Stop Sweet Potato Abuse
Be nice to this lovely root
by Gay Lyons
October is the perfect time to declare sweet potatoes the vegetable of the month. Their hearty character and orange hue make them a great choice for fall dishes. There should be plenty of homegrown sweet potatoes at the Market Square Farmers Market the next few weeks, so I urge you to drop by and pick some up. But please don’t abuse your sweet potatoes once you get them home.
I’m not saying you need to wrap them in soft flannel and keep them away from sharp objects like knives. You’re going to need a sharp knife when it’s time to slice or dice your sweet potatoes. But in my opinion many of the most popular recipes for cooking sweet potatoes constitute abuse of this lovely root, which is low in calories and high in fiber, beta carotene, minerals and vitamins, especially A and C. Why take something this delicious and this good for you and turn it into the nutritional equivalent of a Krispy Crème doughnut? Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Paula Deen has concocted a dish combining these two things. I’m purposely resisting the temptation to Google it and find out for certain.
Before going any further, let’s clarify one thing. A sweet potato is not a yam. They hail from completely different branches of the plant kingdom. Sweet potatoes, which are part of the morning glory family, have a lovely vine. Yams, in contrast, are tubers. Sweet potatoes are moist and sweet; yams are dry and starchy. The confusion began with the arrival of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in contrast to white-fleshed ones. Wanting to distinguish the new variety from the old, the crop’s producers and shippers borrowed the name yam instead of choosing something more straightforward, like say, orange sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes have been traced to the West Indies as far back as the 15th century. Spanish explorers later carried them to the Philippines and the East Indies. Because sweet potatoes prefer a moist, warm climate, they became important crops in tropical and subtropical places. By the 17th century, sweet potatoes were being grown in Virginia. And by about a century later, they showed up in New England, where they never became as popular as in the South.
Somewhere along the way, though, in most recipes, the sweet potato was transformed into a dessert masquerading as a vegetable. Here’s a list of ingredients commonly found in tandem with sweet potatoes: brown sugar, granulated sugar, maple syrup, honey, cornstarch, coconut, marshmallows and fruits such as apricots, apples, pineapple, oranges, raisins and bananas. Sure sounds like dessert to me.
Sweet potatoes have a pleasantly sweet taste all their own. A baked sweet potato has only about 140 calories. Go ahead and throw a little butter on there. It’s still a healthy dish. The robust flavor of sweet potatoes also makes them a good choice in savory dishes. Next time you make beef stew, try replacing the carrots with chunks of sweet potatoes. Or try mixing equal amounts of cubed sweet potatoes and baking potatoes along with some coarsely chopped onions, tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper and fresh rosemary and either roast or pan-fry them. Here is a recipe that dresses up a plain baked sweet potato with a savory sauce and one for spicy sweet potato fries with chili powder and cayenne pepper.
Baked Sweet Potatoes with
Sweet Potato Fries
Market Square Farmers Market is open Wednesdays 11a.m.-2p.m. and Saturdays 9a.m.-1p.m. between now and November 18. River Ridge Farms, a regular vendor at the Market, is taking orders for organic white and bronze whole turkeys for Thanksgiving. Go to www.wbir.com and click on Style to find additional recipes using sweet potatoes, including a recipe for grilled sweet potato salad.