Candied Sweet Potatoes

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.

Sweet Potatoes: A Review

Like many towns in the upland South, Vardaman grew up around a timber railhead. Some of the lordliest white oaks that ever left the continent descended from the hills above Vardaman and were shipped across the Atlantic to construct the great barrels that held the finest wines of the 1925 Exposition of Paris. But after the lumber was gone, farmers in the area turned to the sweet potato and their intuitions were crowned with success. Vardaman is now the (admittedly self-proclaimed) Sweet Potato Capital of the World.

cover card blogThe distaff side of my family is from Vardaman, and I’ve been eating sweet potatoes my whole life, so for a long time I’ve been sailing along considering myself of an expert on the subject. Then here comes this McGreger girl who blows my dinghy out of the water. April McGreger has chops; whereas my father was a lawyer from Sarepta (sue me), she is a sweet potato farmer’s daughter from Vardaman proper. In her introduction to Sweet Potatoes, the tenth installment in the University of North Carolina Press’ “Savor the South” series, McGreger says, “By the time I was a teenager, I had worked at pulling slips, the shoots that densely bedded ‘seed’ sweet potatoes send up, and had spent a couple of summers riding the ‘setter’ that plants those sweet potato slips in expansive fields. I learned firsthand how eyes and ears and noses fill with dust from the warm, just-plowed earth and how the modern farmer’s schedule is set by nature and financial demands, often at odds with each other.”

People you have no idea how refreshing, how delightful it is to find a book about food written by a genuine human being who has a fundamental knowledge of “farm to table” and not by one of these pompous foodways pundits who don’t know a roux from a rutabaga or a kitchen flim-flam aristo whose closest connection to the earth is trying to grow weed on his daddy’s back forty before flunking out of college and entering culinary school. McGreger is a very fine writer (as we expect of Mississippi’s children) and a scholar to boot, so she takes an appropriately schoolmarmish tone when it comes to sweet potatoes. In her own rhetoric, she poses the question “Is there any food more central to our southern identity than sweet potatoes?” The short answer is no, and perhaps for that very reason the sweet potato demands definition, particularly as a botanical and linguistic entity. I’ll leave that explanation to April, who does a thorough job of sorting out the Latin as well as the vernacular. She spends some time on the history of this important foodstuff, pointing out the antiquity of its use and cultivation in the New World as well as its introduction to the Old. Central to her narrative is the role of the sweet potato in the culinary history of the American South where it’s been keeping body and soul together throughout the region’s tumultuous history.

Before getting to the recipes proper, McGreger includes a crucial section concerning the selection, storage and preparation of sweet potatoes as well as a description of a few of the most essential culinary varieties (some have been developed as a garden ornamental) and what sorts of dishes they are best suited. Granted most of us have access only to the traditional “moist, orange-fleshed, and sweet” types, but it’s worth knowing other varieties are out there, and if the trend to greater diversity in the marketplace and the proliferation of farmers’ markets continues, finding whites, yellows, purples and heirloom varieties is something to look forward to. Equally important is her section on selection and storage, since while she recommends buying sweet potatoes “dirty by the bushel, directly from a farmer”, the roots must be cured in a warm, humid environment for a few weeks in order to fully develop their flavor. Most essential is McGreger’s advice on the preparation of sweet potatoes, and since she is clearly the final court of authority when it comes to cooking these vegetables (roots and leaves, it’s worth noting), this section is the heart of her work.

McGreger chafes at being restricted to only fifty recipes, but to her credit she offers a spectacular variety “aimed to help you refine techniques to develop your own repertoire.” These are arranged in four categories: “Breakfast: Morning Pastries, Grits, Gravy, and Hash”; “Sides and Salads: Vintage Classics and Fresh, Modern Twists”; “Mains, Soups, Stews, and In-Betweens: A World of Flavor”; and “Desserts: A Little Something Sweet”. Early on she laments, “Once such a prominent food in the southern diet, the sweet potato is now eaten by many only on Thanksgiving in the form of sweet potato casserole or sweet potato pie”, and her selection of recipes is designed to illustrate the versatility of the sweet potato and to provide cooks at every level of proficiency with a means of making them more of a staple in the kitchen”, as well they should be.

April wryly regrets never winning the Little Miss Sweet Potato crown, but a lot of thought, a lot of time, and a lot of love went into this wonderful work, and in my less-than-humble opinion it establishes April McGreger as not merely a Little Miss, nor even a Queen, but as the Empress of Sweet Potatoes.