Okay, let’s straighten this out once and for all. Those big orange roots you find in the grocery store are not yams. Got that? As a matter of fact, it’s a good bet that most of the people who read this blog have never even seen a yam unless they’ve traveled to an area with a significant West Indian or Asian population or to the tropics where yams are grown.
Yam is the common name for some plant species in the genus Dioscorea (family Dioscoreaceae) that form edible tubers. These are perennial herbaceous vines cultivated for the consumption of their starchy tubers in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Oceania. The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a sweet-tasting, tuberous root native to tropical America related to morning glories.
Sweet potatoes are a staple of the American South. The root is long and tapered, with a smooth skin of yellow, orange, red, brown, purple, or beige. Its flesh is rich and succulent. The sweet potato is the state vegetable of North Carolina, and the Sweet Potato Capitol of the World is Vardaman, Mississippi. Sweet potatoes came to be called yams by West Indian and African natives and the name endured. To prevent confusion, the USDA requires sweet potatoes labeled as “yams” to also be labeled as “sweet potatoes”. If you see a can of yams in the store, you’ll find “sweet potatoes” in the ingredients.
So there. This recipe comes from April McGreger, a fellow native of Calhoun County and author of Sweet Potatoes, the tenth volume in University of North Carolina’s wonderful “Savor the South” series. April is a splendid cook, but I find her technique a little fussy. I simply assemble the ingredients in the skillet, put a lid on it, and bake at 350 until the potatoes are tender and the liquid reduced.
The genius of southern food is less in its individual dishes than in the overall composition of the meal. Syrupy sweet potatoes balance earthy field peas and sharp turnip greens shot through with hot pepper vinegar. Crispy cornbread swoops in to sop it all up. Here is a particularly nuanced version of ubiquitous candied sweet potatoes that makes use of that coffee can of bacon grease my grandparents and parents kept above the stove.
MAKES 6 SERVINGS
4 medium sweet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon bacon drippings
1 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Layer the sweet potatoes in a large cast-iron skillet. Dot with the butter and bacon drippings, and sprinkle with the sugar and salt. Pour the water and lemon juice over the sweet potatoes and cover the skillet with a tight-fitting lid or foil. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the cover and simmer until the sweet potatoes are very tender and the sauce is thick, 30-35 minutes more. Baste the sweet potatoes with the syrup from time to time, being careful not to break them up.