HomeNovember 2012Thankful for the Sweet Potato

Thankful for the Sweet Potato

I always secretly adored my grandmother’s sweet potato pie with melted marshmallows, but I somehow regarded it as the untrendy stepchild of Thanksgivings past, or as comedian Rodney Dangerfield might have put it, “It ain’t got no respect.”  That is, until I heard the late Julia Child interviewed one year right before the holiday.  She was asked what dish she was most looking forward to for Thanksgiving, and she said mashed sweet potato casserole with marshmallows!  Ah, sweet vindication.

In preparing our Thanksgiving menu, we face our annual conundrum.  One sign says “yams,” another says “sweet potatoes,” but what is the difference?  And more importantly, which one should I buy?

Sweet potatoes, botanically unrelated to the potato, are often mislabeled as “yams,” says distinguished cookbook editor Roy Finamore, who with Fine Cooking magazine’s Molly Stevens wrote One Potato, Two Potato (Houghton Mifflin), an encyclopedic guide to everything you ever wanted to know about the humble spud.

“It’s an American thing, this confusion,” writes Finamore, who credits vegetable authority Elizabeth Schneider for tracing the mix-up to the African slaves, who began calling the American sweet potato “yams” because of their resemblance to the yams they remembered back home.  “But the resemblance ends there,” continues Finamore.  “Yams and sweet potatoes come from different families and have different flavors and different uses.”

The true yam is more like the potato and not nearly as sweet as the sweet potato.  Its texture upon cooking is also more like that of the potato, rather than the custardy texture of the sweet potato.  Chances are your candied “yams” are really candied sweet potatoes.

Americans have a sweet tooth, and if it’s sweet you’re going for in your “yam” dish, no matter whether the sign in the supermarket says “yams” or “sweet potatoes,” they’re both technically sweet potatoes.

The copper-colored variety with the bright, moist, orange flesh is the Jewel and is considered the most versatile.  Use it in any recipe where color and appearance are important.  The Garnet with its deep red or purple skin and soft, moist, lighter orange flesh is recommended for pies, cakes and breads or in recipes that call for mashed or grated sweet potatoes, because the flesh becomes soft upon cooking.

Sweet potatoes pack a healthy punch.  According to the Sweet Potato Council of California, they have twice the daily recommended allowance of Vitamin A, one-third of our daily requirement of Vitamin C, are high in Vitamin B6, iron, potassium and fiber, high in complex carbohydrates and low in calories…well, without all the stuff you pile on it, I guess, but where’s the fun in that?

We Americans consume almost 5 pounds of sweet potatoes per person per year.  By the time America was colonized Native Americans had been growing them for centuries.  A wild form was even discovered in a Peruvian cave dating back to 8000 BCE.  Related to the morning glory, the sweet potato is a vine root that contains tryptophan and increases serotonin in the brain, so if you fall asleep after Thanksgiving dinner, don’t blame the turkey alone.  It has a sweet accomplice.

What’s Thanksgiving without sweet potatoes, but how to serve them?  Finamore’s version of the beloved marshmallow topped casserole is adapted from a favorite found in the 1959 River Road Recipes by the Junior League of Baton Rouge.  Use as many marshmallows – regular or mini – or as few as you like.  Finamore also suggests substituting 1 cup canned crushed pineapple for the milk, if you prefer (a good kosher alternative for a meat meal, although I’m sure this was the furthest thing from his mind!) and/or adding some sherry or rum for extra punch.  Serve the casserole family style or individually in ice cream sundae glasses for a whimsical touch.

I was first introduced to Bourbon Sweet Potatoes by my Southern cousins and found a wonderfully rich version (even better at midnight gobbled by the light of an open refrigerator – it is Thanksgiving after all!) in Bon Appétit, Y’All (Ten Speed Press) by Virginia Willis, a homey compilation of recipes and stories from three generations of Southern cooks.

Or for something completely different, try Moroccan Vegetable Tagine from The Gourmet Jewish Cookbook (Robson Press) by London chef and food writer Denise Phillips.  Here sweet potatoes cozy up to lentils, cherry tomatoes, peas and zucchini, flavored with exotic Moroccan spices and fresh herbs.  Toasted almonds add a bit of crunch.  This dish should satisfy any vegetarians at your holiday table.  While Moroccans commonly use a tagine, a circular, shallow ceramic dish with a wide bottom and distinctively shaped conical top, a casserole or saucepan will do nicely.

Whichever dish you choose, Happy Thanksgiving – and aren’t we thankful we have choices!

River Road Baked Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

3 to 3½ pounds sweet potatoes

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Dash freshly grated nutmeg

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 cup milk or nondairy substitute such as soy milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons sugar

4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter or nondairy margarine

Coarse salt, to taste


1. Heat oven to 450° F.

2. Prick sweet potatoes with a fork and bake on foil tray until tender, about 1 hour.  Lower oven temperature to 350° F.

3. Butter a large gratin dish or 3-quart casserole.  Peel potatoes and mash in a bowl with a fork.  Stir in cinnamon, nutmeg and orange juice.  Combine milk, vanilla, sugar and butter in a saucepan over medium heat and bring just to a boil.  Stir this into potatoes.  Add salt.  Spoon half the potatoes into baking dish.  Cover with layer of marshmallows, then repeat with remaining potatoes and another layer of marshmallows.  Bake until well browned, about 20 to 25 minutes.  Serve hot.

Adapted from One Potato, Two Potato by Roy Finamore with Molly Stevens

Bourbon Sweet Potatoes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter or nondairy margarine, plus more for baking dish
4 to 6 sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch thick rounds
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
½ cup bourbon
2 tablespoons sorghum, cane or maple syrup

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.  Butter an ovenproof gratin or casserole dish.
2. Arrange sweet potato slices in prepared baking dish and season generously with salt and pepper.
3. In a large saucepan, combine sugar, butter, bourbon and syrup and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  As soon as sauce begins to boil, pour over sweet potatoes.
4. Bake casserole, basting and turning potatoes occasionally, until sweet potatoes are tender, 45 to 60 minutes.  Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Adapted from Bon Appétit, Y’All by Virginia Willis

Moroccan Vegetable Tagine

Yield: 6 servings

3 tablespoons olive oil
12 shallots, peeled
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon dried coriander
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces green lentils
2 sweet potatoes (approximately 1 pound), peeled and roughly chopped
7 ounces baby carrots, scrubbed
5 ounces dried pitted dates, roughly chopped
4 cups vegetable stock
7 ounces cherry tomatoes
1 cup frozen peas
6 miniature zucchini, cut in half lengthwise
2 tablespoons each fresh mint, cilantro and parsley
¼ cup sliced almonds, toasted

1. Heat oil in base of a tagine, casserole or saucepan.  Add shallots, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin seeds and coriander.  Cook over medium heat 5 minutes, stirring continuously.  Season well with salt and pepper.
2. Add lentils, potatoes, carrots, dates and stock.  Bring to boil and simmer, covered, 20 minutes.
3. Add tomatoes, peas and zucchini and cook 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Stir in fresh herbs and garnish with toasted almonds.

Adapted from The Gourmet Jewish Cookbook by Denise Phillips

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