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George Washington Carver, old USDA advice, & why I quit nuking sweet potatoes for OMG! better flavor  RSS feed

 
gardener
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About a year ago Permies member Trish Dallas posted these links to several different archives of the many bulletins issued by the hard-working agricultural genius George Washington Carver, whose commitment to finding ways for poor farmers to pull abundance from the land under trying circumstances was admired in his day and is still admired in ours.  I was struck at the time by a few of his words about the preparation of the humble sweet potato.  

But first, some background about me.  I'm a northern child.  I grew up in the shadow of the arctic circle with my feet in (literally) the Yukon river.   Eating moose meat and little buttery yellow fingerling potatoes we called "swede potatoes" that would grow in 90 days or less.  I never even saw a raw sweet potato until I got to Oklahoma in middle age.  I had no idea what it was supposed to taste like; my closest brush with the food was cans of orange mush marked "yams" served on holidays with marshmallow fluff on top.  

I didn't really try to eat them on any kind of regular basis until I started eating mostly plants here five or six years ago.  And then I just treated them like a regular potato: put them on a plate and shove them in a microwave.  When they explode, they are done.  That sort of works; they are a bit dry and mealy, but they're sweeter than a regular potato (hence the name, right?) and if you bury them in salsa and chopped onions, edible.  (Butter is better, but I don't eat very much of it.)  Food, cheap, unexciting.  

Enter old GWC, in his thrilling 1910 agricultural saga Possibilities of the sweet potato in Macon County, Alabama.  I'm not expecting it to keep me up nights, but he has things to say about the sweet potato as food for man:

As a food for human consumption, the sweet potato has been, and always will be, held in very high esteem, and its popularity will increase as we learn more about its many possibilities.

There is an idea prevalent that anybody can cook sweet potatoes. This is a great mistake, and the many, many dishes of illy cooked potatoes that are placed before me as I travel over the South, prompt me to believe that these recipes will be of value (many of which I have copied verbatim from Bulletin No. 129, U. S. Department of Agriculture.) The above bulletin so aptly adds the following:

The delicate flavor of a sweet potato is lost if it is not cooked properly. Steaming develops and preserves the flavor better than boiling, and baking better than steaming. A sweet potato cooked quickly is not well cooked. Time is an essential element. Twenty minutes may serve to bake a sweet potato so that a hungry man can eat it, but if flavor is an object, it should be kept in the oven an hour.”



Friends, I'll confess I read parts of these passages with a sort of horror.  "A sweet potato cooked quickly is not well cooked."  "Twenty minutes may serve to bake a sweet potato so that a hungry man can eat it, but if flavor is an object, it should be kept in the oven an hour.” Oh my ancient gods from the shimmering depths, if twenty minutes is bad, how much worse is eight short minutes in a radio zap-oven that Dr. Carver could never have imagined?

Y'all who know how to cook have probably been laughing at me ever since you saw the title of this post, but some of us just have to come to wisdom in our own way, I guess.  So tonight I finally decided to cook a sweet potato the George Washington Carver USDA way.  Two sweet potatoes, actually -- and since I didn't want to fire up the big oven for an hour for one plate of food, I used a countertop toaster/convection oven we have.  Cut both sweet potatoes in half, lightly oiled them with olive oil, put the cut sides down on tinfoil, and roasted them at 350 for an hour.  

OM-effing-G, it is not the same root vegetable!

Melt in your mouth soft, at least three times as sweet, and with none of the objectionable "chunky" texture that potatoes and sweet potatoes alike get when you microwave them.  (I always knew that was a microwave artifact that I could avoid by proper roasting, but I was lazy.)  But the flavor and texture is utterly transformed in a way that roasting a white potato generally is not.  (Yes, a roasted white potato is better than a microwaved one, especially if oiled and seasoned correctly; but the difference is nothing like so stark.)  

So, yeah.  If you have not been baking your sweet potatoes long and slow, give it a try.  It's been basic advice from the USDA for more than eleven decades.  There might be something to it!  (Some of us are just slow, what can I say.)
 
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I always make them as fries. MMmmmmmm, sliced into fry shapes, lightly coated in oil (duck fat is AMAZING, but any high temp oil works great) and cook in the oven for something like 40 minutes at 400, flipping halfway. A little bit of garlic powder and salt, maybe some pepper and it's amazing!

I haven't made sweet potato fries in a while, because all the sweet potatoes at the store were always half bad. It didn't matter what store. They'd always have little brown spots and bruises which really negatively affected the flavor. I was tired of chopping up half the sweet potatoes I intended to eat, and feeding them to my ducks instead because they were rotten. I find it much easier to find and grow regular potatoes.

If you haven't yet tried it, see if you can locate some Okinawan sweet potatoes. Those solid purple sweet potatoes have great flavor. They're a bit less sweet and more starchy and so good!

(They might be a bit more difficult to locate in Oklahoma, than they are here, though. I only ever find them at Asian markets/grocery stores...)
 
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In the ‘colonies’ we mainly get three types of ‘sweet potato’: white, purple, and orange.

(I’m sure there’s some fancy name to them, but what the hell, they’re colour-coded anyway!)

Have found the white and orange make the best roast potatoes ever – sweet, silky soft and oh so flavoursome. The purple ones tend to stay hard and are probably best steamed, where they retain a slightly chalky, grainy texture and a peculiar sweet starchy flavour – they do look good on a plate from an aesthetic viewpoint when combined with other traditional veggies that are not commonly purple.

As Nicole mentioned, the (orange) sweet potatoes make great chips – baking pan, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a few pinches of home grown dried thyme, with knobs of garlic, etc. They also look good mixed with traditional potatoes in a chip combination.

When the Nephews and Nieces were little kids they’d say they didn’t like sweet potato, so their Grandmother would mash the orange variety together with normal potatoes and call them ‘pink potato’ … all the kids loved Nans ‘pink potatoes’!

Also, let’s not forget leftovers: sweet potato mashed with normal potatoes, steamed cabbage, peas and any other leftover veggies, fried in a pan to make ‘bubble & squeak’ for breakfast YUM!! – I have it on good authority they regularly serve it at the breakfast buffet in Heaven!

(Similarly, add a few curry spices and serve it with mint/coriander infused yoghurt and it’s called Aloo tikki.)



 
pollinator
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Generally, I don't advise cooking in a microwave. Heating is okay, but it does a poor job actually cooking.

I do love a baked sweet potato, not something I can really have very often. My preference is definitely orange. Some of the white are okay, and a don't really care for the purple ones, too starchy. although they might be better suited to frying, starches generally are.

But the sweet potatoes I get around here tend to be very large, and take about 1 1/2 hours to bake, so one must think ahead, hardly fast food.
 
gardener
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I love that you discovered the truth from such an old source. It's always wonderful to mine gems from buried history! The microwave has its place, but baking root vegetables isn't it. I love sweet potatoes and the utter horror of someone being stuck eating one out of a microwave is a travesty. Personally I enjoy mine with a bit of butter and pinch of brown sugar. Sugar might seem redundant on a sweet potato, but I find that it makes the other flavors pop a little. No idea why. Congratulations on opening up a whole new world of delicious eating!
 
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