Sweet potatoes in their many varieties are a highly nutritious food, easy to prepare, heavenly tasting, and extremely versatile on any menu. Yet, they are undervalued, ignored, and underappreciated. Some people enjoy the wonderful flavor and health benefits of sweet potatoes year round, but for many families sweet potatoes appear on the table at Thanksgiving and only then. We know of some folks who have never even eaten a sweet potato.
Sweet potatoes were actually born in Mexico, Central, and South America, as well as the West Indies. Their botanical name, Ipomoca batata, was derived from the American Indians of Louisiana who were growing them in native gardens as early as 1540. The Indians referred to sweet potatoes as batatas.
In his first voyage to the West Indies Columbus discovered many new foods which he brought back to Spain. Sweet potatoes were among his ship's treasures. The Spanish relished them and began cultivating them immediately. Soon they were profitably exporting them to England where they were included in spice pies to be devoured at the court of Henry VIII.
The French, not to be outdone, planted them at the request of Louis XV. They were favored in France only until his death and then lost popularity for thirty years until the Empress Josephine, who was from Martinique, craved them. It was then that sweet potatoes again became trendy in Paris restaurants for a time, but once more fell into obscurity. It was the Portuguese who carried sweet potatoes to Asia and Africa where they have become an important staple of the diet even today.
There are two major varieties of sweet potatoes, the yellow, drier, more mealy kind with lighter beige colored skins, and the orange, more moist, sweeter ones with reddish skins that are usually called "yams." True yams, however, are nothing like the sweet potato, but are a tuber native to Africa, very starchy, not very sweet, and grow as large as 100 pounds.
It was the Southerners, mainly from North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana, who adopted the name yams for the darker-skinned orange variety and made them an important part of their cuisine. "Yams" were so important in the South that during the American Revolution and the Civil War, they were said to have sustained the fighting soldiers.
The sweet potato deserves to be on the highest perch because it is a nutritional powerhouse with 4 ounces of cooked pulp supplying 2 grams of protein, 3.4 grams of fiber, 24.6 mg of vitamin C, 28 mg of calcium, 22.6 mcg of folic acid, 20 mg of magnesium, 348 mg of potassium, and a whopping 21822 I.U. of vitamin A. That's mighty impressive for only a half cup serving. The skins, which are completely edible, add even more fiber.
To Bake: Simply scrub the skins clean, place the sweet potatoes on a baking pan, and put them in a 425 oven for 50 to 60 minutes. Large ones may take a bit longer. Test for doneness by squeezing the skins. They should give easily and feel soft. Sweet potatoes are so delicious just as they are, they really don't need any extra toppings. The edible skins can be a little dry and tough after baking. If you want them to be softer, bake the sweet potatoes in aluminum foil with the shiny side of the foil inside.
Another way to bake sweet potatoes is to peel them and slice them about 1/4" thick. Brush them with a little canola oil and put them on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Bake at 400 for about 30 to 35 minutes. Test for doneness with a fork. They should pierce easily.
To Steam: You can choose to peel them or not. Slice the sweet potatoes about 1/2" thick and put them into a steamer basket (either metal or bamboo) over a pot of water. Cover, and turn heat to high, bringing the water below to a boil. Keep the water boiling for about 7 to 10 minutes and fork test for doneness. They should pierce easily, and the skins will be very tender. You can also cube the sweet potatoes before steaming if you plan to use them in a casserole.
To Saute: Peel the sweet potatoes, and shred them on the coarse grater or in the food processor. Saute them in a combination of canola oil and little water over high heat, tossing frequently until tender, about 10 to 12 minutes.
Raw: Sweet potatoes, both the yellow and the orange varieties, can be shredded and added to salads for an additional boost of beta carotene. They can also be juiced or added to raw soups. Bright yellow or orange shredded sweet potatoes make the perfect garnish to a raw soup or salad topping.
Since sweet potatoes are the featured food this month, we've chosen a soup recipe from Zel's cookbook, Vegetarians in Paradise to share this month.