You may not recognize a sweet potato in its original form. The species is better known topped with marshmallows or boiled and drizzled with molasses. Sweet potatoes are a guest at the Thanksgiving table almost as reliable as the venerable turkey.
Sweet potatoes are long, starchy root vegetables that appear in two main varieties: orange-fleshed (sometimes mistaken for yams) and yellow fleshed. They can be long and pointed or stumpy and round. Sweet potatoes store well and are available almost year round, typically harvested in the fall.
Americans have lapsed in their appreciation for the sweet potato, a tuber that originated in Central and South America before 750 BCE. In fact, sweet potatoes were cultivated and consumed before the white potato. Recent research indicates the sweet potato might have been brought from South America to Polynesia long before Columbus made his ocean voyage. Simply roasted, split in half and sprinkled with salt, the sweet potato has a remarkably rich natural sweetness.
It boggles the mind the amount of vitamins that a sweet potato contains: over four times the daily recommended amount of vitamin A. And they are perhaps unduly packing in fiber and beta-carotene.
It’s hard to go wrong with sweet potatoes. Baked, roasted, or mashed, the thin skin of the potato contrasts beautifully with the starchy insides. Formed as gnocchi, grated or sliced into thick fries, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and roasted until just brown and crunchy on the outside.
The brown sugar and butter are delicious, but slicing sweet potatoes and cooking them in cartoccio—that is, in a tinfoil pouch—with onions and olive oil gives them a whole new lease on life. Thinly slice jalapeno or Serrano peppers and sprinkle on top of the potatoes before serving. The hint of heat will bring out the sweetness of the whole thing.