Uncovering the possibilities of sweet potatoes
Of all the dishes placed on the Thanksgiving table, the most curious, to me, has always been the marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, ever-present in some households. As a child, I was both fascinated and leery of a vegetable turned into a dessert(ish), adorned with candy and served among all the “salty” items for dinner at my aunt’s house. My status as a sweet tooth should have had me all over it. But I never touched the stuff.
And I still don’t … no offense to anyone who loves this dish, including a friend’s husband, who claims his aunt used mini marshmallows — as both an enhancement and a disguise — on top of nearly everything.
Turns out, according to an article in Saveur magazine, this “candied” sweet potato casserole has a Thanksgiving holiday history that dates back to 1917, when a recipe pamphlet published by (surprise) Angelus Marshmallows (creator of the original Cracker Jack) contained a recipe for mashed sweet potatoes baked with a marshmallow topping. The concoction was developed by Janet McKenzie Hill, founder of the Boston Cooking School Magazine.
Certainly, the sweet potato’s natural sweetness has often lent itself to desserts. Many early cookbooks featured the tender root in other fall desserts, such as pie, pudding and cake. Much like the pumpkin, the sweet potato partners well with fall spices and provides moist texture to sweet treats.
But what I’ve really come to love about the sweet potato (and it took me awhile to get past its marshmallow past) is using its natural sweetness in savory recipe options. Sweet potatoes are full of flavor that needs very little enhancement — a simple sweet potato, baked or microwaved and topped with a little butter or a dollop of sour cream and salsa and eaten in its jacket is a complete and satisfying meal. Throughout the year, a sweet potato makes a great component in roasted vegetable soup, a breakfast hash or as welcomed sweetness added to spicy dishes like veggie chili. Sweet potato fries have certainly gained in popularity, too, on many a restaurant and fast-food menu.
Fall is peak harvest time for sweet potatoes (once dug up, they go through a “curing” period to convert their starches to sugars before they are sold), so it’s easy to give the versatile root a recurring role in the Thanksgiving feast, finding its way into mine through my dad’s beloved pie (he was not a fan of pumpkin), or adding autumn hues and tender texture to scones, biscuits and dinner rolls I’ve served for the holiday. I’ve turned sweet potatoes into a delightful savory spoonbread (see recipe with this article), that works as both a bread or a side for the holidays. Or the sweet potato can be presented simply, roasted, drizzled with olive oil and a sprig of thyme or add color and flavor by mixing it into that mandatory side of mashed potatoes.
Cultivated from a wild plant originating in Central and South America, the sweet potato is the root of a plant that is related to the morning glory. In her book, “Sweet Potatoes: A Savor the South Cookbook,” (University of North Carolina Press, Inc.; 2014), author April McGreger writes, “De Soto found sweet potatoes being cultivated by Native Americans in Louisiana and as far north as Georgia in 1540,” and by 1648, “the Virginia colonists were growing them.”
The term “sweet potato” and “yam” have been used interchangeably for years, but they are technically not the same. According to the website www.ncsweetpotatoes.com, the commonly consumed, smooth and thin-skinned, sweet and moist-fleshed creature with that bright orange interior is in fact, a sweet potato (you will see varieties in the stores called Beauregard, Covington, Garnet or Jewel), while tuberous roots that are “dry” and have “starchy flesh” and “dark bark-like skin” are yams. Many markets feature sweet potatoes and yams in an array of sizes, shapes and hues. Purple “yams” called Ube, are now having their own moment in a number of desserts, adding bold color to cheesecake and ice cream.
Sweet potatoes are packed with nutrition, according to the www.Healthline.com website, containing not only a high amount of fiber, but they are also rich in beta-carotene, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, protein, potassium, pantothenic acid, copper, manganese and niacin.
And if that is not enough good news, McGreger writes in her book that beta-carotene is fat-soluble, so a little fat (butter, sour cream, olive oil and even bacon grease) added to sweet potatoes will actually aid in those nutrients being absorbed by the body.
Now that’s something we can all be thankful for.