Sheila Kostelny led the sweet potato segment of the panel discussion, sharing some insightful information about what many consider to be one of the world’s most nutritious vegetables.
*We have Christopher Columbus to thank for discovering the sweet potato on one of his voyages to the West Indies. He was so impressed that upon his return to Spain, he brought some back to Queen Isabella. Later explorers found sweet potatoes growing in much of Central and South America. Most historians think the sweet potato arrived in the U.S. after Columbus, as a result of trading between the early American settlers and the West Indians.
*The sweet potato belongs to the Morning Glory Family (Convolvulaceae). Its scientific name is Ipomoea batatas.
*The yam belongs to the Yam Family (Dioscoreaceae). Its scientific name is Dioscorea Species.
*The confusion between sweet potatoes and yams started when early slaves mistook the sweet potato for a yam (which is grown in Africa). It wasn’t long before sweet potatoes were commonly referred to as yams, especially in the South. Yams are rarely found in American markets. (*Fortunately, we did find yams from Costa Rico a few weeks ago at our local Walmart).
*Many supermarkets use the terms sweet potato and yams interchangeably.
*All crops grown in the U.S. are sweet potatoes with the largest crop grown in North Carolina. Yams are imported from the Caribbean but are difficult to find.
*Other than being from two different plant families, the sweet potato is a storage root and the yam is a tuber. Other differentiating characteristics:
Sweet potato: smooth, with thin skin. Short, blocky shape with a moist, sweet flavor. High in beta carotene (Vitamin A). Propagated by transplanted or vine cuttings with a 3 to 5 month growing season.
Yam: long and cylindrical with a dry and starchy taste. Low in beta carotene. Propagated by tuber pieces with a 6 to 12 month growing season.
*Growing sweet potatoes:
Purchase sweet potatoes for cuttings or slips from local nurseries in late spring. Allow the cuts to scar for a few days and, as with regular potatoes, include 3 or 4 eyes, if not sprouted. Plant the slips or cuttings deep, with at least 3 nodes below ground or 3 to 4” deep and 12 to 16 inches apart.
It’s also fun to try the “second-grade” sweet potato vine method, which is to root a sweet potato suspended in water using toothpicks.
Unlike most vegetable crops, sweet potatoes do not do better with high levels of organic matter. They need loose soil with good drainage…raised beds are ideal. Sweet potatoes are fairly drought tolerant but do appreciate moist soil.
Sweet potatoes demand warm growing conditions. Do not plant until all possibility of frost has passed. As soon as the soil temperature is at least 60˚F, plant 2 inches below the surface. They need at least 8 hours of sun each day for maximum yield.
Ideally, incorporate 1 pound per 100 sf of bed with a complete lawn or garden fertilizer or an organic fertilizer, per instructions, to the soil before planting. Ideal ph is 5.5 to 6.5.
Generally ready in 90 to 110-120 days. Peak harvest season being October to December. Some say a light frost will sweeten the taste. Harvest before a hard frost.
Sweet potatoes don’t actually mature but are dug when they reach a usable size. Dig very carefully in dry soil. (They may be kept in the ground to continue sizing but should be dug up before the soil temperatures drops below 50˚F to prevent chill injury).
Cut the roots away from the spuds and allow them to dry for 3 to 4 hours in the shade before placing in a warm, humid area to cure for at least 2 weeks, which turns their starches to sugar.
Ideal curing temperature is 80˚-85˚F with 85 to 90% humidity.
Ideal storage temperature is 55˚ to 60˚F in darkness with moderate humidity. The average storage life is 4 to 6 months. Allow good air circulation.
Recommended varieties for our area (Zone 8):
Beauregard (perhaps the world’s most popular sweet potato…favored for high yields of uniform, reddish potatoes with tasty, deep-orange flesh that keeps well in storage. Developed at Louisiana State University in 1987), Centennial and Jewel.
Sweet potatoes are not only a nutritious and tasty vegetable, the skin and flesh are excellent sources of fiber. And, this very versatile vegetable, along with the turkey, makes our Thanksgiving feast complete.
Here’s one of our favorite sweet potato recipes to get us started after our recent Grow and Graze event-Pumpkins on Parade, Sweet Potatoes for Adornment.
Sweet Potato Crescent Rolls
2 packages active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (105˚ to 115˚)
1 cup cooked mashed sweet potato
½ cup shortening
½ cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons salt
5 ¼ to 5 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup butter, softened
- Dissolve yeast in warm water in a large mixing bowl; let stand 5 minutes. Add sweet potato, shortening, sugar, egg, and salt; beat at medium speed of an electric mixer until thoroughly blended. Gradually stir in enough flour to make a soft dough.
- Turn dough out onto a well-floured surface, and knead until smooth and elastic (about 5 minutes). Place in a well-greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85 degrees), free from drafts, 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.
- Punch dough down, and divide into 3 equal parts. Roll each into a 12-inch circle on a lightly floured surface; spread each circle with 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon butter. Cut each circle into 12 wedges; roll up each wedge, beginning at wide end. Place on lightly greased baking sheets, point side down, curving slightly to form a crescent.
- Cover crescent rolls and let rise in a warm place, free from drafts, 30 to 45 minutes or until rolls are doubled in bulk. Bake at 400˚ 10 to 12 minutes or until light golden brown.
Yield: 3 dozen
More recipes coming!