Coconut and Pineapple Mashed Sweet Potato (aka Yam) Casserole

A typical Thanksgiving dish is a sweet potato casserole made with mashed and spiced sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows and then baked. I’ve been making this variant using coconut and pineapple for topping (as well as coconut cream inside) for a few years. I’m doing it again this year, so I thought I’d post the recipe somewhere public.

Ingredients:

  • 3 large orange sweet potatoes (like garnet). I do mean large.
  • 1 package solid coconut cream mixed up in a cup or so of water (example).
  • 1/2 cup (or more if you like it sweeter) maple syrup (or other preferably liquid sweetener you prefer such as honey)
  • 1-2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (I ground fresh from sticks)
  • 1/2 teaspoon (or more) ground nutmeg (fresh ground)
  • 1/2 teaspoon (or more) ground all-spice (fresh)
  • 1/2 teaspoon (or more) ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon (or more) ground coriander seeds
  • 1-2 cups dried coconut flakes
  • 1 pineapple cut up into 1 centimeter by 2 centimeter chunks or 1-2 cans of pineapple chunks that size

Steps:

  1. Peel sweet potatoes and cut up into smaller chunks. Boil until soft. Drain.
  2. Mash sweet potatoes with the reconstituted coconut cream, maple syrup and spices while still warm and place into a large casserole dish (or just mash in the dish like I did). Make sure it’s thoroughly mixed (no one wants a huge bite of clove except me).
  3. Cover the top with a thin layer of coconut flakes
  4. Cover that over with a solid layer of pineapple chunks.
  5. Just before baking, cover with rest of coconut flakes.
  6. Bake in 350F oven, uncovered, for 30-45 minutes (depending on how cool it got before baking).
  7. NOM. NOM.

Possible variations I’ve considered:

  • A heck of a lot more spice. I’m always wary of adding too much since these can be very strong spices.
  • We cut up a fresh pineapple for this, but if you used canned, you could drain some of the water and mix into the mash as substitue for some of the syrup or in addition.
  • Adding chunks of pineapple or bigger chunks of coconut throughout the mash.
  • Crazy layering: layer of mash, pineapple plus coconut layer, more mash, etc. Probably wouldn’t hold together though visibly and is probably equivalent to just adding pineapple and coconut to the mash.
  • Put casserole into small individual serving size dishes.

How to Really March Against Monsanto

Today was the March Against Monsanto. There was an event in Seattle. I didn’t go. I think the entire thing is misguided. There are real problems in our food system and the sustainability of our civilization. There is a lack of transparency. There is a lack of fairness. But Monsanto, as far as it does “bad” things, is a symptom, not a cause. Monsanto is a cartoon villain we’ve created to give us a sense of control, a real target to direct our anger at. Unfortunately the problems we have are diffuse and we’re all1 part of the problem.

Monsanto sells seeds, licenses seed traits to other companies and sells some pesticides (mostly glyphosate in various Roundup formulations). While the transgenic (“GMO”) corn and soy get most of the press, Monsanto also sells many varieties of non-transgenic seeds, including “commodity” crops (grains, oils, etc.) and even vegetables. They license their seed traits to other companies to include in their seed products. And, yes, they do sell Roundup. After all, one of their best-selling products are corn and soy that do not die when treated with glyphosate, allowing farmers to control weeds more efficiently than previous conventional methods. Their most notorious products are used in corn and soy so this post is about them. This leaves out a lot of interesting stuff, but this is about marching against Monsanto, right?

So who uses those Monsanto corn and soy seeds? To state the obvious, farmers use those seeds. The overwhelming majority of farmers in the United States that grow corn or soy find it useful to, at least part of the time, grow “GMO” varieties. Despite the usual rhetoric, farmers choose GMO varieties, at least part of the time. You can read it from farmers themselves. You can look for yourself in a seed catalog. Actually, please look at a seed catalog2. Yes, the local seed store isn’t going to carry too many varieties but the non-GMO ones (or specialty ones) can be ordered. After all, if everyone is buying a particular product line, you won’t find the “niche” version in stock — it’s not worth the “shelf” space. My co-op grocery store doesn’t sell Oscar-Meyer hot dogs, just like most seed stores in Illinois aren’t going to stock bags and bags of heirloom, open-pollinated corn seed.

So who buys all that corn and soy from farmers? We, as individuals, don’t. No one buys commodity corn or soy at the grocery store3.

usda_ers_cornuse_may2013
‘USDA Data on Corn Use, May 2013’

We consume corn primarily as animal products and ethanol (in fuel). The rest is processed food uses: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), corn starches and oil, alcohol (macro-brew lagers use a lot of corn), cereals, corn meal and so on. Soy is a pretty similar story, although soy has more protein and oil than corn so is used more for oil and protein additions (“textured vegetable protein” is often soy).

Monsanto is a symptom in this market. It would not be economically feasible for Monsanto to develop all these corn and soy varieties if there wasn’t a HUGE market for corn and soy. Monsanto is successful because they have provided ways for farmers to maintain huge yields of corn and soy to meet that market while decreasing costs and work. The farmers I’ve talked to online extol virtues like reduced pesticide inputs (e.g. fewer glyphosate applications versus many different herbicides to control different weeds), ability to reduce fuel use (glyphosate-tolerance makes no-till agriculture easier, which means less use of gasoline), more consistent quality at harvest (plant protection, such as from Bt in corn, means the seed has less damage from pests) and so on. Many farmers like these products: GMO corn and soy make their job easier. I personally think there are some undesirable externalities of our dependence on corn and soy, but I’m not going to demonize a farmer for meeting market demand.

So what about that market? How would you go about boycotting Monsanto, a real march against Monsanto? First up, you should give up any meat, dairy or eggs unless you are certain the animals were not fed corn or soy (or only non-GMO feed 4). Next up, you need to stop driving. Ten percent ethanol is mandated across the country and most of that comes from corn. You could also avoid all processed foods (to avoid additives like HFCS, citric acid, soy protein, soybean oil, etc.) but once you stop eating animal products and stop driving you’ve made the most impact.

If you really want to “March Against Monsanto” NOW, then stop being part of the market that has shaped what farmers need to grow to be successful. The irony to all of this is of course that Monsanto is really a small part of supporting that market. For all their success, innovations like tractors, hybrid varieties, decades of intensive breeding, soil testing and careful fertilization are far more important in supporting massive corn and soy production. But no one would “March Against John Deere” even though the tractor is probably one of the most important innovations in agriculture in all of history — and John Deere the company controls at least 60 percent of the farm equipment market. The tractor is far more important to maintain modern American corn and soy agriculture than GMO seeds. Strange to think with all the concern about GMOs.

I’m not suggesting you actually try to remove yourself from the market — or start a protest of green tractors. I obviously don’t think condemnation of any particular agricultural technology is necessary or reasonable. The problems in agriculture aren’t related to particular technology. They are related to what we, as a society, have valued. What we value (either in making law or making purchases) drives what farmers grow and thus why Monsanto is so successful. Throughout human history, the problem has been producing enough food, mostly grains (no one dies if the tomato crop fails, but they do if wheat fails). So our subsidies have been setup to support that. Now we are in an era of plenty. Food is cheap, nutritious, safe and plentiful. Historically, we haven’t worried as much about local or global pollution (whether it’s carbon emissions or pesticide and fertilizer runoff). We don’t, at a societal level, reward farmers who produce high yields with the least impact. Farmers will do their best, I believe, but if we don’t pay for it (and subsidize it through government so the poor are not harmed), then how can we expect farmers and companies to pay for it? Farms are not non-profits.

We have big problems. We need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions and agriculture is a big source of them — a farmer who can reduce their use of gasoline and produce the same amount of food should be rewarded, even if she uses “Monsanto GMO seeds”. We need farms that support living wages for all their workers — if that means food production is more expensive, how will we make sure poor kids still eat nutritious and balanced diets? We need better regulations of fertilizer and pesticide runoffs — and farmers need a way to make more money when they do better than a competitor at reducing those impacts. We need more research on how to achieve all these goals sustainably and fairly and we don’t achieve that by demonizing scientists at agriculture universities because (unsurprisingly) they are funded occasionally by Monsanto.

Monsanto isn’t out to poison us or the environment. They are just one part of a system that is meeting demand for plentiful, cheap food. If Monsanto went away tomorrow, our food system would look almost the same, including all the problems. I believe that most people who went to marches today are actually concerned about the same thing I am: how do we produce enough food, fairly, for all with minimal impact on the environment? How do we achieve that? Setting up cartoon villains isn’t the way to do it. Writing your Congress person and demanding improved regulation is a way to do that. Buying food that supports your values is another way to do it. Being against something seems satisfying, but being FOR something actually changes the world.


  1. I’m going to leave out people living on a farm, off the grid, using no resources they don’t gather with their own labor and somehow doing this all without having been educated by the rest of society.
  2. One of the most interesting things I “realized” when I started getting into this topic — though it’s fairly obvious if you think about it — is that there is no single “GMO corn”. Not only are there multiple GMO traits that go into corn (different Bt toxin genes, for example, that are active against different pests) but each farmer needs a corn that is appropriate to her growing conditions and intended use. A corn that is intended to feed dairy cows is different than one that will be sold as grain for ethanol production or food or by-products. A farmer in Minnesota won’t find that a corn that thrives in Missouri useful. Most corn these days are also hybrids so they require distinct parent lines to maintain the seed corn farmers actually want to buy. The transgenic traits are only added to one parent and provide almost none of the traits a farmer wants in the corn — the transgenes don’t provide traits like reliable maturity time, consistent ear size, even kernels, particular protein or starch levels and so on. So those parent lines have to be maintained. And there are a lot of them: ones for every region where farmers want to buy corn seed, ones for each type of use farmers might want to sell the product for, etc. And more are created every year as researchers and farmers find new useful traits (usually not transgenic) that they want to breed into preferred varieties. The industry of maintaining all those corn varieties is immense and very little of it is directly related to the “GMO-ness” of them.
  3. Okay, technically there are field corn varieties that humans eat. For example, pozole is made from grain, rather than sweet, corn. Soy milk and tofu are made from dried soybeans and of course soybean oil is a common ingredient. But generally we don’t buy corn and soy seed in the supermarket.
  4. Technically, even non-GMO corn and soy feed might come from seed lines indirectly owned by Monsanto or sold by a company that makes money selling Monsanto-traited seeds. Even if you bought only organic animal products, those animals are fed organic feed that is grown using manure that often comes from conventionally raised animals.

The Double Standard for Golden Rice

When I saw that NPR was doing a story on Golden Rice I was glad. I was even more happy when it aired on their national morning show. While I could quibble with parts of it, it was overall good. Sadly, one idea went unchallenged. In the story, a Phillippines-based member of the ETC Group is paraphrased saying that Golden Rice “will be more expensive and less effective than traditional nutrition programs”. A Food and Water Watch post even repeated a common claim in their headline: “Here’s Why Golden Rice Is Not A Golden Bullet”. Nothing in agriculture or social policy is a golden (or silver) bullet. So, why is Golden Rice held to this standard? Why must it work perfectly and always better than alternative solutions? Why is it held to this arbitrary unfair standard?

I’ve written about Golden Rice before and made some of these same points, but it deserves repeating. Let’s take the cost question first. It’s a common claim by people who oppose Golden Rice that it’s too expensive. Golden Rice, should it ever become available, will either be given to farmers free of charge or at no more than the cost of local, regular rice. So Greenpeace and ETC can’t mean cost to farmers. Perhaps they mean the costs of developing Golden Rice to non-profit organizations. That is admittedly a high cost. But by that standard, supplementation and fortification program costs would have to include the research and development costs for those programs. That’s clearly unreasonable.

But what about effectiveness? Studies have already shown that the beta carotene is effectively taken up in the body and turned into vitamin A. There are other studies to perform, but let’s assume the science checks out: a vitamin A deficient individual eating Golden Rice will become significantly less deficient, similarly to deficient individuals offered other high beta-carotene foods. Effectiveness is then a matter of convincing enough families to grow and eat it. This is admittedly a tricky problem, but at least once a family is given Golden Rice seed, they can keep growing it year after year. The typical solutions offered by Food and Water Watch, Greenpeace and the ETC Group — which I emphatically support — are supplementation programs (vitamin shots and pills), industrial food fortification (like many foods in developed countries) and diet diversity (eat more high beta carotene foods). Those solutions don’t (and likely never will) reach every individual held back by deficiency illnesses. Food and Water Watch even suggests sweet potatoes combined with fat supplementation (to increase uptake of beta carotene). If that solution is okay for people who prefer to eat sweet potatoes, why isn’t Golden Rice reasonable for people who prefer to eat rice?

Golden Rice is held to an unfair standard. No solution is a silver bullet. We need everything on the table. Opposing Golden Rice because it’s won’t solve all problems is an unfair standard. If it prevents only some deaths and blindness in children, I see it as worth trying.

The link about costs to farmers for Golden Rice was corrected after posting.

Risotto Variations

I’ve eaten more rice the last couple weeks than I usually do in a couple months. I’m just not a rice person. It’s fine as long as there’s some sloppy curry all over it, but I’m not usually in the mood for straight rice. Risotto, including brown rice risotto (!), has meant I’ve been eating it several days a week. It’s cheap and not actually absurdly caloric .. if we can resist adding a bunch of cheese. Here are some variations that we’ve been doing off the basic recipe I last posted.

Mark Bittman conveniently posted a squash and brown rice risotto article not too long after the last post. It turns out that making risotto with brown rice works pretty well. It’s still so tasty you have to stop yourself from overeating, but it’s not quite so rich as arborio. His recipe was the traditional method, over the stove, but I basically translated it to the pressure cooker methods by guessing. It worked out alright though I probably could have let it sit at pressure a couple more minutes. The water hadn’t quite absorbed and so I had to cook it down a bit on the stove after adding some wine. Poor me.

After making several variations, I can confidently state that this recipe is pretty forgiving. If you use too much water, you let it cook down. If you use too much squash, you have more creamy squashy sauce. If you use too much cheese … who am I kidding? Does that even happen?

The basic outline goes like this:

  • Sauté in some oil some onion, diced small, until it gets at least translucent if not on the way to caramelized.
  • Add veggies such as: peeled and diced winter squash such as butternut or unpeeled (!) delicata; mushrooms, any kind, diced.
  • Add X cups of brown or arborio rice. My pressure cooker looks like it can probably handle at most 3 cups of rice (given that we’ll be adding twice as much water shortly).
  • Stir a bit to toast in the oil. It will start to look translucent but shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.
  • Add twice X cups of water. For brown rice you can probably use a splash less.
  • Seal your pressure cooker and bring up to pressure.
  • Once at pressure, lower heat and cook for 7 minutes for arborio rice and maybe 9 or 10 for brown.
  • Quick-release the pressure by running water over the pressure cooker.
  • At this point, if you still have some water left you can cook it down. Optionally add wine.
  • Right before serving, stir in shredded cheese. We’ve mostly been using Cougar Gold from Washington State University. It’s delicious.

That’s the outline. It’s really forgiving. Pressure cookers are not as scary as you might think. Mine is a relatively cheap $30 (from the relatively expensive store Bed, Bath and Beyond) and has lasted me years with no trouble. Not only can you cook dried beans in it faster, you can cook fantastic risotto in it. Go forth and pressurize some rice and veg. You’ll be glad you did.

Pressure Cooker Risotto is Amazing

I recently obtained Modernist Cuisine at Home. Most of the recipes are, honestly, impractical or unlikely to ever be used. But it’s a pretty book and the attitude towards cooking as processes that have reasons behind them that aligns with how I think about food: it matters how it tastes at the end, not that a particular method was used.

Fortuitously, our friend next door had been picking chanterelle mushrooms and she brought us some (thank you!). Adam suggested we make mushroom risotto but then balked at the time and energy: he’s studying and I’ve been reading and was planning an easy dinner so I didn’t have to do much work. But he remembered that Modernist Cuisine at Home might have something for us and discovered you can make risotto (and many other rice dishes) in a pressure cooker. So, tonight we cooked our first recipe from it.

As usual, I didn’t follow the exact recipe but used it as a template (I don’t think I’ve ever cooked a recipe exactly as written other than breads). The specific recipe for vegetable risotto called for a complicated mix of stock and fresh veggie juices (and finishing with an absurd quantity of gouda cheese and butter). But the text emphasizes experimentation so I just stuck with the basic rule of keeping liquids and the rice in correct proportion. Here’s approximately what I did.

Approximate Ingredients

Amount Ingredient Notes
1 cup (dry) Arborio rice
1/2 medium Red onion Diced fairly small
1/2 pound (?) Chanterelles Cut into chunks maybe 1 cm by 2cm
2 cups Veggie stock It’s a little less (see below)
1 tablespoon Olive oil
1/2 cup Sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt As usual, this is a matter of taste

Steps

First the mushrooms need to be prepped. Clean them well. Mine came from a friend who’d been collecting in the rain, covered in dirt and pine needles. Awesome, but not so good in risotto. Unfortunately they were dirty enough I felt it necessary to use water (breaking the usual rules for how to prepare mushrooms). Once they were clean, trimmed and chopped up, I cooked them in a dry skillet. The skillet didn’t stay dry for long and yielded half a cup of mushroom liquid which I drained and kept in reserve.

Then, I cooked the onion in the oil until golden. At this point I added the mushrooms and the rice. This was “toasted” for a little while until the rice started turning just a bit shiny and translucent.

Next up, I topped off the mushroom liquid with homemade veggie stock up to just above 2 cups of liquid. I added the liquid to the rice (strained thru cheesecloth due to sediment), stirred, and then put the pressure cooker lid on. Once the pressure cooker was at pressure, I turned down the heat and set a timer for 7 minutes per the recipe.

Once the timer went off, I followed the recipe and did a quick release of the pressure. If you’ve never done one, what you do is put the pressure cooker in your sink and run water over the top. The temperature change will cause the pressure to release suddenly. Sometimes with a full pot of beans it will even force liquid in the pot up and over!

Once the pressure was released, I had a nice creamy risotto. The cheese and salt were added and stirred in and served. I’ve never made a risotto myself (though I’ve watched others) and this was incredibly easy compared to the usual method of stirring continuously for half an hour (at least). We’re almost out of arborio rice and since this is so easy we might need more sooner than we thought!