Hillsborough cookbook author April McGreger wants to settle the confusion about yams and sweet potatoes.
First, McGreger says, they are not the same vegetable. Sweet potatoes are grown in the U.S. Yams are a tropical plant, grown in Africa and Asia, and they look much different from sweet potatoes.
“Unless it’s buff-colored, the size of a football and hairy, it is a sweet potato,” said McGreger, who has just published her first cookbook, “Sweet Potatoes,” part of the UNC-Press Savor the South cookbook series.
McGreger, 38, knows her sweet potatoes. She grew up in Vardaman, Miss., self-described Sweet Potato Capital of the United States. (Take that North Carolina!) She was never crowned Miss Sweet Potato, but her brother and father are or have been sweet potato farmers. (Triangle residents may know McGreger for her artisan pickles and preserves sold under the Farmer’s Daughter Brand at local farmers markets and stores.)
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So why do folks get yams and sweet potatoes mixed up? “Yam is a vernacular term for sweet potato,” McGreger said.
When West Africans were forced into slavery and brought to the U.S., they were familiar with yams, and sweet potatoes were the only comparable substitute in the New World. Hence, sweet potatoes became called by the same name.
The yam misnomer became further entrenched in the 1930s when the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed Louisiana farmers to market their sweet potatoes as yams.
With sweet potato casseroles and pies soon to be on Thanksgiving tables, McGreger wants home cooks to know that sweet potatoes lend themselves to savory dishes as well. “Anything you can make with potatoes, you can make with sweet potatoes,” she said.
Try sweet potato latkes, sweet potato hash browns or even sweet potato fries, she suggested. Among the 50 recipes in her cookbook are roasted sweet potato with crispy kale, sweet potato chile relleños and sweet potato hummus.
Here’s one key tip from McGreger: Buy dirty sweet potatoes. Unwashed, cured sweet potatoes, which are more likely to be found at local farmers markets, will keep for months in a cool, dark place that doesn’t get below 55 degrees. But those washed sweet potatoes sold at the grocery store will only last a few weeks.