Not long ago, the traditional Italian rice dish called risotto seemed like the hot new thing. You could find it featured on the menus of every Italian restaurant, even those specializing in regions other than risotto's northern Italian homeland -- not to mention in many non-Italian restaurants. And soon, food lovers were also learning the ins and outs of making risotto perfectly at home.

That popularity was understandable. Risotto is a perfect balance of plump, short-grained rice that cooks to a tender-but-chewy texture while being stirred in broth that reduces and thickens to a creamy consistency from the ample surface starch the grains release.

Over time, risotto became so familiar to us that we adopted it into our cooking vernacular and began applying the name to other preparations resembling its texture and consistency. There was barley "risotto" made with that distinctive, wholesome grain, which itself releases a creamy starch as it cooks; and wonderful corn "risotto," prepared by cutting the golden kernels from fresh-picked ears of corn and cooking them in a sauce thickened by their own rich, sweet, starchy juices.

Of course, there was no "ris" in these risottos. But that didn't diminish the perfectly distinctive ways in which they recalled the original.

So, for autumn and the approaching holiday season, I'd like to share yet another risotto-style dish made with a naturally starchy ingredient: sweet potato.

There are multiple varieties of tuber labeled "sweet potato" in markets, with skins ranging from light brown to purplish red and flesh from pale yellow to deep orange. The red-skinned, orange-fleshed types of sweet potato are also often incorrectly labeled "yams" in American markets. (True yams, in fact, are a large, knobby, white-fleshed vegetable that's not particularly sweet, eaten as a staple in areas from Africa to New Guinea, Asia to South America to the Caribbean.) For my sweet potato risotto, you can use either yellow- or orange-fleshed varieties, though the latter so-called "yams" will yield the most flavorful, colorful results.

To turn sweet potatoes into risotto, begin by peeling them and cutting them into small, uniform cubes. Then, as you would for a risotto made with rice, soften them up by sauteing them with minced aromatic vegetables before the cooking and stirring in liquid begins. For this recipe, I use cream, which the cubes absorb little by little while the liquid reduces, enveloping them in a rich, delicious sauce.

The result may remind you of scalloped or creamed potatoes. It's rich and satisfying, so a small 1/2-cup serving makes an ample side dish.

I like to serve this with roast turkey, chicken, pork, or lamb and a simple green vegetable. And it works equally well for a casual weeknight supper or a grand Thanksgiving dinner.

Sweet Potato Risotto Recipe

Serves 6

6 ounces extra-virgin olive oil

1-1/2 tablespoons minced fennel bulb

2 teaspoons finely chopped onion

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 teaspoons minced shallot

1 pound orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled cut into 1/4-inch (6 mm) dice


1/2 cup dry white wine

1-1/2 to 2 cups whipping cream

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Freshly grated nutmeg

4 to 6 fresh sage leaves, torn into small pieces

In a large, heavy-bottomed nonstick saucepan (preferably stainless steel), heat the oil over low heat. Add the fennel, onion, garlic, and shallot and saute gently, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until they soften and turn slightly translucent, about 3 minutes.

Add the sweet potato, raise the heat to medium-high, and continue sauteing, stirring very frequently to prevent sticking or burning, until the sweet potato deepens in color and begins turning fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Season lightly with salt and add the wine. Stir continuously as the wine simmers, until it has almost evaporated completely, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add just enough of the cream to cover the sweet potatoes barely. As the cream simmers and is absorbed by the sweet potatoes, keep stirring continuously, making sure that the cubes do not stick to the bottom; add a little more of the cream from time to time as necessary to keep the mixture from turning dry.

When the sweet potatoes are tender and the liquid has thickened and enveloped the potatoes, after 10 to 12 minutes, remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the butter pieces and about two-thirds of the Parmesan, and then adjust the seasonings with a little more salt if necessary.

To serve, spoon the mixture onto individual plates. Garnish with a hint of nutmeg, a little more Parmesan, and some torn sage leaves.


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Making 'Risotto' Without Rice: Sweet Potato Risotto

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