Sweet talk: With their delightful colors and bonanza of nutrients, sweet potatoes deserve to be showcased year-round

Sweet potatoes are more versatile than you might think, and you don’t need to add sugar to them as t

Sweet potatoes in the spring? Absolutely. While these nutrient-packed vegetables have been largely relegated to fall and winter holiday fare, it just shouldn’t be so.

When Spanish explorers came to the North American continent, they found the American Indians in what is now Louisiana growing sweet potatoes. During Colonial times, farmers in the Carolinas shipped sweet potatoes up north, where they became a staple during the Revolutionary War and through the early part of the 20th century, when white potatoes became the preferred choice. The per capita consumption of sweet potatoes went from 31 pounds in 1920 to just below 4 pounds in recent years.

The white potato became predominant because it can grow in more places and in marginal quality soil, said Sherri Eldridge, author of “Baby Reds, Bakers and Sweet Potatoes (Harvest Hill Press, 2004). Sweet potatoes are grown predominantly in the South, although there are some local farmers who grow them in the Capital Region.

Richard Ball of the Carrot Barn in Schoharie is one of them. He began growing sweet potatoes last May. Why would he tackle a crop not traditionally grown in colder climates? “I’m a farmer, and as such, I like to grow things, and we thought it would be a fun project to tackle something new,” Ball said. There are other reasons, too. For one, he couldn’t find the quality and quantity of sweet potatoes that he wanted to be able to offer customers. Another is because he and his wife like to eat them. One of his favorite ways is roasted in the oven with parsnips, turnips, potatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper.

Sharing only a name

While they both bear the name “potato,” white potatoes and sweet potatoes are not even related. “They’re not even kissing cousins,” said Sue Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission in Smithfield, N.C. The white potato is a tuber, while the sweet potato is a root vegetable.

Another reason Ball decided to try a sweet potato crop was because of the growing interest in them for their health benefits. Nutrition-wise, the white potato can’t hold a candle to the sweet potato, which is rich in vitamins A, C, and B6 in addition to being a good source of dietary fiber, potassium and iron. With only about 120 calories and nearly fat-free, a medium sweet potato meets almost half the daily requirement of vitamin C and all the beta carotene (a compound your body converts to vitamin A).

The sweet potato has been deemed a “good carbohydrate,” said Langdon, because they do not cause a spike in blood sugar. “This makes them a very good choice for people who are diabetic or who are watching their carbohydrate intake for whatever reason,” she said.

Sweet potatoes are more versatile than you might think, as we’re used to seeing them slathered in brown sugar or marshmallows on holiday plates. Eldridge points out that you don’t need to add sugar to them as they’re already naturally sweet. Sweet potatoes are good for appetizers, grated or thinly sliced raw into salads, soups, stews, main dishes and desserts. Eldridge mentioned some more unusual sweet potato dishes, like waffles and a sweet potato flan with brandy sauce, which she features in her book. Langdon said that sweet potatoes pair well with fish, poultry and veal.

Splash of color

In addition, the most popular type of sweet potatoes adds visual interest to a plate with their bright orange color. “The color means everything on a plate sometimes — just to have that orange contrast, sweet potatoes go wonderfully with meat and fish,” Eldridge said.

They come in different varieties, the most popular of which is the orange-skinned with orange flesh. But there are also purple-skinned varieties with cream-colored flesh, and yellow sweet potatoes with a dryer, yellow flesh, to name a couple. Some farmers are growing a host of heirloom variety sweet potatoes.

However, the orange sweet potato with the moist, orange flesh is the most prevalent, and is often called a yam, even though they’re different; a sweet potato is a root vegetable and a yam is also a tuber. The sweet potato hails from South America, while yams came from Asia and Africa. The sweet potato is also healthier than a yam, Eldridge points out.

With the help of a grower in North Carolina, where 40 percent of the U.S. sweet potato crop is grown, Ball is refining his growing and storage of sweet potatoes. He has fashioned a kiln of sorts where the sweet potatoes are cured, which is the process that turns the starches into sugar and gives sweet potatoes the naturally sweet flavor we enjoy. “Their last few weeks in the field up through that curing process have an awful lot to do with their flavor and how well they’ll keep for you,” he said.

When buying sweet potatoes, Eldridge says to look for ones that do not have any growth blemishes, black spots or green areas. The rest of the selection criteria are based on how the cook is going to be using the sweet potato. Plumper ones are good for baking. If they’re going to be used whole, it’s a good idea to choose sweet potatoes that are roughly the same size. Eldridge prefers elongated sweet potatoes when she is going to be slicing or dicing it, because they’re easier to hold and safer to cut. Avoid the huge sweet potatoes, as they tend to be starchier and tougher.

Sweet Potato and Apple Bisque

Recipe by Sherri Eldridge from the book “Baby Reds, Bakers and Sweet Potatoes” (Harvest Hill Press, 2004).

2 cups peeled sweet potatoes cut into 1⁄2 inch cubes

1 cup finely chopped leeks using white tender area only

2 cups vegetable broth

1 tart apple (like Granny Smith)

3⁄4 cup low fat milk

Salt and pepper, to taste

Boil sweet potato cubes and leeks in broth. Peel, core, dice and add apple to broth. Boil until potatoes are very tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in milk and process in blender until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Warm on low burner before serving.

Serves 4. (1 gram of fat per serving).

Indian Lentil Soup

Recipe from Diane Whitten of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Saratoga County.

“Red lentils cook very quickly; they’ll be soft in 20 minutes or so. We suggest baking sweet potatoes before putting them in soup because long baking brings out the best flavor. If you want to dice them and put them right into the soup without baking, that’s OK; they’re still plenty delicious and good for you.”

2 medium sweet potatoes

1 pound red lentils

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, minced

1 red bell pepper, cored and chopped

2 carrots, minced

2 tablespoons minced garlic (6 large cloves)

1 tablespoon finely minced or grated ginger root

2 tablespoons curry powder

1⁄4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

Bake sweet potatoes for one hour at 350 degrees.

Combine lentils with 10 cups of water in a large sauce pan; bring to boil over high heat. Add salt, reduce heat to low, cover and cook until very soft, about 20 minutes.

Heat oil in wide skillet over medium heat; add onion, pepper and carrot. Cook vegetables for about 15 minutes. They should be quite soft and reduced in size. Add garlic and ginger root and cook an additional 5 minutes.

Scrape vegetables into pot with lentils. Add curry powder and red pepper flakes; continue cooking.

Add cooled potatoes that you have scooped out of the skins.

Using a hand-held immersion blender, or a food processor, purée the soup.

Serve with a squeeze of lemon juice or 1 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar.

Yields 8 to 10 servings.

Tuscan Sweet Potato Salad

Recipe from the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

2 pounds sweet potatoes cooked and sliced

4 ripe plum tomatoes, sliced

2 cups assorted pepper strips

4 ounces mozzarella cheese, cut into 1⁄2 inch pieces

1⁄4 cup fresh basil, cut in julienne strips

1⁄3 cup olive oil

2 tablespoon wine or balsamic vinegar

1 large clove garlic, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, combine sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and cheese; add basil. In a bowl or measuring cup, whisk together oil, vinegar and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour dressing over salad, and toss to blend. Cover and let stand up to 1 hour to blend flavors. Makes 6 servings.

Nutritional information per serving: 335 calories, 17 grams fat, 41 grams carbohydrates.

Caramelized Onion and Blue Cheese Pizza

Recipe from the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission.

1⁄2 red onion

1⁄2 sweet onion

1⁄2 yellow onion

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 (6-inch size) Boboli crusts

1⁄2 cup crumbled blue cheese

Sweet Potato Base:

2 small sweet potatoes

2 cloves garlic, peeled

3 tablespoons butter

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Slice onions very thinly. Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in large skillet. Sauté the mixed onions 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until they begin to brown and caramelize.

Remove from pan and cool slightly.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Spread sweet potato base (see directions below) evenly over Boboli crust. Cover with caramelized onions and sprinkle with blue cheese.

Bake 10 to 15 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.

Slice each into 4 or 6 wedges.

For sweet potato base: Peel sweet potatoes and quarter. Place in a medium saucepan with whole garlic cloves and water to cover. Bring to boil and simmer 10 to 15 minutes until softened. Drain and purée in food processor with butter, salt and pepper.

Maple Pecan Sweet Potato Quick Bread

Recipe from the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission.

1⁄4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled

3⁄4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 cup sweet potatoes, cooked, cooled and mashed

1⁄2 cup pure maple syrup

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1⁄4 cup milk, at room temperature

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1⁄4 teaspoon ground ginger

3⁄4 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan. In a medium-sized bowl, beat butter and brown sugar until creamy. Add sweet potatoes, maple syrup, eggs, milk and vanilla; mix well.

Sift together flour, baking powder, soda and spices.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture; add the sweet potato mixture and stir just to combine. Stir in the pecans. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean.

Remove the pan to a wire rack. Cool for 10 minutes before removing the bread from the pan; finish cooling on the rack. Store the completely cooled bread in an airtight container at cool room temperature or in the refrigerator.

Allow the bread to reach room temperature before serving. This bread freezes well.

Makes 1 loaf: 10 to 14 slices.

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