Local sweet potatoes are a fabulous winter vegetable. They store well, and can last all winter. A warm baked sweet potato can be a welcome and delicious option on a cold winter’s day.
Sweet potatoes are a starchy and sweet root vegetable that many associate with marshmallows and Thanksgiving. Yet local sweet potatoes, with their mild sweet flavor, are a great ingredient for many different types of recipes.
You can eat local sweet potatoes raw in small amounts, but they are best cooked. Then the flesh becomes soft and buttery or soft and dry, depending on the variety. Some are stringier than others. How you cook them depends on the variety you have.
Sweet potatoes can be baked, roasted, fried, toasted, steamed, boiled, or grilled. Some are great roasted and then mashed, while others are better fried.
The skin of the sweet potato is not only edible, but is where the majority of the fiber is located. As long as you clean it well, you can eat the skin when you eat your potato.
Growing Local Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes come from a plant that is native to Central and South America. They are root vegetables, and grow in warm climates. They are perennial in frost free locations, but grow well as annuals in Maryland.
Like white potatoes, sweet potatoes are easiest to start from slips, or pieces of the root. They need a long growing season, so make sure you pick the right variety for your area.
Sweet potatoes in Maryland have few pest problems. You may have trouble finding slips to grow but can make your own.
Though you should be able to find local sweet potatoes at your farmers market, one big benefit to growing your own is the greens. Sweet potato leaves can be eaten raw like a salad, and can be a great way to enjoy salads in the heat of summer when other greens won’t grow.
Look for local sweet potatoes in the late summer and early fall. Since sweet potatoes need a long growing season, that is when they will be harvested. Since they store so well, you may find them at the farmers markets all winter.
Local Sweet Potato Varieties
Usually, whether called a yam or a sweet potato, they are the exact same thing. “Yams” in the US are a product of marketing from the 1930s. In reality, a yam is another type of tuberous vegetable that you aren’t likely to see in the US outside of international markets.
Though our “yams” are usually the soft orange fleshed varieties, sweet potatoes can be orange, purple, or white. Whether you buy a Beauregard, a Jewel, or a Garnet, you will get a fairly similar orange fleshed root that most Americans think of when they buy a sweet potato.
Orange sweet potatoes are soft, sweet, and moist when baked. They are great for roasting, baking, boiling, and frying.
White sweet potatoes are milder, less sweet, and drier. They are good for mashing or frying. Though some say you can substitute white sweet potatoes for regular potatoes, they are quite different.
Purple sweet potatoes are best baked so they don’t dry out. They are lightly sweet and colorful. The purple color means added nutrients.
Japanese sweet potatoes have a purple skin and white or yellow flesh inside. They are drier than the orange ones too, but their flavor is deep and balanced.
Buying your sweet potatoes from local farmers means you will have the chance to try out some of the more exotic local sweet potatoes out there. Talk with your farmer about their favorite ways to prepare them!
Preserving your Local Sweet Potatoes
The reason local sweet potatoes are such great winter vegetables is because they can last a long time under ideal conditions. Even without a root cellar, you may be able to keep sweet potatoes all winter long in your house.
Find an unused room that you can keep on the cool and dry side (50-60 degrees Fahrenheit and 80-85% humidity or less). Wrap uncut and unbruised sweet potatoes in paper and place in baskets, checking weekly to make sure they are in good shape.
This works best with cured sweet potatoes, which have tougher skins. Don’t keep them in the fridge, as it is too cold for this tropical plant.
If you don’t have a cool room, you can also store your local sweet potatoes in a basket or open paper bag at room temperature. They should last up to 3 weeks this way.
You can also cook your sweet potatoes and store them that way. A cooked whole, sliced, or mashed sweet potato can be frozen for up to six months. Raw sweet potatoes can be frozen for up to three months.
It is also possible to can sweet potatoes. They need to be pressure canned to stay safe!
Best Recipes for Local Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes should be baked at a lower temperature for a longer time to better caramelize the sugars in them. One good way to cook them faster is to cut in half, then lightly oil the cut side, and place it face down on a light colored baking sheet. Bake at 400F until soft.
Chipotle Mashed Sweet Potato is my favorite way to eat local sweet potatoes. I omit the sugar and enjoy the combination of smoky spiciness balanced with the mild sweetness of the potato.
Sweet potatoes lend themselves well to curry. Try this Sweet Potato Curry and adjust it to your taste.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes are an easy side dish to enjoy all winter long. You can either roast them with a little sugar or use the savory seasoning blend in the recipe.
Sweet potato leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and are available all summer when other greens can’t handle the heat. This Yam Leaves stirfry looks delicious. You can also add them to salads.
Trivia About Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes have been grown in Central America for at least 5000 years. Though native to the Americas, the plant spread to Polynesia at least 100,000 years before people migrated there.
Since sweet potatoes grow in both locations, it has been a debate as to whether or not Polynesian and South American people met before Columbus arrived in the New World. Now they believe that birds spread the seeds, not humans.