Election Section

Sweet Potatoes Are the Toothsome Tuber

By SHIRLEY BARKER Special to the Planet
Friday April 30, 2004

Sweet potato recipes invariably seem overburdened with other ingredients, causing one to wonder whether we dislike the natural taste of vegetables so much that we go to great lengths to hide it.  

This seems not only a pity, but a waste of time. It is so easy to caramelize sweet potatoes on the stove top, and the result is so toothsome, that there is no point in looking for more complicated recipes that include orange juice, marshmallows and hours of oven baking. 

The sweet potato is often called a yam, a common name used in the tropics for many tubers. Unrelated to the African yam, our sweet potato is a South American native in the morning glory (Convolvulaceae) family. To prepare, simply peel the scrubbed sweet potatoes with a swivel-type vegetable peeler. Cut them into medallions a little under a quarter of an inch thick. Layer these in a heavy cast-iron pan. Add small quantities of water, sweet butter, soft brown sugar and a tiny pinch of salt, barely covering the slices. Cook very slowly with the lid on for ten minutes. If liquid evaporates and starts to caramelize before the slices are soft, add a little more water, butter and sugar. They will be done in fifteen to twenty minutes. Serve the slices with the sticky, toffee-like sauce drizzled over them. Their sweet potato flavor will still come through. 

Caramelized sweet potatoes go very well with any savory dish, even fresh sardines or mackerel, split and grilled. Or treat them as dessert, still warm, with chilled lebne, the thick Middle Eastern sour cream. This can be found in several of West Berkeley’s ethnic groceries. It is made from milk and live cultures. Avoid brands with fillers like gelatin and tapioca.  

Sweet potatoes are tremendous fun to grow at least once in a lifetime. The process is more complicated in temperate climates like ours than simply burying a tuber in the ground. The sweet potato, organically grown, is balanced in a glass jar of water, supported if necessary with toothpicks, the stalk end barely submerged. Put the jar in, or close to, a sunny window. Eventually the tuber will be covered with leafy sprouts. When these are about four inches long, carefully slice them off with a piece of flesh attached. Dust this area with hormone rooting powder, available from local nurseries. Plant five in a bushel basket of sandy potting soil and put in the sunniest, warmest part of your garden. Shade the little plants from direct sunlight if they wilt, and water them regularly until they are established, when they become drought-tolerant. 

At the end of summer or fall (do not wait until frost) the leaves will have yellowed, and a surprising quantity of sweet potatoes can now be tipped out of their container. To increase their sweetness and durability they must be cured in high levels of heat and humidity, at which point the gardener will doubtless put away tools and add sweet potatoes to the shopping list. Without curing, they are bland. Perhaps our tendency to overflavor them dates from our early history, before their horticultural needs were fully understood. 

Sweet potatoes are particularly rich in vitamin A. The deeper the color, the greater the food value. In stores they are called garnet or ruby: jewels indeed.