of the flavor is lost in the water, and the potatoes will be soggy.

As an option, you can use sweet potatoes to layer the unbaked pie shells. Simmer sugar and water in a saucepan, add the sliced sweet potatoes and cook about 15 minutes until barely tender. Allow sweet potatoes to cool and place them in unbaked pie shells.