Think back. When was the last time you ate sweet potatoes--last Thanksgiving? Last Christmas? How many holidays have you eaten them? Baked with a syrupy glaze. . .beaten with eggs and sugar and topped with marshmallows. . .
Did you ever stop to wonder why a vegetable with "sweet" already in the name was served buried under so much sugar?
Neither did I; I never gave them much thought at all. Sure, I ate sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving like everyone else, but then I promptly forgot them for another year.
That is, until I was served a simple, baked sweet potato.
I was hooked. Who knew? Its fresh, bright flavor with a just a touch of natural sweetness was such a surprise to me that I wondered what else you could do with them. Surely they weren't always smothered with sugar--after all, they're native to the Americas and have been eaten here for thousands of years--long before sugar was readily available. They were a sustenance food for many early settlers and Reconstruction Southerners, too, who ate their "yams" until they just about turned orange.
Truth be told, yams are an entirely different vegetable--one grown in Africa and Asia--that has absolutely no relation to sweet potatoes. They look similar, though, and that's how the names became interchangeable. African slaves arriving here saw the similarity and called sweet potatoes "yams," and the misnomer stuck. These days you can just about guarantee that any yams you see in your grocery store are really sweet potatoes.
And I can guarantee that sweet potatoes aren't potatoes at all--not even cousins. They're actually related to morning glories. If you've ever grown a sweet potato vine in your kitchen window, you may have noticed the resemblance. But back to cooking them.
I know just about everyone has an old family recipe for sweet potato pie or a sweet potato soufflé that's a cherished part of the holidays. Believe me, I wouldn't dare meddle with tradition. Eat your pie on Thanksgiving by all means--I sure will--but try something else too, because sweet potatoes are a nutritional powerhouse. A 3-1/2 ounce serving of a baked sweet potato (a good-sized portion) has just 105 calories, less than one gram of fat and a whopping 450 percent of the RDA of vitamin A. It also has nearly 40 percent of the RDA of Vitamin C.
Potatoes Sweet & Irish
This little booklet is packed with information about growing Irish and sweet potatoes. From preparing the soil to harvesting, preserving and cooking your bountiful crop, here is everything you need to know.
A simple baked sweet potato is a great place to start rediscovering them. To bake one, just wash it and prick with a fork, then bake it at 400 degrees until it's tender (anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, depending on whether you're cooking small or large ones). Serve with a little butter and a fork and watch it disappear.
Or, slice them thinly and fry for a terrific (and trendy) version of potato chips. That's not a new idea, by the way: turns out that's one way those post-Civil War folks ate them. You can also julienne them and French fry (also an everything-old-is-new-again idea) or grate them and cook them like hash browns.
Try them cubed in stews or sliced into stir fries, or for a simple, sweet treat, simmer slices in apple cider--a terrific light dessert.
One of my favorite ways to eat them, though, is mashed. Simple, fast and delicious, this recipe lets the true flavor of sweet potatoes shine through. Try them instead of regular mashed potatoes--the hint of orange and nutmeg will brighten up any meal.
Orange Sweet Potatoes
4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2/3 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
Put the sweet potatoes in a large saucepan, cover them with water and bring to a boil. Cook for about 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Drain and add the butter, orange juice, nutmeg and salt. Mash and serve warm. Their natural sweetness is a perfect complement to salty or rich foods.
That sweetness also adds a subtle touch when combined with the mild flavor of sautéed onion and the heartiness of chicken stock in this soup. It's reminiscent of a sweetish vichyssoise and its beautiful color is sure to whet any appetite.
Sweet Potato Soup
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
7 cups chicken or turkey stock
4 medium sweet potatoes
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg or cinnamon
Sauté the onion in the butter until the onion becomes translucent. Add the stock and the potatoes, bring to a boil and simmer covered until the potatoes are done. Process in a food processor or blender and serve garnished with a pinch of nutmeg or cinnamon. This soup is great served warm or cold.
Sweet potatoes aren't difficult to grow. While you're enjoying them this winter, think about planting them next spring. You can buy plants at some farmer's coops or just sprout your own. Cut a sweet potato into chunks, with one eye on every chunk, and set the chunks in a shallow pan of water until leaves sprout and roots grow. As soon as the ground is soft enough to work in spring, prepare the soil by working in a good inch or two of or well-rotted manure in your planting area. Plant after the last frost--when the soil begins to warm up. Push the roots five to six inches deep into the soil and then water well.
Soon, you'll have vines sprawling over the ground. If you're worried about space, you can train the vines up a trellis. Sweet potatoes prefer hot dry weather, so you don't have to worry too much about watering them during the summer.
You can also grow sweet potatoes in a bushel basket or other large container filled with compost and soil. This is especially effective since sweet potatoes don't like wet feet, and it also makes harvesting easier.
Harvest your sweet potatoes before the first frost (frost will damage the tubers). Dig them up carefully, brush off the dirt and then let them cure for several hours before storing them.
To prevent rot, store them at a high temperature for two weeks (an attic will work) and then in a cool, well-ventilated place.
When shopping for sweet potatoes--and now that you're inspired I know you're heading out right now to buy some if you didn't grow any--you'll mostly find the moist, orange-fleshed varieties. They're best for most kinds of cooking. They're sweeter, too. And with sweet potatoes, that's the point, right?