The rehabilitated sweet potato

8 local restaurants where this root vegetable shines
The rehabilitated sweet potato

There was a time when I didn’t hold them in high regard—to say the least. They were included on a short list of foods I wouldn’t eat. The only time they showed up at our house was at Thanksgiving, because my mother insisted upon making candied sweet potatoes (even though she was the only one who liked them!). Every year family and guests would be subjected to her post-dinner analysis about why the sweet potatoes hadn’t turned out the way she had intended and how she was sure she knew how to improve them next year. One year my sister actually got up enough nerve to point out that no one cared for them anyway. That turned out to be a holiday dinner to remember!

For a long time, I thought they came in cans and were only prepared in a cloying syrup that did nothing to enhance their insipidness. By the time I had reached college and only returned home for the holidays, I knew better than to try to dissuade my mother from making them. (I had learned from my sister’s experience.) Instead, I gave her a new recipe from Gourmet magazine and one of the essential ingredients—a bottle of Grand Marnier. She discarded the recipe but took a fancy to drinking the liqueur.

At some point I had an epiphany that all the foods I loathed were yellow or orange and mushy:  sweet potatoes, winter squash, pumpkin and carrots. On further reflection, I realized it wasn’t their color—orange has always been my new black, but rather their blandness and texture and inevitable poor preparation.

The first time I ate a sweet potato that I actually liked was by accident. Friends of mine had taken me to a hole-in-the-wall soul food café in Champaign, Illinois. I ordered the fries thinking they would be, you know, fried potatoes. I was surprised when they turned up as fried sweet potatoes.  I had to admit they were delicious, but then again, what isn’t fried? Gradually, I began to trying them other ways: baked, roasted, mashed, in salads—any way but candied!

In this country the designations “sweet potato” and “yam” are frequently used interchangeably. Though they both are flowering plants, they are different species. The true yam is related to the lily and native to Africa and Asia. The sweet potato is related to the morning glory and comes in over 400 varieties in the U.S. The color of their skin can vary between brown, white, yellow, red or purple, their flesh white, yellow or orange. The only place here you’re likely to encounter a true yam is at a market that specializes in imported foods.

The reason for the confusion in names dates back to African slaves. Here they encountered native sweet potatoes which resembled what they had known as yams in Africa. Many people today call orange-fleshed sweet potatoes “yams,” but the USDA requires them to also be labeled as sweet potatoes.

Different kinds not only vary in color inside and out, but sweetness, flavor and firmness. Among the most common varieties of sweet potatoes you’ll likely run across at the local grocery are Jewel, Garnet, Beauregard and Purple.

Compared with regular potatoes, sweet potatoes are generally less caloric and more nutritious.  Like potatoes, they can be prepared in innumerable ways. I suspect that’s why they increasingly show up on restaurant menus. Here are a few suggestions where sweet potatoes put their best foot forward.

The sweet potato oatmeal pancakes at take pancakes to new heights. Served with fresh strawberries and bourbon and maple infused mascarpone, the only thing that could make them better is a side order of cherrywood-smoked bacon

is a great local food resource, selling many kinds of fresh pasta all over town. The sweet potato ravioli (sold frozen) make a perfect cold-weather entrée served with nutty browned butter, fresh sage and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Sweet potato salad is a great change from the creamy white stuff. has found a winning recipe—chunks of sweet potatoes combined with colorful sweet pepper and red onion in a savory lime vinaigrette—that is as good as any I’ve ever had.

I’ve met few sweet potato French fries that I didn’t like, but the ones at are exceptional. The can be had as a side or as an appetizer, served with tarragon mayonnaise and jalapeno-blackberry jam.

prides itself on eclectic and imaginative burrito varieties. My favorite is the Carnitas with fall-apart pork carnitas, creamy sweet potatoes, rice, queso fresco and pickled red onions.

Always on the cutting edge of inventive pizza cuisine, has a new keeper: roasted sweet potatoes atop a creamy chipotle-flavored sauce along with a choice of chorizo or roasted veggies. 

may be all about the steak, but I love swordfish and its preparation is especially toothsome. Grilled swordfish comes with a spicy smoked sweet potato purée, salsa verde and hashed Brussels sprouts.

Sisters and co-owners of , Shelly Cross and Jill Long, credit their southern upbringing for their reverence for pie. In the South, sweet potato pie has a key place on the Thanksgiving table. The Cardamom Sweet Potato is scrumptious enough to make any belle (or beau) swoon.

RECIPE: Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

This pie recipe from New Orleans combines two favorite Thanksgiving flavors to best advantage.

INGREDIENTS

1 unbaked deep dish 9-inch pie shell, thoroughly chilled

Sweet Potato Filling:

1 1/2 cups sweet potato purée (2 to 3 large sweet potatoes, baked, peeled and mashed)
6 tbsp light brown sugar
3 tbsp granulated sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tbsp heavy cream
1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp salt
Pinch of ground cloves

Pecan Topping:

1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup Steen’s syrup (or dark corn syrup)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup pecans, lightly toasted and broken into small pieces
Whipped cream (optional)

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven 325 degrees.

Combine all the ingredients for the sweet potato filling in a mixing bowl and set aside.  Likewise, combine all the ingredients for the pecan topping in another mixing bowl.

Using a rubber spatula, spread the sweet potato filling over the bottom of the chilled pie shell.  Carefully pour the pecan topping over the sweet potato mixture.      

Bake in the preheated 325-degree oven for about 1 hour 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely on a rack.

 Serve at room temperature with whipped cream if desired. 

Serves 10.

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