From white to orange to purple varieties, succulent sweet potatoes add color and flavor to meals year-round.
By Jessica Farthing
When fall rolls around, you can expect to see Southern sideboards packed with many sweet potato options. Whether it is sweet potato pie, cheese-filled gratin, flaky biscuits or the hotly argued preference of sweet potato casserole with marshmallows or praline topping, regional cooks are especially familiar with enhancing the natural sweetness of the tuber. Even though sweet potatoes often evoke a feeling of cooler weather, they thrive in the warm Southern summers and mild winters.
Strictly speaking, a sweet potato isn’t a potato at all. It’s actually a member of the morning glory family, made to flower by the combination of the South’s long, warm days and temperate nights. In fact, sweet potatoes are not true yams, either, as yams are dry and starchy rather than sweet and creamy. However, the United States Department of Agriculture recognizes that American companies call them “yams” all the time, only requiring them to also be labeled correctly as sweet potatoes somewhere on the package. Perhaps the confusion comes with the way they are served—often a satisfying substitution for regular potatoes and other starches.
Originating in Central and South America, it was previously thought that sweet potatoes spread to Europe and beyond by Christopher Columbus, who brought some examples of the tubers back with him from his travels. But in 2013, scientists used radio carbon dating to trace evidence of the presence of sweet potatoes to Polynesia somewhere around 1000 A.D. Using this information, as well as other findings, archeologists have formed theories that the Polynesians visited the area well before other explorers. What makes this feat amazing is the distance of ocean stretching between the Polynesian Triangle—its corners made up of Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand—and the shoreline of the Americas.
Today, China is the top international producer of sweet potatoes. The vegetable is a staple in modern Chinese cuisine, steamed whole by street vendors or ground into flour for noodles. In addition, sweet potatoes serve as animal feed for livestock. Both easy and fast growing, they can be used between growing seasons as a catch crop that can be quickly harvested before it’s time to plant a seasonal crop. Here in the United States, they are found growing throughout in North Carolina, but the climate in Georgia has ideal conditions to grow delicious varieties as well.
Before Jeb Bush became director of the thriving Forsyth Farmers’ Market in Savannah, he started his food career by taking over the family farm and trying his hand at raising fruits and vegetables to sell. He found that sweet potatoes are a common Georgia crop. “They are super easy to grow down South,” he notes.
To pick the best sweet potato, he suggests asking if they’ve been cured, a process that maximizes the sweetness of the vegetable. The curing process changes starches into sugars and also heals over nicks and cuts in the skin, allowing longer storage and freshness. The process involves placing harvested potatoes in a warm, dry and dark area and letting them sit for a couple of weeks before using. Bush learned the hard way that there is a sweet spot for the temperature during curing. He stored his potatoes at too high a temperature and they basically petrified. It is recommended to keep the environment around 80-85 degrees.
Sweet or not, this vegetable is also a great way to get your vitamins. Sweet potatoes are rich in beta carotene, exhibited by their typically orange flesh, but they also come in white, yellow, red, purple or brown varieties. Bush has found that his customers at the farmers market are intrigued with the purple Okinawan sweet potato: “They were very big at the market last year. A lot of people made sweet potato pie, but purple.”
According to Matthew Krueger, executive sous-chef at The Lodge and Retreat at Sea Island, the taste is the same though the color is so different. “You can put them on a white plate and it will pop because of the color.”
He uses sweet potatoes frequently when they are in season, making rich purées and dumplings stuffed with vegetable filling. Krueger loves the sweetness of the potato, which allows him to combine it with so many different tastes. “My personal opinion about what pairs well with sweet potatoes are apples, cinnamon, cream, ginger, pecans, oranges, rum and thyme,” he says. “You can add bitterness or spiciness to them to complement the sweet.”
The sweet potato brings as much fall taste to the table as a pumpkin with its colorful presence. A satisfying dish with just enough starch, its versatility makes it suitable for every course, appetizer through dessert. Though it surely makes its appearance on Southern tables during Thanksgiving, it is delicious enough to be served year-round.
Sweet Potato Soufflé
4 large sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 ounces butter, cut into pieces
1/4 cup condensed milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
4 ounces miniature marshmallows
Peel and dice the sweet potatoes, then place them into a large cooking pot and cover with cold water. Season the water with salt to taste. On high heat, simmer and cook the potatoes until tender—about 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Strain the sweet potatoes, removing as much water as possible. Place them on a sheet pan and bake for 4 to 5 minutes, until dry.
Remove the pan from the oven and place the sweet potatoes in a large mixing bowl or stand mixer. Using a rubber spatula or the paddle attachment on the mixer, blend the butter, condensed milk, vanilla extract, brown sugar and molasses. Mix thoroughly until smooth. Season with cinnamon, nutmeg and kosher salt. Place the mixture into a casserole dish and cover it with miniature marshmallows. Bake 10 to 15 minutes, until the marshmallows have risen and are golden brown on top.
Courtesy of Matthew Krueger, executive sous-chef at The Lodge and Retreat at Sea Island