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Sweet Potatoes and Yams

March 10, 2015 - Radio Kitchen - Sweet Potatoes and Yams

As we come out of the winter months, there are still a few things left in the market that were grown last year.  Preeminent among these hardy vegetables would be sweet potatoes.  And notice I said sweet potatoes, and not yams.

Many writers on the internet maintain that most of us have never tasted a true and proper yam (I always thought that is what you called the smaller, more yellow sweet potatoes).  Truth is, yams are an African root vegetable that isn't really grown here in the US.  But hundreds of years ago, Africans taken into slavery encountered the sweet potato, which bore a passing resemblance to their yams, and so the name stuck.

There are many good things about sweet potatos.  First, the nutritional value:  it's very high.  A great source of fiber (eat those skins!), potassium, vitamin A, beta-carotenes, and very low on the glycemic index.  This is a high quality carbohydrate.   A side by side comparison with white potatoes gives the sweet potato the nutritional edge, mostly because it is lower in calories, and higher in fiber and vitamins.  But both are nutritious.

The simple baked sweet potato is a virtual staple in our diet, but there is so much more you can do with them.

As an alternative to French Fries, try cutting up a sweet potato into long wedges, à la "ranch fries."  Toss them with olive oil and roast them in a hot oven until they just start to scorch.  Finish them off with a little salt and pepper, and a dried herb like rosemary.

Sweet potatoes are easy to bake, so if you can scrape out the flesh, you're all set to purée them.  And that sets you up for making a great soup.  Use a little low sodium chicken broth and any of the spices associated with curries.  The Indian cooks know how useful the sweet potato is, and how they blend well with their spices.

In fact, there are countless Indian curried stews that match sweet potatoes up with you favorite protein and a bunch of compatible vegetables like garbanzo beans, winter squash, lentils, pumpkin, chopped spinach and all sorts of onion.

Here's a nice vegetarian idea:  sweet potato and spinach quesadillas.  Work up a bit of puréed sweet potato with cooked spinach, a bit of pickled onion, and some mozzarella cheese.  Serve on classic tortilla sections.

You can make a wonderful dessert by taking some puréed sweet potato and mixing it with plain yogurt and honey.  Top it off with candied pecan bits and you've got a very nice way to end a meal.

Sweet potatoes have a long list of natural dance partners:  maple syrup, ginger, cayenne pepper, carrots, ham, yogurt, pecans or hazelnuts, mustards of all kinds.  The permutations are endless, and it's not hard to generate your own recipe ideas.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.