April McGreger has spent much of her adult life selling canned goods at farmers’ markets. But many of the folks buying her award-winning Farmer’s Daughter pickles and preserves don’t realize that the brand’s name reflects her roots as both the daughter and sister of sweet potato farmers.
“It comes up a lot,” April says with a laugh while stirring four batches of blueberry jam that are bubbling on the stove in her spacious Hillsborough kitchen. There are dozens of jars warming in the oven and hundreds more waiting in the shed. “I’m proud to be so connected to farming – especially sweet potato farming.”
April spent much of the past 18 months developing and testing recipes that spotlight our state’s top crop for a new Savor the South cookbook from UNC Press. Sweet Potatoes comes out this month, just in time for adding new dishes to holiday tables. The 50 recipes run the gamut – sweet, savory, Southern, global. April also explores the sweet potato’s fascinating history, notably the importance of these nutrient-dense roots (and their greens) to the diet of enslaved people in the South.
While sweet potatoes can be cooked in many ways, April warns against the high-heat method favored by many home cooks. “I used to always cook them at 400 or 425, thinking they’d cook faster and get crispy skins,” she says. “But my mother, who cooks everything at 350, always had better results. If you cook them longer at a lower temperature, they’ll definitely taste sweeter and the flesh will be more silky.”
After pricking a fresh-scrubbed sweet potato and setting it on a foil-lined pan, place it in a cold oven. Set the temperature to no more than 350 degrees and the timer for at least an hour, though it may take up to 90 minutes. Signs of doneness include the flesh slumping away from the skin and sugar that seeps and bubbles onto the foil.
Even if you’re desperate for a sweet potato fix, April says they should not be cooked fully in a microwave. “That rapid cooking doesn’t allow time for the starch in sweet potatoes to turn into sugar,” she explains. “But it’s a good time-saver if you intend to finish them another way, say roasting or frying.”
Prick scrubbed sweet potatoes to create steam vents, then microwave on high for 4-7 minutes, or just until they give slightly when squeezed. When cool enough to handle, proceed with the balance of your recipe.
While there are hundreds of varieties of sweet potatoes, April focuses on those widely available throughout the South. She describes several preferred heirloom and commercial options, like the sweet, white-fleshed O’Henry that she first encountered while growing up in Mississippi.
Since many varieties are plentiful in the Triangle, April encourages readers to be adventurous. For example, Oriental or Japanese sweet potatoes, with rosy skin and ivory flesh, yield a delicate chestnut flavor when roasted. Make the most of the vivid but dry Stokes Purple in Shalom Y’All Sweet Potato-Apple Latkes. However, don’t choose them for a recipe that requires baking powder, as the jewel-toned flesh will fade to an unappetizing gray.
While the range of recipes will convince you that sweet potatoes should be enjoyed year-round, April features several dishes and desserts that deserve a starring role at holiday feasts. How about skipping the can this year in favor of candied sweet potatoes that develop a flavorful gloss from a spoonful of bacon drippings? Company’s Coming Sweet Potato Gratin offers the best of both worlds: impressive to guests and simple to make. Can’t decide about dessert? April provides a full baker’s dozen to consider.
“I really never got tired of developing and testing recipes,” April says as she seals the last jars of jam. “What can I say? I’m a farmer’s daughter, and I love sweet potatoes.”
SWEET POTATO PONE
When he was a boy, April’s father remembers the simple pleasure of munching raw sweet potatoes pulled from their Mississippi farm. April’s son Moe, who will turn 4 in November, can’t resist them cooked into this creamy pudding. “He’s so crazy about it that we started calling him ‘Tater Pone,” April says as her tow-headed son races into the living room to deposit a pile of building blocks. “It’s good cold for breakfast, too.”
1 stick unsalted butter
1⁄2 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup sorghum molasses
3 large eggs
1⁄2 tsp. kosher salt
1⁄2-1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper (optional)
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup whole milk
1 Tbsp. brandy (optional)
31⁄2 cups peeled and grated sweet potatoes
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a large cast-iron skillet. Pour the butter into a large bowl and whisk in all ingredients except the sweet potatoes until well combined. Fold in the grated sweet potatoes and pour the mixture back into the skillet. Bake for about 1 hour, until well browned around the edges and on top. Let cool 15 minutes before serving. Makes 6 servings.
From Sweet Potatoes: a Savor the South® cookbook by April McGreger. Copyright© 2014 by April McGreger. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.