Sweet potatoes - a leftover on my desk



When I was doing that desk clearing exercise in the last day or so I came across this page, torn out of an old Coles Magazine. Obviously I felt I should do something on sweet potatoes - a vegetable that we never eat in this house. So here I go.


It seemed to me that sweet potatoes have become very trendy, and that's partly borne out by things like frozen sweet potato chips from McCain, and sweet potato wedges as an appetiser in popular cafés. It also came from a feeling that every new cookbook I came across had dozens of recipes for sweet potatoes.


However, I now see that, particularly on that last front I am wrong. Yes, there are recipes here and there, but not that often really and not recipes that are fundamentally about sweet potatoes. More often than not they are a footnote - 'you can use sweet potatoes instead of potatoes, or pumpkin' kind of thing. Or else it is just a method of cooking them - frying, baking, mash ... Not really a dish that makes them a star ingredient. Indeed the only reference that Maggie Beer makes to them in her massive Maggie's Harvest tome, is a couple of lines in the section on root vegetables:


"Sweet potato is perfect simply par-boiled then baked, though it needs to be handled carefully so it is not oversweet - I like to add a little lemon juice for balance." Maggie Beer


Not much love there I feel.


Now I adore potatoes, and certainly many writers say that fundamentally you can use sweet potatoes in any recipe that is for potatoes. Not that it is at all the same thing. Potatoes are a tuber and sweet potatoes are a root - and also botanically distinct. However, they can indeed be treated in the same way, although, they will, of course, taste different because - well - sweet potatoes are sweet. Although some are sweeter than others, with, I think, the gold ones being the sweetest. And, Maggie Beer is not alone in saying that they need a bit more care than potatoes when it comes to cooking them. For instance, when baking they will not take as long, and you need to watch that they do not burn, and if you bake them with the skin on the skin will not crisp. Well that's what Nigel Slater said anyway.


But first a little history which is also intriguing. It has long been thought that they are American - well Latin and Central American in origin, brought to Europe by Columbus like all those other essential items like potatoes, beans, tomatoes and the pepper family. Not so it seems, although there are still arguments.


There doesn't seem to be much dispute about the origins of the plant in Central and the north of South America - now dated at about 800,000 years ago - well before humans existed. They hybridised naturally and spread their range into South America. Now comes the argument. The research that displaced the Columbus theory says that sweet potatoes were found in Polynesia before Columbus, and that therefore there must have been contact between the Polynesians and Latin America. Well I can believe that - the Polynesians, as we well know were amazing sailors and navigators.

So why not? I think the theory is that they made their way to South America, found the sweet potato and took it back home. (There's something about chickens in this story too, but I don't quite get that.) The other theory is that the plant either drifted to Polynesia on ocean currents or was carried by birds. A little bit dubious I think. Now, however, somebody else has claimed that it just spread naturally - seeds carried by birds or water and a lot earlier than they originally thought. For it now does seem that the plant was in Polynesia long before humans, but:


“This paper shows sweet potatoes were already in Polynesia when the islands were first colonized by humans thousands of years ago,” says Lars Fehren-Schmitz, a paleogeneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “But it can’t prove there was no contact between Polynesians and South Americans before Europeans arrived.” Nature


Since Columbus the history is clearer - lots of hybridisation - hence the difficulties of interpreting DNA and also the variety of types that now exist. There was one more statement that I saw somewhere that said that they are not grown from seed but from 'slips' - shoots from a mature plant. So how come they crossed the Pacific as seeds?


Anyway, moving on to what you can do with them other than make sweet potato chips - even though they are much healthier than actual potatoes - lots of vitamin A in particular and less starch. Incidentally they are called potatoes, even though they are not potatoes, from the Spanish 'batata's, which was a misinterpretation of the original South American dialect words - and I guess it's pretty obvious how that changed to potato. I mean they almost look the same. the same sort of process applies to the name kumara which is sometimes, and trendily used.


As do yams - which are not sweet potatoes but something else again.


So - there are three fundamental types as shown in the page from the Coles Magazine. The most common is the gold, then there is the purple or beige skinned type which is white inside, and the purple inside, purple or white outside. I think this type comes from Japan. I believe the ones with gold or purple flesh are the best, but this is probably a question of personal taste. Most recipes that I have seen do not specify which kind.


Did I find anything tempting and different. Well yes, and somewhat regretfully, because I feel it's a bit obvious, mostly from Ottolenghi. The first one Roasted sweet potatoes and fresh figs is probably never going to be made by me, because I don't like figs, and I'm really not sure I like sweet potatoes either. Which means that this would not be a good one to try as an experiment with a new flavour.

And whilst on that particular idea - discovering a 'new' previously despised ingredient, I have to say that an article on Peter Gordon's Sweet potato, rosemary and garlic mash, as promoted by Nigel Slater in one of his books and then tried on the Little Bean website demonstrated that feeling:


"I love it when I realise my taste has changed and that I’ve gained a liking for a food I didn’t previously." The Little Bean


Coriander for me I think, and eggplant long ago. I haven't yet been converted to sweet potatoes.


But let's see what else I could try. Well there is a Tik Tok sensation - of course there is - from Ayeh who has 615 thousand followers - which rather puts Belinda Jeffery's 34 thousand in the shade doesn't it? Anyway her suggestion is to make Sweet potato toast - yes toast - topped with smashed avocado (of course) rocket and grilled halloumi and flavoured with chilli, honey and lemon. And you know it doesn't look half bad. Certainly on a par with Ottolenghi, Nigel et al. Also the kind of thing that would inspire others to improvise variations I would think, once you've got the basic idea. She's actually got a food blog as well and the link is to the recipe there, where she also offers a couple of other suggestions - peanut butter and banana, or avocado and pickled onions, hummus, egg, chicken, pesto ... Mind you I'm not a breakfast person, so I don't think this is going to happen anytime soon here. Mind you it would be a good vegetarian option for a multi course vegetarian meal wouldn't it?


Still on breakfast and back to Ottolenghi - he offers up a variation on Shakshuka in his latest book Shelf Love - Sweet potato shakshuka with Sriracha butter and pickled onions. Also not going to be tried in this house - David doesn't like fried eggs, or hot sauces, although I suppose you could leave that out and substitute paprika. If you left out the eggs it wouldn't be shakshuka would it? Cheese?

Then still with Ottolenghi and we could actually still be with breakfast, but Sweet potato cakes can be served in all sorts of different ways, and he does provide a yoghurt based sauce to dip them in or slather over them. With sausages perhaps? Or fried fish? As to the cake mix, well that's the sort of thing that you could improvise on endlessly. I confess I do like any kind of fritter or cake, hotcake, whatever you like to call them.

Whilst still on sweet potato cakes, Nigel Slater also has a go at this, but he serves his with a tomato and basil sauce and simply flavours the cakes with tarragon. Italian like rather than middle-eastern/asian I think. And none the worse for that.


But I shall end with sweet because this vegetable is, after all, called sweet. The Americans absolutely go overboard with the sweet when it comes to sweet potatoes, especially in the south it seems. They are a traditional accompaniment to the Thanksgiving turkey and maple syrup seems to be a very common sweet potato flavouring. I even saw somewhere the addition of marshmallows. Ottolenghi though tempers his sweet Winter spiced cheesecake with marmalade glaze and I have to say it looks rather tempting. The trouble is we don't eat dessert or cake very often.


I do feel I should try sweet potatoes again. Maybe next time I make a potato gratin I should mix in a few sweet potato slices as well. Or mix some in with the next batch of roast vegetables that I do. Soup, a dip, scones, a topping for Shepherd's pie ... ?


Oh well one more piece of paper removed from my desk.

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