Last Chance Foods: A Rainbow of Sweet Potatoes

The weather is cooling off. As memories of peaches and tomatoes fade away, root vegetables are the featured items at area farmers' markets and in many pantries.

The traditional image of a sweet potato calls to mind reddish skin with orange flesh. In reality, though, there are hundred of varieties of sweet potatoes in a rainbow of colors. Farmer Lee Jones of The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, grows 21 different heirloom sweet potatoes and supplies a number of notable New York chefs.

“In the United States, we tend to be pared down to varieties that create the greatest yield or the most tons per acre, or ship the best 3,000 miles, or some characteristic about yield, unfortunately,” Jones explained. “And for us, it about going back and exploring some of those old, lost heirloom varieties.”

One of the most common questions when it comes to sweet potatoes is how they differ from yams.

“[The] yam is a tropical plant, and it appears that the sweet potato is not, but they’re very, very similar,” he conceded. (Here’s what the Library of Congress has to say about the difference. Basically, in the United States, “yam” is a common misnomer for sweet potato.)

Jones noted that sweet potatoes illustrate an important point about many fruits and vegetables.

“One of the things we recommend and hear chefs talk about more is actually consuming the skin,” added Jones. “In America, we tend to throw the healthiest, most nutritious part of things away: We peel an apple, we peel a carrot, we peel a beet, we peel a potato. And that’s where the nutrition and the flavor is.”

Sweet potato leaves are also lesser known and very nutritious parts of the plant. More commonly used in Asian cuisine, they can be sauteed in oil and garlic much like tender Swiss chard.

“It’s probably one of the healthiest things that you can eat, very high in vitamin C, very high in antioxident,” said Jones. “I’ve seen them use this to wrap a fish in. And you’ll hold the moisture of the fish in, and infuse then in the essence of that sweet potato.”

Of the 21 varieties grown by Jones, one immediate standout is the Speckled Purple. He said that the potato has the obvious benefit of being immediately appealing to the eye — a quality sought-after by chefs. Jones added that potatoes also retain their color after being cooked.

Deb Perelman, the author of the blog Smitten Kitchen, noted that sweet potatoes can serve as an easy substitute for pumpkin (a seasonal favorite that may be in short supply this year).

“Roasting whole pumpkins is kind of difficult but baking sweet potatoes is incredibly easy,” she said. “And you, you know, run it through a ricer or just mash it up with a fork or a potato masher and you have this perfectly textured replacement for canned pumpkin.”

Try Perelman’s recipe for Sweet Potatoes with Pecans, Goat Cheese and Celery below.

“It's perfect for people who want to start eating Thanksgiving-flavored food a month early,” she said.

Also, see more photos of Lee Jones and the sweet potatoes he grows on Amy Eddings' blog, Food for Thought.

Sweet Potatoes with Pecans, Goat Cheese and Celery
[a.k.a. Roasted Marshmallow-y Sweet Potatoes with Thanksgiving on Top]
by Deb Perelman, Smitten Kitchen

I roast vegetables a little oddly these days. I used to do it the “normal” way, tossing them with oil and then laying them out on a sheet but I always needed more and more oil and the pieces still stuck. Once I started generously oiling the pan, my vegetables started browning really well and didn’t get weighed down — most of the oil stays on the roasting pan.

Wary of celery? Swap all or half with chopped radishes. Don’t like goat cheese? Try ricotta salata or even blue cheese instead. Firmly believe that everything is improved by bacon? Crumble some in there, or use browned bits of pancetta. Don’t like sweet potatoes? Skip them and added diced leftover turkey to the “salad”, with additional vinaigrette or just mayo.

Serves 2 1/2

1 1/2 pounds sweet potato, scrubbed, unpeeled, in 3/4- to 1-inch coins
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/4 cup toasted and cooled pecan halves
2 tiny or 1 small shallot
2 stalks celery
2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon dried cranberries or cherries (optional)
2 ounces firmish goat cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon smooth Dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Coat a large baking sheet generously with olive oil, about 1 to 2 tablespoons. Lay sweet potatoes in one layer on the oiled sheet. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast, without disturbing, for 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully flip each piece: the undersides should be blistery, dark and a bit puffy and should release from the pan with no effort. If they’re not, let it cook longer. Sprinkle them with additional salt and freshly ground black pepper and return the pan to the oven for another 10 minutes or so, until the undersides match the tops.

Meanwhile, prepare your salad. Chop your pecans well, mince your shallot, chop your celery and parsley, mince cranberries if using them. Crumble your goat cheese. If you, like me, got too soft of a goat cheese for mixing, set it aside and sprinkle it on top. If it’s firmer, stir it into the mixture. In a small dish, whisk together 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon dijon. Pour half over salad.

When the sweet potatoes are done, set a couple coins aside just in case the baby isn’t into the toppings. Lay the rest on a serving platter. Scoop a spoonful of the salsa over each round. Pour remaining salad dressing over top, to taste. Eat immediately.