A fresh crop of exceptional sweet potatoes is just beginning to emerge at your weekly farmers’ markets.
Harvested from early to late fall, sweet potatoes are unearthed from the soil and stored for the months to come in large bins, with the freshest finds of the different varieties available this time of year.
Sweet potatoes are a stem tuber root vegetable, native to Central America and Peru, but they have acclimated quite well to various growing regions in California, as well as around the globe. Planted in the late spring, they take many months to develop into their mature size, with the larger specimens reaching up to a few pounds.
Most of the sweet potatoes available at the farmers’ markets are harvested on the younger side, averaging about a half pound each.
There are about a dozen or so varieties of sweet potatoes you may encounter throughout the season, each yielding slightly different texture and flavor contrasts, as well as a range of colors. The most common are those with dark orange to brownish skin and a dark orange flesh, often labeled “yams.”
True yams originated in Africa and are quite different from those sweet potatoes mislabeled in the United States. African yams, rather, are a large root vegetable, often yielding up to 100 pounds, and they’re quite dry and must be cooked down for long periods before eating. These are hardly ever seen in the United States.
In contrast, our “yams” tend to deliver a very moist soft texture when slowly roasted in the oven, producing a very tender smooth finish.
Sweet potatoes are quite a nutritious addition to your seasonal diets. The darker sweet potatoes tend to be a bit more nutrient-dense than their lighter counterparts. Most notably they’re a greater source of beta-carotene. The skin delivers a great source of natural fiber, about half of which is soluble. Additionally, they provide ample amounts of Vitamin C and B6, manganese, and some potassium, along with the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin.
The storage for sweet potatoes is quite important. You want to avoid keeping them in the refrigerator before they are cooked. Once chilled, sweet potatoes tend to develop hard cores and a milder flavor making them less desirable when prepared. They should ideally be stored in a cool dry place in your pantry, favoring temperatures between 55-60 degrees. They will hold nicely for at least a few weeks, but I have had them stored well for months.
Sweet potatoes are quite a versatile food to have on hand in the kitchen when looking for a quick side dish. I regularly prepare a quick-fried sweet potato for my kids that they seem to really enjoy. Sautéed in a hot pan until seared and almost cooked through, they are then finished off on a rack in the oven until the outside is crispy and the center soft.
Quick-Fried Sweet Potatoes
2 medium sweet potatoes.
1 tablespoon dried thyme or oregano.
Salt and pepper.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Rinse and dry your sweet potato, then cut into thin rounds. Add olive oil to a wide pan and once hot, add sweet potato in a single layer and cook for about 2 minutes, until well seared. You may need to do this in a few batches. Then turn and cook for about 2 more minutes.
Season the top with thyme, salt and pepper. Remove from heat and place potatoes on a cooking wrack. Place in the oven and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the outside is crispy. You can keep them warm in the oven until ready to serve.
Yield: Serves 4.