The Greener Side of Sweet Potatoes
By Chef Stephanie Michalak, Turner Farm Culinary Manager
Growing up, I loved piping hot sweet potatoes straight out of the oven and sprinkled with a little cinnamon and salt. The rest of my family predominantly ate them only for Thanksgiving—either candied or as the base of a casserole with brown sugar and oozing marshmallows (delicious but definitely more a dessert than anything).
Sweet potatoes have generally been a marker of fall and, as a culinarian, I’ve played a lot with sweet potatoes and they typically end up in a wide range of dishes from curries to pierogi. It’s important to note that the sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is botanically a member of the morning glory family and relatively distant from potatoes and entirely separate from yams. They are extremely versatile, and there are so many varieties with a wide range of colors (both of their skin and flesh), as well as overall flavor.
As a modern shopper, if you looked up the many varietals of sweet potatoes, you would notice that their origins seem to be all over the place—literally from the tropical regions of the Americas to islands in the Pacific Oceans. Researchers and food historians have hotly debated where and how this crop hopped across the world over the years. However, taxonomic and systematic studies over the last century have driven most to believe sweet potatoes are indigenous to the Central America and northern South America and then traveled to Polynesia prehistorically. Still, this part of the trail is truly unclear still to this day. Even though the sweet potato traveled significant distances, it wasn’t until the Columbian Exchange pushed sweet potatoes east to Europe and took the long route to China and the Philippines.
Even though many of us might associate the sweet potato with southern cooking, it is a global product. China produces the vast majority of sweet potatoes, with Nigeria, Tanzania, and Indonesia trailing significantly far behind China’s production volume. China predominantly uses their sweet potatoes as fodder, whereas the other top producing countries primarily use their crop for human consumption, and perhaps that is why China produces vastly more by weight.
As a product, sweet potatoes have held varying levels of significance in many cultures across the world as they are an extremely productive plant. During times of famine, sweet potatoes have actually stepped in to provide nourishment when cash crops were failing—most importantly during the Kyoho famine that began in 1732. The kicker is that it wasn’t just the sweet potato root that came to the rescue, but its leaves and stems as well. This is probably due to the fact that before the tuber is ready, the leaves and stems can be harvested multiple times; providing necessary nutrients over multiple meals. Sweet potato leaves and stems have also held status as an extract in folk remedies that potentially mitigate health complications such as asthma, anemia, nausea, and even tumors. I am personally skeptical of broad health assertions, but the leaves and stems are extremely nutrient dense and are delicious to boot.
I know you’re probably thinking sweet potato leaves…really? Yes, really. The leaves and stems may not be used in this country frequently but many cultures use them as humble, yet gorgeous sides. You can find them sautéed ginger and garlic, thrown in a hot wok with shrimp pasta and red chili, or braised in coconut milk with curry powders. They’re satisfying, yet delicate. I personally like to treat them similarly to spinach as they do extremely well in either raw salads or quickly cooked—the leaves would probably even be great in a smoothie. Even though sweet potatoes greens are hard to come by and you might overlook them at a farmers market, it’s absolutely worth the find.
**This weekend, you can find sweet potato greens in the Turner Farm Market, while supplies last.
Fonio & Sweet Potato Greens Salad
Olive Oil 1 Tbsp, divided
Garlic, minced 1 tsp
Cumin, ground ½ tsp
Water 2 cups
Salt ½ tsp
Bay leaf 1 each
Fonio, raw 1 cup
Golden Raisins 2 Tbsp
Red Bell Pepper, diced 1 cup
Cilantro, chopped 1 cup
Maple-Peanut Dressing 1x Recipe
Sweet Potato Greens 2 cups
(stems removed, thinly sliced)
Salt to taste
Lime Juice 1 tsp
Coconut Flakes, toasted ½ cup
- In a small sauce pot, add half of the olive oil, garlic, and cumin over medium heat. Allow to get aromatic—roughly 30 seconds to a minute. Add the water, salt, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil.
- Turn off the heat. Add the fonio and golden raisins. Cover with a lid and allow for the fonio to absorb the liquid for 5 minutes. Remove the lid, fluff with a fork and place onto a baking tray, or bowl, to cool down. Remove the bay leaf. Allow to cool completely.
- Once cooled, place in a medium bowl with the red bell pepper and cilantro. Toss with about half of the peanut dressing. Reserve.
- In another medium sized bowl, place the sweet potato greens. Add a pinch of salt, the remaining olive oil and lime juice. Toss to coat.
- On a serving platter, spoon the fonio mixture. Top with the sweet potato greens and garnish with the coconut flakes. Drizzle additional peanut dressing on top. Serve and enjoy.