Sweet Potatoes

One Potato, Two Potato…Sweet Potato!

Sweet potatoes rank high on the “irresistible foods” menu for Thanksgiving Day. Not surprising. The tuber, considered a superfood, is colorful, moist and naturally sweet-tasting, low in calories and sodium, and packed with vitamins and minerals.

The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), is a Native American plant of the morning glory (Convolvulaceae) family. There are more than 6,500 varieties grown worldwide. Skin colors include yellow, yellow-orange, red, reddish-purple and brown. Flesh colors include yellow, orange, red, white and purple.

This root vegetable is classified as either having “firm” flesh or “soft,” which stay soft and moist when cooked.  In the U.S., the soft varieties were introduced after the firm. So to distinguish one from the other, U.S. producers adopted the word “yams,” derived from the African word “nyami,” for the true yam. However, the sweet potato has no relation whatsoever to the true yam, which is from the tropical vine (Dioscorea batatas) lily family native to Africa and Asia.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture even requires the term “yam” to be accompanied by the term “sweet potato.”

Sweet potatoes have long been a favorite worldwide.  The crop is believed to have been domesticated thousands of years ago in Central America. Christopher Columbus is said to have brought the tuber to Europe in 1492. It was the main nutritional source for early settlers and Revolutionary War soldiers. Sweet potatoes were introduced to China in the late 16th Century and spread in the 17th and 18th Centuries throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. They are now grown in more developing countries than any other crop.

The sweet potato crop is highly adaptable, growing well in poor soil and having the ability to multiply quickly from a few roots. The International Potato Center of Peru ranks the sweet potato as one of the world’s seven most important food crops, with wheat, rice, maize, [white] potato, barley and cassava.

sweet potato varieties

Buying & Storing Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are available all-year round. Select those that are dark, clean, firm, smooth –and importantly, decay-free. The slightest decayed spot can impart a nasty taste to the whole potato–so cutting off the decay area will not save the potato. For even cooking, choose potatoes of uniform shape and size. Three of the most popular varieties are Covington (good for mashing or roasting), OHenry (for soups and stews) and Japanese red skin (for roasting).

Uncooked sweet potatoes are not good keepers because of their high sugar content. Brush off excess dirt and store them in a cool (50-60 deg. F), dry, dark, well-ventilated area, where they will keep for 1-2 weeks. If stored at room temperature, they should last about a week. It is best to cook them as soon as possible. Do not refrigerate uncooked sweet potatoes, else the natural sugars will turn to starch and make the flesh hard and unpleasant tasting.

Cooking with Sweet Potatoes

Deciding how to serve the versatile sweet potato may be the chef’s biggest challenge. They can be baked, boiled, steamed, microwaved, fried, grilled, pan-roasted, sautéed, candied, mashed, toasted, whipped. They may used in salads, pancakes, cakes, puddings, pies, smoothies, omelets, soups and stews, to name a few.

Once the recipe is chosen, wash potatoes thoroughly. Cook whole when possible, as most of the nutrients are under the skin, which can be peeled off easily after cooking.

When peeling/cutting raw potatoes, be sure to use a stainless steel knife (carbon blades darken the flesh). Cook immediately, or keep the slices covered with water until ready to cook as contact with air will make the flesh turn dark.

kj_sweet_potato_003Flavor Affinities

Sweet potatoes go well with traditional turkey or ham as well as with pork tenderloin, chicken, lamb or tuna. Their naturally sweet flavor complements rum, bourbon, ginger, sweet spices (allspice, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg), dark sugars, syrups, nuts and fruits (pecans, coconut, raisins, cranberries, currants and orange juice), and savory herbs and spices (thyme or cumin).

“Nutritional All-Star”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest describes the sweet potato as a “nutritional all-star.” And it is easy to understand why. A medium (6 oz.) sweet potato eaten with skin is a no-fat, 103-calorie food. It contains more than four times the RDA of Vitamin A and 37% of the RDA of Vitamin C. and has four grams of fiber, not to mention Beta carotene, manganese, potassium, calcium and folate (iron). That’s not all.  It is high in antioxidants, complex carbohydrates, low in sodium and has a low glycemic index.

Frances Fiorino
Frances Fiorino, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., has worked for Conde Nast, Time, and McGraw-Hill. Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., she delighted in helping her Sicilian father nuture three beloved fig trees – not to mention eating the bounty.