Eat Your… Sweet Potatoes

Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas)

Here in North Carolina, where a full 40% of the U.S. crop is grown, the sweet potato is king. This versatile root vegetable can be used to make everything from breads and biscuits, to pies and cakes, and even soups and salsas. They are also a great source of beta carotene, vitamin E, vitamin B6, fiber, iron, and potassium.

History

Sweet potatoes originated from northern South America in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Colombia where they have been cultivated for thousands of years. Recently, it has been shown that sweet potatoes somehow migrated to islands in the South Pacific well before European explorations of America (see The lowly sweet potato may unlock America’s past). In the United States, sweet potatoes have been used by Native Americans since pre-colonial times.

A common misconception is that sweet potatoes and yams are the same thing. True yams are of the genus Dioscorea (not Ipomoea), and to the untrained eye certain species of yam can look very similar in shape, texture, and color to sweet potatoes. This mixup most likely originated with the slaves that worked on plantations in the South. Yams, native to west Africa (where most of the slaves were brought from), were not grown in the United States. Sweet potatoes, with a similar appearance, became synonymous with yams.

Sweet Potato Casserole

One could argue, convincingly, on whether this should be classified as a side dish or a dessert. Me? It’s a side dish, because sweet potato pies are for dessert! This recipe makes a great contrast with other, more pungent, sides like turnip greens or collard greens — or even legumes, like butter beans.

Ingredients

Filling:

3 cups mashed sweet potatoes
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup melted butter

Topping:

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup chopped pecans

Directions

1) Boil, drain, and mash the sweet potatoes and mix with the brown sugar, vanilla extract, cinnamon, milk, and melted butter. Lightly beat the 2 eggs and incorporate into the sweet potato mixture.

2) In a separate bowl, combine the topping ingredients and mix well.

3) Transfer the sweet potato mix to a buttered 1.5-2.0 qt casserole dish. Add the topping and spread to cover evenly.

4) Bake uncovered for 35 minutes in a 350 F preheated oven.

5) Enjoy!

Sweet Potato Casserole

Sweet Potato Fries

Sweet potato fries are one of those foods that you often find cooked to perfection at a restaurant. Then you decide to try the same in your own kitchen, only to be met with soggy disappointment — just what is the secret to crispy sweet potato fries?

I poured over several recipes and hints for sweet potato fries, trying to deduce the one secret that makes all the difference. I tossed out recipes that called for baking them, because in my world, fries are fried, not baked (same with potato and tortilla chips).

Almost all of the potentially successful recipes called for soaking the cut sweet potatoes in water for at least 2 hours all the way up to overnight. My friend Justin says this is to maintain high levels of moisture in the fries, which turns to steam in 375 F hot oil. The escaping steam then prevents oil from infiltrating the fries, thus preventing a soggy and greasy outcome.

Okay, so that’s step one — soak the fries in water. Then it comes down to coating them, or cooking them plain. Many of the recipes for plain ones ended up being described “limp” or “soggy”. Strike that.

Now, the question is, what to coat them with? Some suggested an egg wash with corn meal, panko, or a host of other coatings. That seemed a bit too extreme, more like a tempura. Who wants breaded fries? Not me. Too complicated. It was down, then, to the two potential coatings mentioned most often — corn starch or flour. I tried both.

The verdict? Flour did not crisp at all. Corn starch worked well, crisping just right and not imparting any additional flavor, but left the fries with a powdery white appearance (see pictures). Apparently corn starch does not brown, even in 375 F hot oil. Who knew?

Ingredients

2-3 sweet potatoes, cut into fries
1 cup corn starch
3+ cups vegetable oil (for frying)

Directions

1) Soak cut sweet potatoes in water for 2 to 24 hours.

2) Drain sweet potatoes and toss in corn starch until coated. The residual moisture is enough to make the corn starch stick.

3) Fry in 375 F oil for 2-3 minutes until crispy. Transfer to paper towels or a cooling rack on top of old newspaper.

4) Enjoy!

Sweet Potato Fries in Corn Starch


[see a picture of the fries in flour for comparison]


For Next Week

Next up is “Beans & Peas” week. I decided to do a new take on the old Green Bean Casserole recipe by making it from scratch. There will be no canned ingredients used so it will be fairly involved. Because of this, there will be only one recipe next week.

The recipe will require:

Green Bean Casserole

1 lb fresh green beans

1/2 lb fresh button or baby portabella mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp nutritional yeast
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1 cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp unsalted butter

1/2 medium yellow onion
1 cup milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups vegetable oil (for frying)

2 slices whole wheat bread

Salt
Pepper
Cayenne pepper

If you want to make this dairy-free, just substitute Earth Balance for the butter and soy creamer for the heavy cream.

See you next week!

. . . . .


Now Playing: Cargo by Men At Work.


Ben is a graduate student at NCSU studying Crop Science with an emphasis on Sustainable Agriculture. Official foodie credentials are non-existent, other than the fact that he has been cooking for himself since he was 12 years old. You can find his personal blog at bengarland.com, photos and videos at bengarland’s Flickr photostream, and his plans for a self-constructed cob house and organic farm over at Our Farm Adventure (still a very new work in progress).