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Cook This: Three Recipes for a Saucy Carolina Pantry Staple

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Farmer's Daughter's five-ounce bottle of sweet potato-habanero hot sauce starts in a 100-liter, stainless steel wine barrel.

First, April McGreger—who started the home-based business of pickles and preserves in 2007—chops up habanero and ahi dulce peppers. The latter, she explains, "are sweet and red, with a fruitiness similar to a habanero but not as hot." She mixes the peppers with salt, then tosses them in the barrel. They'll hang out there for four to six months.

That is the secret ingredient in most of McGreger's recipes: time. Even the local, organic sweet potatoes are sourced strategically.

"They're harvested at the end of summer," she says, "but they're best after they've had a few months to cure, so they get sweeter and smoother and silkier."

McGreger is known in the Triangle for her spoonable strawberry jam, bubbly caraway sauerkraut, and spicy cabbage kimchi. But she's also an expert on sweet potatoes. She grew up on a sweet potato farm in Mississippi and, in 2014, wrote a namesake book on the vegetable for UNC's Savor the South series. The 152-page, breakfast-to-dessert collection has a lot of big ideas. Sweet potato biscuits with chorizo gravy. Bourbon'd sweet potato casserole.

And sweet potato-habanero hot sauce.

The book's version is streamlined for home cooks, who may not want to wait on a recipe for half a year. The good news is, if you head to the Carrboro or Durham farmers markets on Saturdays, you can have your fermented hot sauce and eat it, too.

After the chilies become the best version of themselves, they're run through a food mill and mixed with sweet potato puree, garlic, and dried mango. The sauce is heated and bottled "and that's it!" McGreger says.

To her, it's just another day of work. But the result is singular—spicy and fruity from the habaneros, tangy from their brine, with a just-right viscosity from the starchy sweet potatoes. This year, the sauce notably won a Good Food Award, which recognizes artisanal, craft products across the country. In other words: snag your bottles while you can.

When asked if McGreger ever saves some for herself, she replies that that's an understatement: "I use it all the time."

I have a feeling you will, too. Beyond fish tacos and scrambled eggs and yogurt-dolloped stews, here are a few ways to get started.

Buffalo Cauliflower

One of McGreger's favorite ways to use her hot sauce is with chicken wings: marinated, then broiled. Here, I give cauliflower the Buffalo treatment. Crispy, crusty exterior. Buttery, lip-tingly sauce. Tangy buttermilk ranch for dunking. (Disclaimer: I am team blue cheese when it comes to wings. But the ranch really works here.) Use extra dressing for crudité platters and salads, but never pizza.

Yield: 4 servings + 1 cup dressing

For the buttermilk ranch:

1/2 cup whole-milk Greek yogurt

1/4 cup mayonnaise, preferably Duke's

1/4 cup buttermilk

3 tablespoons chopped chives

1 garlic clove, grated on a microplane

2 dashes Worcestershire

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon Old Bay

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard, preferably Coleman's

Ground black pepper, to taste

For the buffalo cauliflower:

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

4 eggs, beaten with a fork

Canola oil, for shallow frying

1 1/2 cups panko

2 teaspoons salt

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup Farmer's Daughter sweet potato-habanero hot sauce

Kosher salt, to taste

Make the dressing. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir until smooth. Taste and adjust (more garlic? Mustard?). Refrigerate until you're ready to use.

Fry the cauliflower. Add a very thick layer of canola oil to a very large skillet. Set over medium heat. While that warms up, prepare your dredging station: flour in one bowl, eggs in another, panko in another. Add 1 teaspoon salt each to the flour, eggs, and panko, and stir to distribute. Bread a cauliflower floret in that order: flour, then egg, then panko. Set on a plate and repeat with the remaining florets.

Your oil should be shimmery and hot by now. Test by adding a panko crumb. If it sizzles, you're good to go. If it drops—too cold. If it immediately starts to color—too hot. Carefully add the breaded florets to the pan. Turn the florets every couple of minutes with tongs until all sides are deeply golden brown. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to cool.

Heat the butter in a small saucepan. Add the hot sauce and stir with a fork until cohesive. Transfer the fried cauliflower to a serving plate and pour the Buffalo sauce evenly over top. Serve with ranch dressing to dunk.

NOLA-Style BBQ Eggplant

I was thinking a lot about Buffalo cauliflower, which is how we ended up here: another vegetarian swap. New Orleans-style BBQ classically refers to head-on shrimp. When I thought about Sichuan "fish-fragrant" eggplant—similar to the eggplant with garlic sauce you'll find on Chinese takeout menus—I knew the nightshade would do well here. Eggplant offers a similar, meaty flesh, which loves to bathe in bubbly sauce. And you'll save a few bucks, too! Just make sure you have plenty of warm bread to sop up the sauce.

Yield: 4 servings

1/2 cup beer (any style works)

3 tablespoons Farmer's Daughter sweet potato-habanero hot sauce

2 tablespoons freshly squeezedlemon juice

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

3 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

5 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 for later)

1 medium-to-large eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes

Kosher salt, to taste

Combine the beer, hot sauce, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and paprika in a bowl and stir with a fork. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the eggplant and cook, stirring occasionally for about 4 minutes, until it just begins to soften. Generously season with salt. Add the sauce and continue to cook until just tender. Taste and adjust accordingly. (Want it brighter? Add more lemon juice. Spicier? More hot sauce. Butterier? You know what to do.) Serve immediately with warm bread.

Michelada

The Michelada is often described as a "Mexican Bloody Mary" but that's about as accurate as describing a Bloody Mary as an "American Michelada." They are both spicy and savory. But oddly enough, tomato juice isn't fundamental to Micheladas. Lime juice and hot sauce are, plus something umami-rich like Worcestershire. I stick to this original formula, but instead of a classic Mexican cerveza, like Tecate or Modelo, opt for a local pilsner from Highland Brewing Company. Use whatever you want, so long as it's light and refreshing.

Yield: 1 drink

1 lime wedge

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne

1 tablespoon Farmer's Daughter sweet potato-habanero hot sauce

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Juice from 1 1/2 limes

1 (12-ounce) pilsner-style beer

Combine the salt and cayenne in a small dish. Run the lime wedge around the rim of a tall beer glass. Dip the rim in the salt. Add the hot sauce, Worcestershire, and lime juice to the glass. Add as much beer as will fit and taste. Adjust accordingly and add more beer as you sip.

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