Southern Roots

Sweet potatoes’ history runs deep

Jeff Amberg

South Carolinians share an unbridled affection for the sweet potato, one of the world’s significant food crops. What could be better this time of year than a plump, roasted, hot sweet potato oozing from caramelization? It has enough natural sugar to satisfy any sweet tooth. Or a slice of spiced sweet potato pie is a dessert synonymous with the South. I’ll have a glass of iced tea with mine, please!

The sweet potato plant (genus: Ipomoea batatas) is a dicotyledonous plant from the Convolvulaceae or morning glory family. The sprawling vine has white flowers and large, edible roots that are a storehouse for the plant’s nutrients. Sweet potatoes are unrelated to the starchy white (“Irish”) potato, which are tubers (Solanum tuberosum).

Hundreds of sweet potato cultivars differ in size, shape, and skin color. The flesh comes in a rainbow of colors: white, pale yellow, deep purple, violet-tinged, pink, red, and shades of orange from pumpkin to persimmon.

An uncut sweet potato may not stand out as the prettiest vegetable in the grocer’s bin, but as a nutritional powerhouse, it is one of Mother Nature’s finest works. It is an important dietary source of Vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene — a carotenoid that benefits health in its role as an antioxidant. Beta-carotene is a source of naturally occurring pigments responsible for the vibrant colors in vegetables like orange sweet potatoes and red bell peppers. Those with the deepest colors provide the most beta-carotene.

Sweet potatoes are a main South Carolina vegetable with 2,000 acres harvested annually. In the early 1800s, they were a successful Lowcountry crop, grown extensively in Edisto. By mid century, crops in the Beaufort District outperformed cotton to become a major commodity for upper St. Peter’s Parish plantations. In fact, it is believed the Beaufort district may have been the largest producer in the South.

The South Carolina harvest is a little sweeter this year. A ban was recently lifted on South Carolina’s sweet potato industry to allow growers to sell and ship sweet potato slips without having to fumigate them first. This change will help South Carolina agriculture grow.

Sweet potatoes generally fall into two categories: dry-fleshed and moist-fleshed. The white sweet potato has the deepest roots in our country’s history. Its pale, starchy flesh is less sweet and slightly dry, somewhat like a baked potato. It is popular in the North and appreciated worldwide. Dry, mealy white sweet potatoes are sometimes marketed as boniato in Florida’s Cuban neighborhoods.

The moist, orange sweet potato is the most recognizable variety in the South. It is the type used most for roasting, to make candied yams, and in pies. It has a natural sweetness produced by an enzyme that converts much of the starch to sugars as the potato matures. Highly nutritious, it becomes even sweeter after a short curing period and storage.

The candied “yams” served at the Thanksgiving table are actually sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes and true yams are not botanically related. True yams (genus: Dioscorea) are not grown in the United States since they cannot survive the climate. The crop is cultivated mainly in the savannah region of West Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania.

When Christopher Columbus encountered sweet potatoes (batatas) among the Taino people of Hispaniola in November 1492, he said they resembled carrots “with the savor of chestnuts.” He carried the root vegetable back to Spain on his fourth voyage, and they were an immediate hit. After arriving in Tudor England, sweet potatoes became a favorite of Henry VIII, thanks to his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon. The name batata was changed to “Spanish potato” (patata) after the “Irish” potato arrived in Europe.

Sweet potatoes were cultivated in South Carolina and Florida about 50 years after the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia. Before joining the army, President George Washington was a sweet potato farmer. Sweet potato biscuits were served at the First Continental Congress in 1775. General Francis Marion fed the tuberous root to his men in South Carolina. Amelia Simmons used sweet potatoes in American Cookery, the first American cookbook published in 1796.


Uses For Sweet Potato

The sweet potato has many important industrial uses. Toyota Motor Company and Mitsui Company are jointly producing biodegradable plastics from sweet potatoes. George Washington Carver, an African American who revolutionized Southern agriculture, developed more than 100 new products from sweet potatoes, including vinegar, flour, starch, postage stamp glue, synthetic rubber, and textile dyes. He remarked that they were one of “the greatest gifts God has ever given us.”

Sweet potatoes can be baked, boiled, steamed, or even cooked in ashes the way our ancestors did. This easy oven-baked method produces velvety smooth flesh that is used in the pancake, scone and pie recipes in this article. With ample time in the oven, the sugar-producing enzymes in sweet potatoes can do their job. The sugars caramelize to create a silky, velvety flesh with a rich, sweet, concentrated flavor.

Scrub the desired number of sweet potatoes; wrap separately in foil. Bake in a 375 F oven on a heavy, foil-lined baking sheet 1 hour. Reduce heat to 325 F; cook another hour until soft, and caramelized sugar drips from the foil. Discard foil. Cool and discard peels. Mash well with a potato masher or fork, removing any stringy parts. Use as desired.

To freeze, double wrap whole sweet potatoes or measure mashed pulp and freeze in containers. Thaw in the refrigerator. The sweet potatoes make an exceptional side dish; add seasonings to the warm pulp and serve.


Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Honey-Spice Butter

Here is a quick oven method for baked sweet potatoes. The Honey-Spice Butter adds another delicious dimension. The delicious, chewy skin is a good source of nutrients and fiber.


6 to 8 ounce sweet potatoes, as needed, well scrubbed, dried

Olive oil

Honey-Spice Butter (recipe below)

Pierce sweet potatoes 2 or 3 times on top with a fork. Rub lightly with oil. Bake, unwrapped, on a heavy, foil-lined baking sheet in a preheated 400 F oven 1 hour. If not soft, reduce heat to 300 F and cook up to 1 hour longer; caramelized sugar will ooze from the skin. Slit the tops open and serve with Honey-Spice Butter.


To shorten the cooking time for extra-large sweet potatoes, space 2 or 3 evenly on paper towels in a microwave; cook on high 8 to 10 minutes, turning once after 4 or 5 minutes. With tongs, transfer potatoes to a foil-lined baking sheet. Cook in a 400 F oven for 60 minutes or until tender.


Honey-Spice Butter

The recipe for this yummy compound butter comes from the cookbook, Fondues & Hot Pots, by Susan Fuller Slack.


1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, room temperature

1/3 to 1/2 cup honey, preferably orange blossom

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon allspice

In a medium bowl, beat the ingredients together until creamy. Use at once or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes before using.


Spicy Sweet Potato Slices

Sweet potatoes are enhanced with savory dried seasonings such as crumbled sage, rosemary, marjoram, chipotle chili pepper, smoky paprika, black pepper, Hawaiian red salt, ground cumin, or curry powder. Mesoamerican Indians roasted sweet potatoes with honey; the optional drizzle adds a touch of sweet heat. Try roasting sweet potato and parsnip cubes this way.


3 scrubbed, unpeeled (or peeled) medium sweet potatoes, cut crosswise into 1-inch thick slices

3 tablespoons virgin olive oil or canola oil

1 teaspoon each of two or three seasonings (see headnote suggestions)

3 tablespoons honey drizzle with 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

In a large bowl, coat potatoes with oil and seasonings. Spread over a heavy baking sheet and then tent securely with foil. Place in a cold oven; turn heat to 425 F. Cook 25 minutes; remove foil. Turn potatoes to the other side; cook 10 minutes or until golden brown. Drizzle with honey, if used. Serves 3 to 4.

Variation: Spicy Sweet Potato Fries

Cut each sweet potato into 8 wedge strips; coat with oil and seasonings. Cook as directed, but do not cover with foil. For crispier fries, arrange wedges on a wire rack placed over the baking sheet. Fries can also be seasoned with Cajun or taco seasoning.


Kale, Quinoa & Sweet Potato Salad

This dish stands head and shoulders in nutrition and flavor above the conventional tossed green salad. For attractive sweet potato cubes, cook until barely tender. Cool and chill before cutting. Try a blend of vivid orange and purple sweet potatoes in this dish. Young, tender sweet potato leaves are a nutritious addition.


Lemon Dressing (recipe below)

2 medium sweet potatoes, baked, cooled, cut in 3/4-inch cubes

1 cup cooked quinoa (cooked in chicken or vegetable broth following package directions)

5 to 6 cups baby kale leaves or arugula (or a blend)

1/2 small red onion, halved, thin sliced

1/3 cup soft, crumbled goat cheese or feta

1/2 cup toasted pecan halves

1/3 cup pomegranate seeds

Prepare Lemon Dressing, sweet potatoes, and quinoa. Gather remaining ingredients. Toss kale with 1/4 of the dressing. Arrange over a large serving platter. Scatter quinoa, sweet potatoes, onion, cheese, pecans, and pomegranate seeds on top. Drizzle with remaining dressing; toss lightly. Serves 4 to 5.


Lemon Dressing

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons lemon zest

2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Shake ingredients together in a 12-ounce jar with a tight-fitting lid. Use at once or refrigerate; shake again before serving. Makes 3/4 cup.


Sweet Potato Pancakes

Serve pancakes with Orange Butter (recipe below) and maple syrup, apple cider syrup, or agave nectar. Embellish with toasted, chopped pecans or walnuts.


2 cups all-purpose flour (such as Gold Medal)

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon mace or nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon and allspice

1 3/4 to 2 cups buttermilk

1 packed cup mashed sweet potato

2 large eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 tablespoons melted butter

Spoon flour into measuring cups; level the tops.  In a large bowl, whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and three spices for 30 seconds. In another bowl, whisk together buttermilk, sweet potato, eggs, vanilla, and butter. Pour into the flour mixture and stir just until flour is absorbed. Batter will be thick and slightly lumpy. Let it stand while heating a large griddle or frying pan over medium-high heat. Lightly brush griddle with oil. For each pancake, use 1/3 cup batter spread to 5 1/2  to 6 inches. Cook 2 to 3 minutes until puffy and the bottom is golden brown. Turn once, cooking the second side about 2 minutes. Serve hot with butter and syrup. Makes 12 pancakes.


Orange Butter

In a medium bowl, combine 8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted soft butter, 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar, the grated zest of one scrubbed navel orange, a pinch of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla. Use at once or refrigerate.


Sweet Potato Scones with Molasses-

Pecan Glaze

Delicately spiced, these irresistible scones need no further embellishment. They remain moist the day after being baked. The dough rounds can also be cut into 16 to 18 biscuits using a 2 1/2-inch round cutter; omit glaze and pecans. Larger biscuits can be stuffed with thin-sliced country ham, smoked turkey, or pulled pork barbecue.


3 cups all-purpose flour (such as Gold Medal),

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon sea salt

4 tablespoons chilled solid shortening

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed

1/2 cup currants or chopped, dried cranberries or golden raisins

1/4 cup whole buttermilk

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 packed cups Mashed Sweet Potato (1 pound)

About 1 1/2 tablespoons melted butter

Molasses Glaze (recipe below)

About 3/4 cup chopped toasted pecans

Preheat oven to 400 F. In a medium-size mixing bowl, whisk flour, sugar, spices, baking powder, baking soda, and salt 30 seconds. With your fingers, rub in shortening until crumbly, then the butter cubes, leaving the mixture a bit lumpy. Add cranberries. Blend buttermilk and vanilla into sweet potato; add to flour mixture, stirring until soft dough forms. Turn out on a large, lightly floured parchment sheet and flatten slightly. Fold dough over on itself 3 or 4 times, lifting parchment edges to help turn soft dough. Divide in half. Pat into two 6-inch circles, about 3/4 inch thick. With a floured knife cut each circle in 6 wedges. Place 1/2 inch apart on a parchment-lined, heavy baking sheet; brush with butter. Bake 12 minutes or until puffed with brown bottoms and golden tops. Prepare glaze; use a whisk or spoon to drizzle over scones. Sprinkle with pecans. Makes 12 scones.

Molasses Glaze

1 cup confectioners’ sugar (more if needed)

2 tablespoons molasses

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch salt

2 to 3 tablespoons cream or milk, or as needed to make a medium glaze

Use a whisk to stir ingredients together in a bowl until smooth.


Mexican Candied Sweet Potatoes

Mexico’s Camotes Enmielado is a home-style dessert or street food made with piloncillo (panela), which is cone-shaped, pure, unrefined sugar. Brown sugar with molasses is a good substitute. Not overly thick or sweet, the syrup can be poured over thick slices of baked sweet potato. This dish is finished with sweetened condensed milk or Rompope (Mexican rum eggnog) poured over. Or whip heavy cream with a little mascarpone or soft cream cheese, confectioners’ sugar, and Mexican vanilla or rum. It is as yummy as sweet potato pie!


1 1/4 pounds (20 ounces) small-to-medium sweet potatoes, well scrubbed, peeled if desired

1 1/2 cups water    

2 wide strips of peel from one large naval orange

1/2 cup fresh orange juice (from peeled orange)

1 packed cup light brown sugar

2 tablespoons molasses

1 cinnamon stick, broken in half

1 whole star anise or 1/2 teaspoon anise seed

2 whole cloves

Pinch of sea salt

Cut sweet potatoes into large chunks or 1-inch thick half-moon shapes. In a covered, 2-quart saucepan, simmer water, orange peel, orange juice, brown sugar, three spices, and salt for 10 minutes. Add sweet potatoes; partially cover pan. Simmer 20 minutes and then turn sweet potato pieces. Uncover pan; cook 10 minutes or until tender. With a slotted spoon, remove sweet potatoes to a shallow serving dish. Boil down the liquid 3 or 4 minutes to form thin syrup. Pour through a fine strainer over the sweet potatoes. Decorate with the cinnamon stick halves. Good warm or chilled. Recipe can be doubled. Serves 3 to 4.

Variation: Arrange peeled, navel orange segments with sweet potato chunks in the serving dish; pour syrup over top.


Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie

Sweet potato pie resembles pumpkin pie, but the similarity ends here. Sweet potatoes have a rich, distinctive flavor that stands on its own, even without the addition of spice. Top each portion with whipped cream. A spoonful of rich caramel drizzle will not hurt either!


1 (9-inch) homemade or store-bought pie pastry, chilled

2 large eggs

2 cups mashed sweet potato (about 1 pound)

5 tablespoons melted butter

1/4 packed cup light brown sugar

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 cup half and half or milk

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon each ground cinnamon, mace or nutmeg, allspice, and ginger

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons bourbon, dark rum, or orange juice

1 tablespoon orange zest (optional)

Prepare pie pastry. Preheat oven to 350 F. In a large bowl, lightly beat eggs; mix in sweet potatoes. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Pour into prepared pastry shell and bake until the filling is set, about 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 6 to 8.


Peanut Butter and Sweet Potato Smoothies

The recipe for this protein-packed breakfast treat is from McCall’s Farms in Effingham, South Carolina. Effingham is the nation’s largest supplier of sweet potatoes. The area produces canned yams (sweet potatoes), baked sweet potatoes, and sweet potato pie filling under the name Bruce’s Yams. Their sweet potatoes are canned within hours of the harvest.


1 (15 ounce) can Bruce’s Yams Cut Sweet Potatoes in Syrup; drained

1 cup plain yogurt (not Greek style)

2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter

2 cups fresh orange or tangerine juice

4 to 6 ice cubes

Place the cut sweet potatoes, yogurt, and peanut butter in a power blender and process until smooth. Add orange or tangerine juice and ice cubes, and blend until thick and creamy. Divide between two chilled glasses. Protein powder may be added, if desired.

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