As the growing season winds down along the East Coast, some crops are at their peak in other parts of the country, and are available now in the market. The sweet potato, not widely grown in New England because it likes reliable warmth, is cultivated throughout the South and right now the sweet potatoes you see in the market from down South are as close as you may get to freshly dug.
So there’s no reason to wait until Thanksgiving, and good reason not to. They’re at their best, and they have many uses beyond the sweet potato casserole that you may not even like anyway if the one you know is sicky sweet or gloppy with marshmallow. It is just such casseroles, sampled at the homes of friends when I was a child, that put me off sweet potatoes for many years. Only when I finally tried a plain, buttered, salt-and-peppered sweet potato (at my grandmother’s insistence, I recall; she used to eat them on their own for lunch) did I come to appreciate their particular natural charms of rich taste and fluffy texture.
Sweet potatoes are a member of the morning glory family, native to South and Central America; they are not related to the white potato we New Englanders know—and love—so well, nor are they related to the yam, a tuber grown only in tropical regions. Sweet potatoes are essentially the edible root of a vine. They are a really outstanding source of vitamin A and beta-carotene, and a good source of vitamin C, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and several B vitamins. Buy firm potatoes with no signs of softness at the ends, and store them in the driest part of the refrigerator; they will keep for a couple of weeks, and should probably be baked rather than boiled after they have been stored. Sweet potatoes are thin-skinned, and if you find new ones, their skins will rub or scrape off as with any other new potato. If you boil or bake with skins on and want to peel them afterward, do so while they are still very warm.
Because of their nutritional value, sweet potatoes have become more popular in recent years and are becoming relatively common in restaurants, often in the form of sweet potato fries or chips. In addition to frying them, you can bake, boil, grill/sauté, or stew them, and in general treat them as you would a potato: roasted wedges with olive oil and herbs; mashed, buttered sweets; plain boiled sweets; sautéed or hash-browned sweets. Just take care because of the high sugar content, and use slightly lower heat, including for frying or sautéing, than you would for regular potatoes.
The high moisture content and natural sweetness of sweet potatoes make them nice candidates for items you might otherwise use pumpkin for, such as sweet potato pie, pickled sweet potato, sweet potato pancakes, sweet potato butter (the reduction of sweet potato and sugar or brown sugar and spices to a jammy consistency), or sweet potato cakes and quick breads. Because cooked sweet potatoes keep well in the refrigerator and can be very successfully frozen after cooking, it is relatively easy to pull out a leftover baked sweet potato or two, or a cup or two of leftover mashed sweets, and transform them into a dessert or, as here, a morning muffin. Just make sure that if you freeze mashed sweet potatoes for later use, you do not season them first. Baked potatoes kept in the fridge do not, of course, have to be thawed; they can be mashed on demand right in the measuring cup. The perfect tool for this is the tamper from an espresso machine.
Sweet Potato Pepita Muffins
You can make these with either boiled or baked sweet potatoes. Makes 12.
1 cup packed mashed sweet potato
½ cup maple syrup, preferably Grade B
¼ cup melted sweet butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 tea spice (nutmeg, cinnamon, clove), mixed to your preference
½ cup buttermilk
1 ¼ cup a-p flour (or substitute half whole-wheat for half the a-p)
2 tea baking soda
1 tea baking powder
¼ cup pepitas or nuts of your choice (optional)
Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease a standard muffin tin.
In a medium bowl, stir the syrup, butter, egg, and spice into the sweet potato with a wooden spoon. Stir in the buttermilk until incorporated.
Sift the dry ingredients together, toss in the pepitas, and blend into the sweet potato mixture.
Quickly distribute the batter into the muffin cups with the spoon. Bake about 18 minutes; watch that they don’t overbrown. Serve warm with butter.