Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sweet Potato Oven Fries w/ Blue Cheese Fondue


This pile of naturally sweet, cheesy goodness is just one of the excellent memories from last week. I am very recently returned from an amazing week at the Montreat Youth Conference. I bet there are very few people who attended that will tell you that their week was, in fact, NOT amazing.



Montreat is a beautiful place in the mountains of North Carolina. So far I have only attended the final week of the conference when the number of people attending is half of what it is the other five weeks. Think 500 people instead of 1,000. It's hard to picture it being fuller and louder and more energetic, but I don't doubt that it's possible.


I was a small group leader last week and I was blessed with the most amazing group of youth and adults to dig deep and have fun with. Not everyone in Small Group 15 was particularly keen on being there, I could tell from the faces and body language of some of the youth when we first got together, and by the end of the week almost half (including adults) admitted to me that they didn't want to come in the first place but did a complete 180º by mid-week.

I want to share so many memories with you but my pictures are so limited! There was a conference photographer the whole week and there are a lot of pictures I can't wait to see, but they're not up yet. So I have to make do with what I've got.

Montreat and the Youth Conference can be a liberating experience for so many people, not just the youth who attend. You get to dance like a fool no less than once a day:


But the beauty of is it is that everyone else is dancing too. Even if you hate "Energizers" at the beginning of the week, you come to love them by the time you leave. (Or if you're John and I, you really, REALLY love them.)

At the end of the second day all small groups participated in the Montreat version of the Highland Games. I started talking my group up the day before and by the time we left to compete we had a name (Rumplekiltskin), a motto (Kilt or be Kilt), a war cry (um... apparently it was from Spongebob and it struck fear into the hearts of many), a clan tartan, and last but not least, WAR PAINT.


All 29 people in our group donned some form of face paint. We kicked major kilt.

All week we explored the theme "Rooted and Reaching," and I was so happy to see that it really resonated with the youth attending. The week started with the question, "How is your soil?" and finished with the the thought that what you're reaching for has everything to do with what you're rooted in. As a small group we had fantastic conversations about the parable of the sower, Ruth and Naomi, the parable of the fig tree, Jonah, and several other stories about Jesus. I shared parts of my life and the group responded in kind.

If the group I spent a week with is any indication, the youth of our nation are carrying incredibly heavy burdens. They're dealing with their own depression, the depression of their family and friends, suicide, illness, death, instability, insecurity, anxiety, social pressures, family pressures, and so much more. What a gift to be able to come together with a group of strangers who are willing to listen, hold your hand, and support you. These kids are inspirational - what they've dealt with so far and how they are surviving and thriving. I was moved by so many of their stories and the way they felt embraced by our group. 


In case any of them read this, I want to let you in on the secret to a successful small group experience: the attitudes of the people in it. We could have had a horrible time. They could have fought me on every game I played, determined to have a bad time and for the experience to be their worst case scenario. Somewhere in the first two days every single person in my group made the decision to have a good week - to share of themselves, to try every single game with gusto, to forget stereotypes, and to support the people around them.

My week wouldn't have been nearly as amazing if it weren't for the new friends I made. Lindsay and I were thrown together as roommates and quickly made everything we did together fun, from tag-teaming corny jokes at breakfast to being super intimidating on late night covenant (aka make-out) patrol.



Zac and his sarcasm rounded out our group and we quickly became the Three Amigos! Complete with identifying characters (I am 100% Ned Nederlander, if you were trying to guess) and the awkwardly awesome Three Amigos intro "dance." I laughed until I cried on too many occasions. We leaned on each other all week long, giving and taking advice, working together to make sure that the different groups we were given had the best experience we could facilitate. 

On our free afternoon Lindsay and I headed to the local town, Black Mountain, for a very late lunch and wound up at a place we rightly assumed wouldn't have any youth from the conference: The Black Mountain Ale House. There were quite a few things on the menu that were deliciously eye catching, but we started with the sweet potato fries with blue cheese fondue. To say we devoured it might not do justice to how quickly we destroyed the plate when it was put in front of us. I told Lindsay I would try to recreate it when I got home and I'm not sure she took me seriously.

This dish is not an exact replica of the one we ate in Black Mountain (you should totally go for the original), but it's got all the key components: Sweet potato, sweet onions, tangy, creamy blue cheese, and a mild kick. So, new friends, this one is for you. I am so grateful to have met you and look forward to when we will meet again.


Sweet Potato Oven Fries with Blue Cheese Fondue
Total time: about 45 minutes
Yield: 2 servings + more fondue for later!

Ingredients
  • 2 sweet potatoes
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • 1/4 of a large vidalia onion, cut into large pieces

  • 8 oz. crumbled gorgonzola (or your favorite blue cheese)
  • 5 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper
  • two taps of cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 425º.

Wash and peel potatoes. Cut into long, even pieces. (My technique is to cut off one side, put the flat part down and cut even slices. Then cut those slices into fries. Works like a charm.)

Put cut sweet potatoes into a ziplock bag and add 3 tbsp olive oil, 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper, 1 tsp cornstarch, and salt and pepper to taste. Shake vigorously until all potatoes are evenly coated. Add onions to bag and shake again. 

Dump contents of bag directly onto unlined baking sheet and gently arrange potatoes and onions into one layer. Bake for 15 minutes, remove tray from oven, gently flip onions and potatoes, put tray back in oven and bake another 10-15 minutes.

Put gorgonzola in a medium bowl, add cornstarch and toss to coat. Set aside.

Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add shallot, garlic, and rosemary and cook until golden and fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add white wine and bring to a simmer.

Whisk in cream, fresh ground pepper, and cayenne. When mixture begins to bubble remove from heat and pour over cheese and cornstarch mixture, whisking until relatively smooth. (Not all chunks are going to go away, and you don't want them to!)

Serve fries and onions with a generous helping of the fondue on top.

Store leftover fondue in an airtight container. When you are ready to use again, gently reheat fondue over a double boiler.



I just had a lovely dinner with our intern, Emily, and have also borrowed a few photos from her and from one of our youth, Jason. The fondue recipe is lightly adapted from the brilliant Michael Symon.

Please check out www.Montreat.org to learn more about this place and the good work they do.