The bright, orange tubers are piled in one of my big bowls. Some are wider and longer than my hand. My mouth starts to water. I scrub a half dozen and score them with a knife. I fold them into aluminum foil and place them into a hot oven for an hour or so. When removed and uncovered, the soft, sweet insides (the skin is not eaten) can be cubed, sliced, or mashed. Some enjoy adding sweetener. At our house, we add butter, onion, garlic, salt, and pepper.
While those are cooking, I scrub another half dozen and peel them. I cut each one in half lengthwise. Then, I cut each of those lengthwise. Finally, I slice them to make long, orange fries. The fries get placed in a bowl. In another bowl I whisk my favorite seasonings into about one fourth to one third cup of olive oil then drizzle the seasoned oil over the fries and toss until they are coated. The fries are placed in a single layer on a baking sheet and baked about 35-40 minutes in a 400 degree oven.
Sounds like I’m dealing with potatoes, right? I am. Sweet potatoes! Sweet potatoes are grown all over the world, in both temperate and tropical climates. They do have quite a long growing season (90-170 days depending on variety) and can be grown as an annual or as a perennial. There are two basic types — vining and bush varieties.
While sweet potatoes can technically be raised from seed, it can be a headache. The best way to start them is to use “slips.” You can purchase slips from a grower, or you can start your own. Each mature sweet potato can grow or produce up to four dozen little sprouts, if you let them. You will need to find out whether the potato you are planning to use is a vining or a bush variety. Believe me, almost nothing is weirder than having what you thought was a bush, vine all over your kitchen or bathroom.
Because the plant’s growing season is so long, it’s best to start your own slips in February or early March. The process is like starting an avocado seed or a pineapple top. Choose several healthy sweet potatoes. Wash them well and half them lengthwise. Cut each half into three to four chunks. Poke toothpicks into the sides of the chunk, with the skin part of the chunk facing up. Place each section into a pot, glass or cup of water in a sunny, warm place. The toothpicks are to hold at least one third of the plant out of the water. That means the other part should be underwater. That also means you need to check them several times a week, so they don’t dry out.
Keep watch over them until they sprout and grow roots (17-25 days). At this point, you will need to carefully separate them into pottable slips. Keep each of the root ends in water for about another week. Each slip will then have rooted out (hopefully).
It is now time to plant. The most important factor in growing sweet potatoes is to have well-drained, well-worked, loose soil. Nothing should deter the tubers from growing (like a rock). Dig a four inches deep, three inches wide hole for each slip. Provide eight to 12 inches between plants. Water thoroughly. Sweet potato plants do not like disturbance, nor do they like the soil around them to dry out. In our area, because of the care they need, I would suggest growing sweet potato in a raised bed or container.
Sweet potatoes are ready to harvest when the leaves and the ends of the vines start to turn yellow. However, you can dig the tubers as soon as they are big enough to eat. The tubers need to be handled with care after harvesting. To avoid spoilage, bruising and rotting, they need to be cured prior to long term storage. Do not wash the sweet potatoes after harvesting. The roots of the sweet potato are alive and provide oxygen to the tuber even after they are dug. Curing allows the tuber to heal from any injury it received during harvest.
Curing involves placing the tubers in a warm place (85 degrees F) with high humidity for at least four days. This turns the starches in the tuber into sugar, thus giving it the sweet flavor. Never refrigerate raw sweet potatoes. This will turn the taste bitter and cause the inside core to harden and not cook right no matter what you do. Store cured sweet potatoes in a cool, dry place. They need good ventilation. Do not store them in a plastic bag or heaped together in a container with a lid.
Many people don’t know the difference between a yam and a sweet potato. Sweet potato flesh can be (depending on variety) dark orange, light orange, purple, brown or even white. Sweet potatoes are from the morning glory and bindweed family. They belong to the Ipomoea genus. Yams are a totally different plant and belong to the genus Dioscorea. Most yams look a lot like russet potatoes, with brown skin and white flesh. Here in the US, people use the terms interchangeably. There’s actually a law that states that if a tuber is sold as a yam (and it’s not) it needs to have “sweet potato” somewhere on the label or in the ad.
Sweet potatoes are one of the super foods — one cup of sweet potato has just over 110 calories and more than 300 percent of the RDA for vitamin A. It’s also high in potassium, vitamin B-6, vitamin C and fiber. According to the American Medical Association, the sweet potato is in the top ten foods to help stop diarrhea if you have it. It’s also in the top ten foods for diabetics.
Sweet potatoes have been around in the western hemisphere since 8000 BC. That’s more ten thousand years of planting, caring for, harvesting and eating this delicious tuber.