Sweet Potatoes: Tasty Tubers

by Madeline Shores

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Smells bring to mind…a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town.
– Diane Ackerman

Etymology
From Ipomoea batatas, Latin. Of the morning glory family, convolvulaceae.

Description
Sweet potatoes and yams are often used interchangeably, but we in the test kitchen want you to know your tubers: a sweet potato isn’t really a potato, nor is it a yam. They are tubers that develop from a vine and grow underground. The morning glory and the sweet potato are relatives; a field of sweet potatoes will have occasional flowers that add a little touch of beauty. About 40% of our American sweet potatoes come from North Carolina with 42,000 acres dedicated to its cultivation. With hundreds of varieties (Covington, O’Henry, Japanese, Beauregard, Evangeline, Puerto Rican, Purple), there are many ways to savor the tasty tuber. Yes, when our local farmer’s market gets purple sweet potatoes, we will be making purple sweet potato fries. When choosing sweet potatoes for our deliciously hearty and comforting fall dishes, we like the firm, fresh looking, somewhat evenly shaped ones. The deep orange variety will provide the most nutritional value and will add the most color to the plate.

History
Native to Central and South America, some accounts have pinpointed the origin of domesticated sweet potatoes to Peru, where the earliest records of cultivation (750 B.C.) have been discovered. From the Americas, it is speculated that the sweet potato made its way to the Pacific Islands and South Asia prior to the explorations of Columbus and that his voyages introduced the tuber to Europe. Sweet potatoes were a staple during the Revolutionary and Civil War due to their storage capabilities. Unfortunately its popularity has been taken over by the white potato; Americans ate on average 31 pounds of sweet potatoes in 1920 and has recently dropped to just over 5 pounds. We think a sweet potato revival is in order.

Our Approach
Yes, we know what you are thinking, they might look a little dull. What should I do with this oddly shaped dirty looking thing that grows in the ground? Don’t fear, sweet potatoes are most likely our favorite fall tuber. Our handy tried and true Larousse Gastronomique gave us several ways to play with sweet potatoes: baked, fried, pureed, au gratin, pudding, souffle, mashed, boiled, roasted. Where to start? Start at the beginning. Bake like your average baked potato. But we prefer to call them by their French name because everything sounds better in French: Patates en Chemise (sweet potatoes in jackets). Bake in a 375 degree oven for 50 min to an hour or until done. Finish simply with butter and salt. One of our favorite accompaniments to sweet potato fries is chipotle mayo. This may have been the inspiration for our Chipotle Mashed Sweet Potatoes. Perhaps your Thanksgiving mashed potatoes could use a makeover? Speaking of spices, pair sweet potatoes with a spice that complements their sweetness like allspice, ginger or cinnamon and fresh herbs like rosemary or sage. But be sure not to overwhelm the natural, sweet flavor with too much spice. Since they are sweet, they also pair nicely with citrus like orange or lime. If you really want to impress, add the richness or bacon, pancetta, or chorizo. You will tickle every single taste bud. Sweet potatoes also hold up nicely with strong cheese. Case in point Sweet Potato and Gorgonzola Gratin. Obviously we like to feature the tubers in sweet desserts and breads given their great texture and flavor. Sweet potato pie is an absolute must at any southern Thanksgiving. As an alternative to plain zucchini or banana bread, try Zucchini and Sweet Potato Bread. You’ll thank us later. See? They’re not so dull after all.

Sources
Editors of Cook’s Illustrated, ed. Here in America’s Test Kitchen.
Encyclopædia Britannica Online
Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress
Food Timeline
McGee, Harold. On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen
National Geographic. Edible: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants
Rodale, J.I., ed. How to Grow Vegetables & Fruits by the Organic Method.
University of Illinois Extension: Watch Your Garden Grow

Dossier by Kalle Guinn and Amanda Olsen

Photo by Kalle Guinn

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