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By Emily Paster
A lot of us think about sweet potatoes — those knobby, colorful root vegetables that are NOT related in any way to regular potatoes — around Thanksgiving and the holidays. But sweet potatoes deserve better than being covered with marshmallows and served once a year. Sweet potatoes are amazingly versatile vegetables that lend themselves to both sweet and savory preparations. And they are an extremely nutrient-dense food — high in vitamins A and C, as well as in fiber — with a low glycemic index to keep you full and satisfied for hours.
What better time to try some new ways of preparing sweet potatoes than February, National Sweet Potato Month? At a time of year when much of the produce in the grocery store looks tired and sad, or has been flown in from halfway around the world, root vegetables like sweet potatoes, which are grown here in the US, are a great choice.
I got to experience just how versatile sweet potatoes can be at an all-sweet potato lunch last week at Ina's, the beloved breakfast and lunch spot in Chicago's West Loop. We had sweet potatoes puréed in soup; we had sweet potatoes roasted and served in a salad with raw kale; we had sweet potatoes stuffed into hand pies with spicy sausage; we had raw sweet potatoes shaved into a slaw over a chicken burger; we even had sweet potatoes for dessert in a crême brulée. My favorite sweet potato dish — aside from the crême brulée obviously — might have been Ina's Moroccan Sweet Potato Stew, which had chunks of sweet potatoes and other vegetables, along with some garbanzo beans for protein, in hearty stew with fragrant North African spices like cumin. Sweet potatoes are a quintessential New World food, but they worked so well with these North African and Mediterranean flavors; it was fusion cuisine at its best.
During our lunch, we were able to pepper guests from the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission with all our burning questions like: what the heck is a yam? Apparently, in the United States, what we call yams are actually sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes come in many varieties, which are distinguished by the color of their flesh. There are orange, white and even purple varieties of sweet potatoes. All are, as I mentioned, root vegetables. True yams are grown in Africa, South America and the Caribbean and are brown, scaly and starchier than sweet potatoes. So whether it is called a yam or a sweet potato in your grocery store, it is the same thing.
I also learned that sweet potatoes are grown all over the country but half of the U.S. sweet potato crop comes from North Carolina. Sweet potatoes are harvested once a year, in the fall, but like many root vegetables, they can be kept in cold storage for months at a time. In the era before refrigeration, families would keep sweet potatoes, onions, pumpkins and other root vegetables in their root cellar after the fall harvest so that they would have nutritious foods all winter long. In those times, when white sugar was so expensive, imagine how the sweetness of the sweet potato must have been such a treat. Hence, sweet potatoes desserts like pie.
The sweet flavor profile of sweet potatoes is one of the reasons that it is such a family-friendly vegetable. A roasted sweet potato with butter and some salt, or even cinnamon if you really want to pump up the sweetness, is a terrific side dish. I also like to dice several different root vegetables — like sweet potatoes, squash, and carrots — toss them with olive oil and salt and pepper and then roast them in the oven at 400 degrees or so until caramelized for a colorful and kid-friendly side. My friend Chef Druck came up with her own version of sweet potato hand pies, which were a big hit with her kids.
For something a little more indulgent but still healthy, try this Maple Sweet Potato Purée. Maple and sweet potato are an inspired pairing and so quintessentially American. I can't resist it.
Maple Sweet Potato Purée
Serves 6 as a side dish
3 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 TB. Olive oil
3 tsp. maple syrup
3 TB butter
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. each ground cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat oven to 400. Toss cubed sweet potatoes with olive oil and 1 teaspoon of the maple syrup. Line a baking sheet with foil. Spread the sweet potato in a single layer on the baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes or until tender. Place roasted sweet potatoes in a food processor with 3 TB of butter, 2 tsp. maple syrup and the spices. Puree until smooth. Season well with salt and pepper. This dish can be made ahead of time and reheated over low heat.
Full disclosure time: I was a guest of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission for lunch. I also received a bag to take home consisting of food magazines and several sweet potatoes. I was not asked to write about the lunch nor have I been compensated in any way. As always, all opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.