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Sweet Potato Secrets

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Sweet Potato Cottage Pie

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By Martha Holmberg
from Fine Cooking #114, pp. 77-81

When my husband and I married 16 years ago, I quickly discovered that he was an avid sweet potato eater. By avid, I mean that every other day I would open the oven to find a baking sheet with three or four sweet potatoes on it, collapsed and glistening with sticky juices. I’d watch as he’d pluck one from the baking sheet and eat it as if it were a Snickers bar.

Before then, sweet potatoes hadn’t been a part of my regular cooking repertoire, simply because I had always thought of them as, well, too sweet. That changed when I began to experiment with this now ever-present ingredient in my kitchen. I tried out different cooking methods and fiddled with flavor pairings. With time, I unlocked the two secrets to making sweet potatoes that were dense, lusciously soft, and not just sweet but complex in flavor, too.

Drive off excess moisture with dry heat. Sweet potatoes have a high moisture content. Dry-heat cooking methods like roasting, baking, and sautéing reduce that moisture, making them dense and more concentrated in flavor, and promoting the caramelization of their sugars. Moist-heat methods like steaming and simmering add liquid, resulting in soggy sweet potatoes with a wan flavor.

Temper their sweetness with something savory. As their name would imply, sweet potatoes are sweet—sometimes cloyingly so. I tame their sugary nature with spicy, salty, tangy, and earthy flavors. Doing this turns a simply sweet dish into one that’s intriguingly complex. Reach for robust cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Gruyère, warming spices like cumin and cinnamon, fresh herbs like basil and mint, or chiles for a hit of spicy heat.

Now that I know how to cook sweet potatoes, I use them in many ways—for a new take on shepherd’s pie, in a simple sauté, and as an alternative to french fries. Twice-baked sweet potatoes? They’re a given. Try any of these recipes and you’ll understand why, these days, the sweet potatoes in our oven are usually all mine.

Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams: There Isn’t Always a Difference

In winter, grocery stores everywhere advertise their bounty of sweet potatoes and yams. But here’s a little secret: Those “yams” are likely sweet potatoes. The sweet potato plant originated in South America; its roots are sweet and moist, with smooth skin. Yams, by contrast, are long, rough-skinned, starchy, not very sweet tubers that hail from Africa and Asia; they’re rarely found in standard grocery stores.

So why the mix-up? It may have started in the South, where African slaves called sweet potatoes nyami (to eat) because they looked like yams from their homeland; nyami became “yam.” The name spread when Louisiana-based producers, in an effort to distinguish their new orange-fleshed sweet potatoes from white-fleshed varieties grown elsewhere, called their sweet potatoes “yams.”

Get the Recipes
Sweet Potato Cottage Pie Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes with Leeks and Sausage

Sweet Potato Cottage Pie

Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes with Leeks and Sausage

Sauteed Sweet Potatoes with Prange-Mint Gremolata Sweet Potato Oven Fired with Fry Sauce

Sautéed Sweet Potatoes with Prange-Mint Gremolata

Sweet Potato Oven Fries with Fry Sauce

Bonus Recipe
Sweet Potato Cupcakes with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
Sweet Potato Cupcakes with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

Photos: Scott Phillips

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  • CastleRocker | 11/04/2012

    Martha, can your Sweet Potato Cottage Pie be made ahead and frozen?

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