The Mighty Sweet Potato. Or is it a Yam?

By: Betsy Peirce, Produce Manager

hich produce item is grown within a hundred miles of the Co-op, is available (locally!) in copious quantities through all three months that this newsletter spans, has enough nutritional value to be coined “a powerhouse” and is considered to be one of many superfoods? Answer: The mighty sweet potato! Or is it a yam?

In America we use the names “sweet potato” and “yam” interchangeably. They are, however, entirely different species. The true yam is a member of the Dioscoreaceae family, is a staple in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and is almost entirely grown, 95%, in West Africa.

The yams we call sweet potatoes, or rather the sweet potatoes we call yams actually are ALL sweet potatoes. They are a member of the Morning Glory Family Convolvulaceae (isn’t that sweet?), and they live up to their sweet family name. They come in many colors and varieties from the deep orange Garnet to the pale yellow Jersey. They can range from dry to moist. The orange varieties (Jewel, Beauregard and Garnet) are sweet and moist (and higher in carotenoids). The yellow varieties tend to be drier and not as sweet.

So back to the reason we should all be getting excited about sweet potatoes in the first place. Because they are so darn good for you and taste so comforting. The orange flesh varieties are high in potassium, calcium and vitamins C and A. This is why one colonial physician called them the “vegetable indispensable.” It is no wonder that by the end of the Great Depression, per capita U.S. consumption of sweet potatoes was about 41.6 pounds a year. In 2004, it was around 4.6 pounds and in 2010 it was at 6.3 lbs since many people have replaced sweet potatoes with white potatoes in their diets.

It seems natural that when the weather begins to turn so do our tastes as we begin to turn toward the more nutritionally-dense foods that will sustain us through the long winter. Sweet potatoes are often served as staples at our traditional holiday meals, and usually drenched in butter and marshmallows. They are extremely versatile and can be equally as tasty in a savory dish as a sweet. My mom simply baked them in the oven until they were dripping with the caramelized sugar naturally emitted when baked for a good long time. Then butter them and eat them – skin and all.
Another foolproof, and cheaper than packaged sweet potato fries, option is to cut them up length-wise into sticks, toss to coat in olive oil, salt and pepper and roast them on a baking sheet at 450 degrees until they are golden brown. Turn occasionally.

The Co-op has been lucky to have a local supplier of sweet potatoes who can supply us through the winter with big beautiful perfectly-cured (no small trick!) sweet potatoes. His name is Levi Miller and he is located in Mt. Hope, WI near Prairie Du Chien. He is a Certified Organic grower through MOSA and sells them to us through GROWN Locally.

Whipped Chipotle Sweet Potatoes
Gourmet | November 2003; originally published November 1995 Yield: Makes 8 to 10 servings This recipe is inspired by a dish served at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, in New York City. The smoky heat of the chipotle chile and the potato’s natural sweetness balance each other beautifully.

5 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, scrubbed
1 tablespoon minced chipotle chiles in adobo, mashed to a paste (1 1/2 to 2 chiles)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces and softened
1 teaspoon salt

Directions: Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 450°F. Line a baking sheet with foil and butter a 2-quart shallow glass or ceramic baking dish.

Prick each potato several times with a fork, then bake on baking sheet until very soft, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Reduce oven temperature to 350°F.

When cool enough to handle, halve potatoes and scoop flesh into a bowl. Beat potatoes, chile paste (to taste), butter, and salt with an electric mixer at medium speed just until smooth, then spread in baking dish.

Bake whipped potatoes until hot, 20 to 25 minutes.

Cooks’ Note: Whipped potatoes can be prepared and spread in baking dish (but not baked) 1 day ahead and chilled, covered. Bring to room temperature before baking.

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Scalloped Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Gratin with Fresh Herbs 
Bon Appétit | November 2008 by Lora Zarubin Yield: Makes 12 servings Two kinds of potatoes are thinly sliced and combined with cream, butter, cheese, and a mixture of herbs.
1 1/2 pounds medium Yukon Gold potatoes
1 1/2 pounds medium red-skinned sweet potatoes (yams)
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon minced fresh sage
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 cups (packed) coarsely grated Gruyére cheese (about 5 ounces)

Preparation: Fill large bowl with cold water. Working with 1 Yukon Gold potato at a time, peel, then cut into 1/8-inch-thick rounds and place in bowl with water. Repeat with sweet potatoes. Combine cream, butter, and garlic in medium saucepan; bring to simmer. Remove from heat. Mix all herbs in small bowl. Mix sea salt and black pepper in another small bowl.

Butter 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Drain potatoes, then pat dry with kitchen towels. Transfer half of potatoes to prepared baking dish. Use hands to distribute and spread evenly. Sprinkle with half of salt-pepper mixture, then half of herb mixture. Sprinkle with half of cheese. Repeat with remaining potatoes, salt-pepper mixture, herb mixture, and cheese. Pour cream mixture over gratin, pressing lightly to submerge potato mixture as much as possible. DO AHEAD: Can be made 6 hours ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and chill. Remove plastic wrap before baking.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Cover gratin tightly with foil. Bake 30 minutes. Uncover; bake until top of gratin is golden and most of liquid is absorbed, about 25 minutes longer. Let stand 10 minutes; serve.

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