By Janel Leatherman

My love affair with the root vegetables began in childhood. Holiday gatherings always included grandma’s traditional sweet potato casserole, an overcooked, pureed mess of sweet potatoes, dressed up with brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter, finished with a layer of marshmallows then singed to brown perfection. It was difficult to resist the sticky, sweet goodness that disguised the true flavor of the sweet potato, but as my tastes matured, I discovered the distinct culinary delight of this savory fall vegetable bursting with sweet nutrition. The endless versatility of this unique potato captured me completely and led to me places my first sweet potato adventures only hinted at.

The legacy of the sweet potato is ancient and it is believed they were first domesticated in tropical America 5,000 years ago. As members of the morning glory family, they are not actually tubers like Irish potatoes but thickened storage roots. The Spanish cultivated Texas’ first sweet potatoes and East Texas is home to many of the states sweet potato growers. Gilmer, Texas holds its annual Yamboree ( every fall to celebrate the harvest of the sweet potato.

While most people use the name sweet potato and yam interchangeably, sweet potatoes are the roots of a plant, while yams, like regular potatoes, are tubers.

They come in a variety of colors, the most common having the yellow or dark orange flesh. Classifications of dry or moist refer to the texture rather than the moisture content. Dry-fleshed sweet potatoes tend to be mealy in texture, while moist-fleshed convert more of their starch to sugar when they are cooked and have a softer consistency. To take advantage of the sweet potatoes healthful punch, cook them with the skins on and peel them after cooking. They will peel easier and because the highest concentration of most nutrients is just under the skin, you will preserve more of the nutrient value. Nutritionally, one six-ounce sweet potato contains about 120 calories consisting of complex carbohydrates and vitamins C and B, as well as being high in potassium.

When buying sweet potatoes, choose firm ones with no cracks or bruises. Like potatoes, they are always eaten cooked, but the sweetness makes them more versatile than a regular potato. They can be used in a wide variety of dishes, both savory and sweet, and are complimented by a wide array of spices from cinnamon to ginger and
beyond. Enjoy them in baked desserts and quick breads, puddings and custards, casseroles, stews or simply baked.

The season for local sweet potatoes is upon us. The myriad of recipes for this nutritious root vegetable will help you enjoy them as a savory dish, serving up flavors that will not only spark the interest of the child in you, but intrigue the most sophisticated adult. Or, you can simply bake and eat. Sweet!

Simply Sweet Baked Potato

To Oven Bake:

Wash and dry the sweet potato; remove any dark spots or blemishes. Put a few drops of vegetable or olive oil in your hands and ‘grease’ the sweet potato. Bake in a 400° oven for 45 – 60 minutes, depending on size, or until soft when squeezed.

Toppings can be just about anything you can pull from the pantry – chutney, applesauce, chopped dried fruit, cinnamon sugar, brown sugar, honey, coconut, or pineapple for a sweet touch. For a savory delight try a topping of sour cream, plain yogurt, fresh herbs, a dash of smoked paprika or cayenne pepper, crisp bacon, or salsa will delight.

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Edible Dallas & Fort Worth is a quarterly local foods magazine that promotes the abundance of local foods in Dallas, Fort Worth and 34 North Texas counties. We celebrate the family farmers, wine makers, food artisans, chefs and other food-related businesses for their dedication to using the highest quality, fresh, seasonal foods and ingredients.