Cindy Wolf was so excited about her latest sweet potato creation -- a custard she made in her home kitchen -- that she bundled up the custard cups and sped over to her restaurant to let the staff taste them. "They were perfect -- like velvet in my mouth," exclaimed the new chef of the soon-to-open Southern restaurant Savannah in Fells Point. Her staff agreed.
Ms. Wolf has come a long way with sweet potatoes since her youth in the South when they were served for Thanksgiving in a candied sweet potato casserole, dripping with marshmallows and brown sugar. She no longer settles for the once-a-year treat. Like many chefs and home cooks, she creates flans and creme brulees with them, adds them to pastas and salads, fries, roasts, grills and sautes them. And why not? They're delicious.
But just as important, they are abundantly nutritious. They are so good, in fact, that many nutritionists think we should eat more of them, instead of reserving them for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts.
Even those curmudgeony folks at the Center for Science in the Public Interest who have seemed to revel in taking the joy out of eating Chinese, Italian and Mexican foods, actually encourage eating more of what they call the "Cadillac of vegetables."
They even grudgingly give a thumbs up to sweet potato pie. "If you are thinking about desserts, you are much better off with a sweet potato pie than with pecan pie, or chocolate pie," concedes Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist with the CSPI. "If you are going to have fat, then you should have the kind that comes with nutrients," she says.
In the center's ranking of more than 50 vegetables, based on vitamins A and C, folate, iron, copper, calcium and fiber content, sweet potatoes scored No. 1 with more than 10 times as many nutrients as even collard greens, cabbage and other healthful vegetables. Sweet potatoes earned a nutrition score of 582 compared to 57 for collard greens, 47 for cabbage and a paltry 22 for iceberg lettuce.
But some of this nutrition information has been obscured by clouds of confusion surrounding the public's understanding of sweet potatoes vs. yams.
Most grocery stores carry two types of sweet potatoes -- the orange-fleshed, copper-skinned type, sometimes labeled "yams," and the less common, pale yellow, tan-skinned type. Both are roots, rather than tubers.
The true yam, native to Africa, is a tuber, and is dark brown with a scaly, rough exterior. True yams -- not related to the sweet potato -- are available in the United States usually in specialty markets, not in the supermarket.
Some producers of the orange sweet potatoes have labeled their products "yams," which increases confusion among consumers.
Both types of sweet potatoes are highly nutritious, although the orange-fleshed variety does contain more beta carotene.
Ms. Wolf, who grew up in North Carolina and has worked as a chef in Charleston, S.C., has fond memories of that only-for-Thanksgiving sweet potato dish. But as she has become more adventurous with cuisine, through training at the prestigious Culinary Academy of America in New York and through her work in Charleston and at Georgia Brown's in Washington, she's expanded her repertoire of sweet potato recipes. She plans to offer several sweet potato dishes on her restaurant's ever-changing menu. You can expect to see sweet potato custard, cheesecake or creme brulee offered at the restaurant when it opens later this month.
Ms. Wolf is not the only chef in town who seeks the wild side of sweet potatoes. Adventurous diners at Glasz Cafe in Mount Washington can choose from dishes like turkey roulade with sweet potato stuffing, sweet potatoes roasted with bacon and pecans, shepherd's pie with sweet potatoes, or even Jamaican lentil and sweet potato salad, during sweet potato season from August to January. Nona Nielsen-Parker, the cafe's chef says she prepares sweet potatoes at least 10 different ways.
"I love the natural sweetness of sweet potatoes -- they give depth of taste and they add texture to many dishes," says Ms. Nielsen-Parker.
On the grill
She roasts sweet potatoes with other root vegetables. She makes mashed potatoes and replaces a quarter of them with sweet potatoes. She purees them. She bakes them whole and tops them with butter, salt and pepper. She mixes up a curried sweet potato soup. She puts them in chutneys and curries. She grills them with olive oil and herbs.
"Be careful," with grilling them, she cautions, "they can burn quickly." Because of the high natural sugar content, when they start to burn they must be pulled off the heat quickly. She advises finishing them off in the oven if they start to burn while grilling.
One reason Ms. Nielsen-Parker uses so many sweet potatoes, taste aside, is because she substitutes them in many recipes calling for pumpkin, or butternut squash. Sweet potatoes are "easier to deal with than pumpkin, and the quantities are more manageable," she says.
They may be easy for her to deal with, but they can be tough to cut. She recommends using a very sharp knife or a cleaver to slice them.
A potential pitfall with sweet potatoes, according to Ms. Wolf, is that they have a high water content. But that's easily remedied by draining them well before using them in recipes such as custards. Ms. Wolf also cautions that sweet potatoes cannot always be substituted for potatoes. "They are a totally different flavor and texture," she says.
The following two recipes are from Ms. Nielsen-Parker.
Simple roasted sweet potatoes
2 pounds sweet potatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup mixed fresh herbs, or 2 tablespoons dried herbs
salt and pepper
TC Heat oven to 375. Peel and slice sweet potatoes into 1/4 inch rounds, or dice. Mix oil, herbs, salt and pepper together and coat slices with the mixture. Place the rounds on baking trays and bake until tender, about 45 minutes.
Roasted sweet potatoes with bacon and pecans
8 ounces smoked lean bacon, chopped
1/2 rough onion, chopped
2 cups sliced mushrooms
2 pounds roasted sweet potatoes (see previous recipe)
1/2 cup toasted pecans
1 tablespoon brown sugar
molasses glaze (recipe follows)
In a large skillet, saute bacon until crispy. Remove bacon to drain and pour most of the bacon grease out of the pan. Add onion and mushrooms to pan and return to heat. Saute until done, but remove before onions are browned. Remove from heat. Add sweet po
tatoes, glaze, mushrooms, onions and pecans to a serving dish and mix. Top with brown sugar.
1/2 cup molasses
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons dried rosemary
Mix together all ingredients and cook over medium heat until reduced by half, about 20 minutes.
These recipes are from Ms. Wolf.
Sweet potatoes with rum and spices
2 pounds sweet potatoes
salt for water
6 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 star anise, broken into large pieces
1 teaspoon cinnamon, ground
4 tablespoons dark rum
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup chicken broth
Peel and large-dice sweet potatoes. Cook in boiling salted water 10 to 15 minutes, just until sweet potatoes are softer, but not mushy. Drain well for 5 minutes and pat dry. Put all other ingredients in a large saute pan and heat over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add sweet potatoes and saute 5 minutes, tossing frequently. Remove anise before serving.
Sweet potato custard
1/2 pound sweet potato
3 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon dark rum
Peel and small dice sweet potato. Put in small sauce pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil for 10 minutes, or until soft. Drain well for 5 minutes and pat with paper towel. Mash with a fork or masher until smooth, being careful not to overwork them. Mix all the other ingredients together in a bowl with a whisk until smooth. Add sweet potatoes to mixture.
Line up 6 custard cups and fill to top line of cup. Place cups in a water bath (an oblong cake pan works well) filling water half way up outside of the cup. Bake 1 hour 10 minutes or until custards barely wobble in center. Run a thin-bladed knife around the outside and unmold onto a serving plate.
For a free copy of a recipe booklet with 57 different ways to cook sweet potatoes, send a business-size self-addressed envelope with 55 cents' postage to the Sweet Potato Council, P.O. Box 14, McHenry, Md. 21541.