Fall always gets me in the mood for baking. There’s nothing like the smell of a freshly baked apple, pumpkin or sweet potato pie.
Since we already talked about apples, let’s turn our attention to that noble tuber, the sweet potato.
Sweet potatoes are often called yams , but sweet potatoes and yams are two entirely different plants. Yams are native to South and Central America, Africa and Asia. Sweet potatoes are only found in the Americas. Yams aren’t grown in the United States, and are almost never imported here, so what you find in the produce department of your favorite store is almost always a sweet potato, not a yam.
The sweet potato isn’t even distantly related to the potato — it’s actually a member of the morning glory family. There are two main varieties grown commercially: a light-skinned variety and one with darker skin. This is where some of the confusion comes in; I was always told that the darker skinned sweet potatoes were yams.
The light-skinned sweet potatoes are not very sweet and have a texture like that of a baking potato when cooked. The darker ones are the best for cooking and eating.
When selecting sweet potatoes, look for small- to medium-sized ones with a smooth skin without any blemishes or bruises. Large sweet potatoes are often very tough and fibrous. The best way to store them is in a cool, dry place away from sunlight — even then, they don’t store well; so try to use them as soon as possible after buying them, within a week if possible.
Sweet potatoes are much more nutritious if they are cooked in their skins. To prepare them for cooking, just wash them in cold water. Peeling sweet potatoes can be a real pain, but there are two ways to go about it. The first is to use a very good, sharp swivel peeler. My favorite, bar none, is the one made by OXO. This peeler is smooth to use and is razor-sharp. It follows the contours of any vegetable perfectly and will last a lifetime. To keep the sweet potatoes from turning dark after peeling, put them in water with a little lemon juice in it.
The second method of peeling is to boil the sweet potato whole, with the skin on. Immediately after it is cooked fork-tender, dunk it into a pan of ice water. The skin will slip right off. This method takes more time, since you have to cook the sweet potatoes before peeling them and cutting them into smaller pieces, but it offers an advantage: Sweet potatoes cooked in their skins retain more nutrients.
Sweet potatoes can be prepared any way you can cook a regular potato: baked, boiled, fried, you name it. I’ve been served sweet potato chips and sweet potato French fries, and they are delicious. Baked sweet potatoes with butter and a good sprinkling of cinnamon sugar are especially good with roast pork or chops. Nutmeg and maple syrup also go well with sweet potatoes.
Just in case all this talk has you ready for a nice sweet potato pie or casserole, here are links to some recipes.