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Tuesday, April 23

Gapers Block

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There are a few things we need to clear up regarding Sweet Potatoes. Sweet potatoes are not yams and yams are not sweet potatoes. A lot of folks seem to confuse this simple issue and interchange the two words, when in fact the two vegetables are from different families entirely and not even remotely related. Yams are native to South America; sweet potatoes are in fact natives of Central America. While you can find yams in the States, you are much more likely to find the moist, dense, yellowish-orange flesh of sweet potatoes misidentified as yams. Those sweet little treats are an excellent source of vitamins A, C, B6 and a great way to get your potassium and folic acid. You can use them anyway you would a white potato. Slice them and bake them like fries. Mash them up for a regular mashed potato alternative. But whatever you do, please, please, please try to stay away from the traditional preparation: doused in sickly sweet syrup and covered with marshmallows.

Let's explore two options that don't involve sugar, sugar, and more sugar: goat cheese and zucchini stuffed sweet potatoes and eggplant and sweet potato curry.

To make stuffed sweet potatoes, round up four medium sweet potatoes, about one-third of a cup of goat cheese crumbles, three to four scallions and three zucchini. You can either microwave or bake the sweet potatoes until they are done but firm inside. This is an important factor, as you will be scooping out the inside of the potatoes and then bake further. You want the potatoes to stand up and still be firm. If you are going to microwave them, I suggest microwaving them individually for about five to seven minutes.

Meanwhile, split the zucchini in half lengthwise and then thinly slice into half-moon shapes. Slice the scallions thinly as well and set aside. Sautee the zucchini in a little oil until tender and they start to turn golden. Toss in the scallions and sauté for two minutes longer.

Head back to the microwave and check on your spuds. If they are finished cooking, carefully split them in half lengthwise and scoop out the insides, leaving a wall about a quarter-inch thick. Mash the scooped-out potato innards until smooth. Add the zucchini and scallion mixture, a dash of salt and pepper, and then crumble in the goat cheese and combine thoroughly. Scoop the mixture generously into the potato boats. Pop them into a preheated 400-degree oven and bake them until they are warm throughout, about 20 minutes. This dish goes well with a simple green salad or lightly steamed spinach or other leafy green veggies.

If you have always wondered what sweet potatoes would be like in a curry, well hold on to your hat, I have the perfect recipe for you. At first glance the ingredient list looks a tad daunting, but most of the work is combining the spices for the curry base. It's worth the extra effort, so don't skimp here and just toss in some prepared curry powder -- this dish just won't be as good. Also, the key to success here is prep work. I like to combine the spices in a separate bowl and then start chopping the veggies, as you will be adding them to the spices to form the curry. To make the curry's spice base, combine all of the following in a small bowl, except for the mustard seeds:

1 tsp mustard seeds 1/2 tsp cayenne 1/2 tsp ground turmeric 2 tsp ground coriander 1 tsp ground cumin 1 T peeled and minced fresh ginger 2 T sliced garlic

Move on to chopping your veggies. You will need three large tomatoes, cored, peeled, seeded, and chopped. You can also use canned; if you do, don't bother draining the liquid. Peel and cut three large sweet potatoes. Also peel and cut two medium-to-large eggplants into half-inch cubes. You can salt the eggplant, however it isn't necessary. Salting eggplant removes excess liquid and tames the bitterness that is natural to the vegetable. If you decide to salt, keep in mind that the process takes about 30 minutes. Simply salt all sides of the eggplant cubes and place in a colander to drain. After half an hour, rinse the salt off and pat the cubes dry.

After you have chopped the vegetables, heat one tablespoon of oil in a three-quart pot. Add the mustard seeds and sauté until they are fragrant and begin to pop, about two minutes. Stir in the rest of the spices along with four tablespoons of butter and cook until both the garlic and ginger are soft. Then add the vegetables, one cup of water and a dash of salt. Cover, turn the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring once or twice, for about 30 minutes.

Remove cover and check the mixture -- add a little more water if the curry looks dry. Continue cooking, stirring the mixture until the eggplant and sweet potatoes are very tender, about 15 minutes longer. At this point add two tablespoons of freshly squeezed lime juice and adjust salt and pepper to taste. You can garnish with some cilantro if you would like.

If you want to starch things up a bit, you can serve this curry with rice. For a lighter meal, I suggest a green salad.

Armed with these two alternatives, you'll never think of slopping marshmallows onto sweet potatoes and calling it a side dish ever again.

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Alex / January 5, 2004 11:55 PM

Ah yes, ipomea batatas. The staple starch of highlands Papua New Guinea - we used to put them in the ashes of the fire, wait an hour or three, take them out, dust them off, and eat them. There were at least eight different varieties (not counting introduced species). I would walk through gardens and attempt to name recogniz them from their runners. bauwa ulia - the big sweet ones (most sweet potatoes, as Cinnamon rightly points out, are not actually sweet and ought be eaten savory). mangapia ulia - the kind that made you hiccup (mangapia a). Savory sweet potato was the order of the day - cooked in an earth oven along with a pig and fragrant leaves. Sweet potato was deemed essential to the growth of children and the definition of nutrition. Muscles were imagined as ingested sweet potato bulges visible under the skin. In Oro, where a friend worked, parents called their children "my little rhizome..." as a term of affection.

Sweet potato is one of the many crops that diffused from the old world to the new world in what is known as the 'Columbian Transfer'. Their path to Polynesia is a topic of intense and heated debate among almost 20 people. After D.E. Yen's definitive monograph of the 1970s, we can now say with certainty that the sweet potato traveled from South America via Europe, the Silk Road, and finally Portuguese trade routes into the spice islands and Pacific.

In Enga Province, the sweet potato spurred an agricultural revolution, as sweet potatoes grow at higher altitude and in poorer soil than the previously available taro. Sweet potato is also the single most efficient crop on the planet at turning biomass into calories - it yields huge caloric increases compared to taro. Since it could be fed as fodder to pigs, the efflorescence of large scale ceremonial exchange networks in Enga in the late 19th century can be tied to the introduction of sweet potato.

Experimental agricultural plots in Australian universities have worked to find and locate archaic sweet potato species across polynesia. DNA typing of sweet potato has been extensively used t o track polynesian migration, as well to locate drought-resistant strains for breeding. One species in particular can produce edible tubers after more than two hundred days without water - making it one of the most drough-resistant strains on the planet.

Personally, I've never liked sweet potato, and considered it oen of the crueler twists of fate that I ended up in a society obsessed with them. But there you go. I'll stop without publishing the spells women used when planting new runners (ulia waini) - I've gone on long enough. Just trust me - they figure pretty big in sorcery too.

paul / January 6, 2004 6:28 AM

Excellent recipes. Another crime done to the sweet potato, is boiling it like a regular potato, which washes away the flavor. My favorite treatment for sweet potato is to cook them in a little coconut milk with some thai pepper and ginger, and run them through a ricer, instead of mashing them into the typical glop.

However, I'm not above the classic sweet-sweet potato dish, with added butter, cream, maple syrup and honey, provided a little good bourbon is added and it's served sans marshmallows.

suzanne / January 6, 2004 9:14 AM

alex, wow, thanks for all the sweet potato info!
ipomea suggests that they are in the same family as the morning glory, interesting.
the things you know....

Alex / January 6, 2004 9:37 AM

Yeah... wierd, huh? I know all this stuff about sweet potato, but didn't notice that someone other than Cinnamon wrote the food column this week! Sorry for the confusion. :)

Andrew / January 6, 2004 10:43 AM

Damn, Alex is droppin' tha ka-nowledge!

I'm looking forward to trying the curry dish. Sounds yummy, and our local grocery (Devon Market) always has sweet potatoes (and yams) in stock at a low price.

Lacey / January 6, 2004 12:07 PM

The curry dish is de-lish, and serves 4-6 people. Let me warn you though: there is a lot of chopping involved here. 2 people chopping is preferrable. But it's all worth it in the end, oh yes.

Suz--I'm so glad you shared these. You are the mastah chef a la Glenwood Ave.

Alex / January 7, 2004 12:59 PM

For 91 pages of Papua New Guinea Sweet Potato Research Goodness see$file/0009%20PR99%20Chapter%209.pdf

raise the roof y'all. sweet potato in the hiz-ouse!

stephen / January 8, 2004 12:28 PM

Awesome. The stuffed recipe sounds tasty. Rock on.

Seth Sanders / January 9, 2004 1:40 PM

The inevitable Judaization: spicy sweet potato latkes

Peanut Oil
2 lbs sweet potatoes
1 C flour
4 tsp sugar
2 tsp brown sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cayenne pepper
4 tsp curry powder
2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp salt and pepper
4 beaten eggs
1/2 C milk.

Mix dry ingredients together. Mix egg and milk together. Peel and shred potatoes. Add dry ingredients to potatoes and mix well. Add egg and milk mixture to potatoes to make a stiff batter. Drop by tablespoons into hot peanut oil. Drain and serve. (May be reheated or frozen.)

Lacey / January 9, 2004 3:23 PM

Those [sweet potato latkes] are tasty as well, I might add.

Amanda / January 10, 2004 5:25 PM

Yup, Suzanne's right, sweet potatoes and morning glories are in the same family. They're so closely related that grafting is very easy -- just cut a 0.5" slit in the stalk of the morning glory plant, jab in a 6 - 8" piece of sweet potato vine, and wrap it securely with tape to hold in place. 9 times out of 10, it works if you've lined up the growth tissues of the two plants decently well. [My first job after I graduated high school was in the sweet potato pathology lab at the local university's agriculture college.]

Most of the sweet potatoes currently sold in America are from the Beauregard cultivar (cultivar = cultivated variety). It's a shame that many of the other varieties just aren't grown commercially, for I think some of them taste better. A variety with purple leaves is popular in China, where the leaves are also eaten. Here, though, sweet potatoes with those dark leaves ("Blackies") are becomming popular as ground cover.

Beth W. / January 12, 2004 8:55 PM

The sweet potato is one of nature's most perfect foods. Your recipes sound great. My favorite breakfast is a small baked sweet potato with a little cinnamon sugar mushed up in it. Wish I had one right now (for a 9pm snack).


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