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Sweet potato casserole: It was the dish I was charge of making for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

It’s sweet and gooey — really a dessert masquerading as a side dish — made with marshmallows, brown sugar, pecans and sweet potatoes (or as the can always said, yams). This dish was what first piqued my interest in what I referred to back then as yams, but know now were sweet potatoes.

More on this later. There was also the sweet potato pie my mother would prepare for the holidays: sweeter, and therefore in my opinion, preferable to the boring pumpkin pie which I considered a poor substitute.

From there my fascination with sweet potatoes continued.

As a newly minted dietitian in the Army, now aware of their superior beta carotene content, I often roasted sweet potato wedges for dinner. I had been known to eat a small microwaved sweet potato before my “0 dark 30” physical training tests — running, sit-ups and push-ups — to give me some slowly digestible carbohydrates. I also now knew the difference between a sweet potato and a yam. The yam is a much larger and starchier root vegetable than the sweet potato. While yams are native to Africa, the indigenous people in the tropical regions of North and South America were growing sweet potatoes when the European explorers first arrived to this continent.

Some things you might not know about sweet potatoes:

  • More than 50 percent of the sweet potatoes grown in the United States come from North Carolina.
  • Sweet potatoes are in the same family as morning glories.
  • The Covington variety of sweet potato seems to be the current star with consumers and retailers for its uniformity in size and good taste. Growers in North Carolina appreciate its hardiness and disease resistance.
  • A sweet potato takes approximately 100 days to grow to full maturity. Each plant may have several sweet potatoes.
  • Sweet potatoes are picked by hand.
  • After being picked, sweet potatoes are kept for three – four weeks at 85 degrees and 85 percent humidity to cure. The curing process helps convert the starch in the sweet potatoes to sugars and causes the skin or peel to tighten. It also helps with their shelf life.

These days, sweet potatoes don’t just make an appearance during the holidays. Consumers are buying them to bake, roast and “zoodle” into noodles. They are the darling of chefs, dietitians and food bloggers.

From the restaurant menu to the prime-time cooking show, sweet potatoes are making an appearance in everything — lasagnas, casseroles, roasted vegetable mixtures, cookies, puddings and desserts.

Talk to Leah

Leah McGrath is the corporate dietitian for Ingles Markets. Follow her @InglesDietitian. Contact her at Lmcgrath@ingles-markets.com, 800-334-4936 or at www.ingles-markets.com/ask_leah.

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