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Monday, May 5, 2014

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet Potatoes:

Sweet potatoes and yams are completely different foods belonging to different plant families.   In most U.S. grocery stores you should assume you are purchasing  sweet potatoes, even if the sign says, "yams".  Government agencies have allowed the two terms to be used somewhat interchangeably on labeling.  The U.S.D.A.requires all sweet potatoes labeled as yams to be also labeled sweet potatoes.   

 Sweet potatoes and yams both come in a variety of colors.  It is possible to find sweet potatoes and yams that look reasonably alike in terms of size, skin color, and flesh color.  Sweet potatoes are much more available in the U.S. than yams.  Yams are not as sweet as sweet potatoes.  They are usually longer and have a very different nutritional profile including not being as concentrated in carotenoid phytonutrients.   The sweet potato is botanically very distinct from the genuine yam, which is native to Africa and Asia, and belongs to a different botanical family.  

The sweet potato's large starchy, sweet tasting tuberous roots are, of course, a root vegetable.  The young leaves and shoots are sometimes eaten as greens.  The origin and domestication of sweet potatoes is thought to be in either Central America or South America.  In Central America sweet potatoes were domesticated at least 5000 years ago.  In South America sweet potato remnants dating back as far as 8000 BC have been found.    Today sweet potatoes are cultivated throughout tropical and warm temperature regions, wherever there is sufficient water to support growth. Sweet potatoes have been an important part of the diet in the U.S. for most of its history, especially in the southeast.   The sweet potato is North Carolina's state vegetable.   

My father used to tell how, when he was a boy, he would make what he called a "Mickey" .  He would get an empty tin can and poke holes in it.  Then he would attach a wire handle to the top.  A lit piece of charcoal was then put in the can and then a sweet potato.  By swinging the can around by the handle he would fan the charcoal and cook the sweet potato.    It sounded fun, but the thing was I never cared for sweet potatoes as a kid.   I acquired the taste later in life.   My trick was when working in the supermarket in the evening by myself  I would use the hot plate on the wrapping machine to cook broken pieces of sweet potato that would otherwise be discarded. 

Besides simple starches, raw sweet potatoes are rich in complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and beta-carotene, while having moderate contents of other micronutrients including vitamins B5, B6, manganese and potassium.  When baked small changes in micronutrient contenmt occur to include higher content of vitamin C and increase in polyphenol levels.   Anthocyanins and other color related pigments in sweet potatoes are valuable for their anti-inflammatory health benefits.   Sweet potatoes have the ability to improve blood sugar regulation - even in persons with type 2 diabetes.   Boiled or steamed sweet potatoes can carry a very reasonable glycemic index.  Recent research has shown extracts from sweet potatoes can significantly increase blood levels of adiponectin, which is an important modifier of insulin metabolism.

Sweet potatoes  are availble year round in the store fresh and in cans.  Avoid fresh sweet potatoes in June and July as they have been in storage for almost a year.  Choose sweet potatoes that are firm and do not have cracks, bruises of soft spots.   Avoid those that are stored in the refrigerated case as cold negatively alters their flavor.  Sweet potatoes should be stored in a cool, dark and well ventilated place  where they will keep fresh for up to 20 days. 

Try sweet potatoes  boiled, roasted, pure'ed, steamed, baked or grilled.  Add to soups and stews or grill and place on top of leafy greens.  
So...... Eat up!  Enjoy!  I'll show you how.

Simple but good:

Sweet and Spicy Sweet Potatoes

2 large sweet potatoes peeled and cubed
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder 
1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 pinch cayene pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  Place sweet potato chunks into a large mixing bowl.  Drizzle olive oil, then sprinkle other ingredients over the top.  Toss to coat.  Spread on a baking sheet.
Bake for 15 minutes, then turn over with a spatula and continue baking until golden and tender, 10 - 15 minutes more.

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