At the heavenly Mullumbimby Farmers Market where two tango dancers swirled and spun through the sparkling morning sunshine I found a stall selling tiny vegetables. Potatoes the size of cherry tomatoes, baby zucchini – and the cutest little sweet potatoes I had ever seen! Of course they had to come home with me. What I ended up doing was a Sunday night meatless roast: a tray of these darling vegetables sizzling in garlic and rosemary and olive oil. It was the sweet potatoes that shone: creamy and sweet at the same time.
Sweet potatoes and potatoes are only dimly related, the former belonging to a family known as Convolvulaceae and the latter to a family called Solanaceae. One of the odd characteristics of the sweet potato is that it is the only member of its family that is grown for human consump- tion. The other odd thing is that as a vegetable it has never enjoyed any sort of popularity in Europe, with the exception of Russia. Waverley Root says that ‘Parisians are barely aware of the existence of the sweet potato, though they can buy it if they want it. Most of them don’t want it… (its) sweetness is not in tune with a cuisine which reserves sugary tastes for desserts…’ In fact I well remember a cafe where I once worked, where each morning one of the tasks was to tumble an armful of washed, unpeeled sweet potatoes into a baking dish, drizzle over honey and olive oil and then roast them until soft – later these would be cut into chunks and tossed through spinach leaves and goats curd for popular salads.
Sweet potatoes lend themselves divinely to butter and spices and maple syrup, cream and brown sugar; some of my recipe books feature them as ingredients in cakes, pies and sweet breads in the same way that pumpkin and car- rots, two other notoriously sweet vegetables are used. They are an integral part of Southern American soul food, and in New Guinea they are said to account for an astonishingly high 90% of the total food intake: 550 kg per person every year is consumed! Apart from simple starches they are rich in dietary fibre, complex carbohy- drates, beta carotene, Vitamin C and Vitamin B6. They may be orange or purple or white though vary little in flavour.
Best of all they are one of the cosiest most delicious winter vegetables around. Who doesn’t love a sweet potato? I like peeling it and slicing it into half-inch thick rounds and combining it in a baking dish with pancetta chopped into batons, whole unpeeled cloves of garlic and a bunch of sage leaves, a salt-and-pepper seasoning and a slosh of olive oil then roasting it in a moderately hot oven for about an hour. Or cutting it into cubes and roasting or boiling it until done then adding it to a couscous; or combining it with sliced bacon, blanched almonds, cumin seeds, ground coriander and a pinch of chilli powder
all pan-fried to golden crispness. For a lasagne even richer than usual I will add a layer of roasted sweet potato slices to the meat, pasta, cheese and bechamel ones. Or stir cooked slices through sauted red capsicum strips and wilted silverbeet and add to lots of beaten eggs and cream and grated cheese for a fabulous frittata, lovely hot or cold. Or melt 250 grams of butter and sweat two thinly sliced onions until translu- cent, throw in chopped peeled chunks of sweet potato and stir around for 5 – 10 minutes before covering with (ideally home-made) chicken stock and seasoning and bringing to the boil. Simmer until soft then puree and serve with a dramatic swirl of pureed roasted red capsicum, olive oil, garlic and a whisper of chilli. Sweet.