Let their natural sweetness shine through

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2007

When is a yam not a yam? Always, at least if you live in the Western hemisphere. What we commonly call yams are not yams at all, but rather the orange-fleshed varieties of sweet potatoes. While the signs at your local grocery store differentiate between sweet potatoes and yams, botanically speaking what you see in the stores are all sweet potatoes.

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True yams are not commonly found in the Americas. They are native to Africa and Asia. When I was in Africa a few years ago, I saw vendors in the streets selling enormous yams, some of them three or four feet long and probably weighing upwards of 40 pounds.

The confusion between sweet potatoes and yams originated in the days of slavery in the old South. Newly arrived Africans, seeing a root vegetable that resembled those back home, starting calling the native American sweet potato "nyami." The name stuck, and now we call the darker orange-fleshed varieties of sweet potatoes yams.

Whatever you want to call them, sweet potatoes are delicious. They have a higher sugar content than potatoes and taste sweeter. Yet they have a lower glycemic index, which means the sugar in them gets released into your bloodstream more slowly. A few years ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest rated a number of vegetables on the basis of fiber content, complex carbohydrates, protein, vitamins A and C and calcium. Sweet potatoes ranked the highest in nutritional value of all the vegetables rated!

Here is a recipe that doesn't try to make sweet potatoes sweeter by adding sugar, but rather provides an unusual contrast of spiciness to their natural sweetness.

Spicy roasted sweet potatoes

5-6 large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced into 1 inch chunks

2 tablespoons olive oil

1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary or thyme

1 medium onion, roughly diced

¼-½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

⅛ teaspoon cayenne

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place diced potatoes and onions in large bowl, toss with olive oil to coat. Add all other ingredients, toss to coat. Pour into buttered casserole dish. Roast in oven for 40 to 45 minutes or until potatoes are tender and edges are browned and caramelized. Adjust spiciness/seasonings to taste. Stir gently halfway through cooking time or as needed.

Recipe from www.recipezaar.com.

Given their superior nutritional value and wonderful flavor, it is a mystery why most of us don't eat more sweet potatoes. Consumption has declined precipitously in the last 80 years, and now most people only eat them around Thanksgiving. Perhaps one reason people don't eat more sweet potatoes is that they have become accustomed to eating them with little marshmallows on top, or in purees which are loaded with added sugar.

Sweet potatoes can be baked, roasted or fried. They also can be used instead of carrots or winter squash in many soups or casseroles. My favorite split pea soup recipe uses sweet potatoes instead of carrots.

When buying, select smooth skinned sweet potatoes that don't look too beat up. Sweet potatoes bruise easily; so handle with care. They will keep for several weeks at between 55 and 60 degrees. The darker orange-fleshed varieties, commonly call yams, are moister and sweeter than the lighter fleshed varieties we call sweet potatoes.

• David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.

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