Ingredient of the Week: Sweet Potato
I’m surprised it has taken me so long to feature sweet potato as one of my ingredients of the week, as I cook with them so regularly, love to eat them and they are incredibly good for me. They are a root vegetable like carrot, parsnip and turnip, but although they might be called a potato, sweet potatoes are not related to the standard white potato, which are part of the nightshade family, and in fact come from a completely different family of vegetables, the morning glory family. Unlike potato, sweet potato counts towards one of your portions of fruit and vegetables. This is because of their incredibly high micro-nutrient content. Sweet potatoes also often get confused with yams, but they are also from a very different family. Even though they can often get easily interchanged, potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams all have very different tastes, textures and nutritional qualities.
Sweet potatoes originated in Central and South America and were only introduced to Europe towards the end of the 15th century by Christopher Columbus. Now they are found throughout the world. There are almost 400 different varieties of sweet potato. Some are orange in colour, some are purple and others white. The different colours have slightly different nutritional properties. The most common are the white and \orangey coloured varieties. Sweet potatoes also vary in shape as some can be short and rounded, a bit like a typical potato shape and others are more elongated and pointy, more like a carrot. The one thing all sweet potatoes have in common is their taste, which is slightly sweet, hence the name, However, their texture can also vary, some being dry and firm and others soft and moist. They make a great nutritious alternative to potato and can be mashed, boiled, baked, fried and roasted.
Why are they good for me?
Sweet potatoes are a good source of carbohydrate and fibre. One of the main benefits of high fibre is that carbohydrate is released more slowly and consistently into the blood stream, helping to keep blood sugar levels more consistent and sustaining you for longer. Sweet potatoes contain slightly less carbohydrate and more fibre than potatoes. One down side to the sweet variety, compared to the standard, is that they contain slightly less protein. However, if you make sure you balance your meal out with a good quality protein source such as chicken, fish or lentils, then this shouldn’t be a problem.
One major health benefit to swapping sweet potato for standard potato is that they contain an incredibly high amount of vitamin A, in particular beta-carotene. This is especially true in the orangey coloured flesh varieties, compared to standard white potatoes. We need plenty of vitamin A to help build healthy bones and skin, as well as to help look after our eyes. Furthermore, vitamin A is an antioxidant which protects us from environmental damage which can lead to cancer causing cells developing. One other benefit of vitamin A is that it can help reduce muscle soreness, something highly beneficial to athletes like myself who are consistently putting their muscles under strain. To aid our uptake of beta carotene in to the body, it is advisable to consume it alongside healthy fats such as avocado or olive oil. Vitamin A, along with vitamins C, D and E, are all what are called fat soluble vitamins. This means that they can only be accessed and stored by the body if fat is also present. This is an example of why we do require some fat in our diet.
Other vitamins that sweet potatoes contain include several of the B vitamins and vitamin C. Like standard potato, sweet potato is a good source of the mineral potassium, which is needed for maintaining hydration within the body, as well as for nerve and muscle function. Other minerals that sweet potato are a good source of are iron, calcium and selenium.
Sweet potatoes, especially the purple fleshed varieties, contain several plant compounds called anthocyanins. These antioxidants have been found to be extremely effective in looking after your eyes and protecting against deterioration of sight. Even though my eyes don’t work properly, I still need to take care of them and so does everyone else.
How do I prepare them?
The skin of sweet potatoes is edible and contains a high level of fibre and other micronutrients, so whenever possible it is advised to leave the skin on. However, personally I must admit, I do prefer them without the skin as they are softer and their texture is more consistant. I peel them exactly like I would peel a carrot and then chop them to the required size. Always check the sweet potato first for any marks in the skin and that the texture is firm and consistent throughout. If it feels soft to touch then it is not good to eat. You should never refrigerate sweet potatoes as this damages how they taste and are best stored in a cool, dry, dark place.
How do I cook them?
Sweet potato can be cooked and treated exactly like a normal potato. Cooking sweet potato is infact one of the rare occasions where it actually improves the nutritional value, as studies suggest it improves the availability of vitamin C. Furthermore, boiling sweet potato has been shown to be more nutritionally beneficial than baking as it aids with the retention of vitamin A.
There is so much you can do with sweet potato. You can mash it and use it for a topping on cottage pie. You can make chips out of them like in this healthier version of fish and chips. They can be roasted like this Moroccan roasted vegetables with salmon or this roasted sausage, pear, apple and sweet potato. Sweet potato makes a really tasty addition to a soup or broth, like in this smokey hake and sweet potato stew or this bacon and root vegetable broth. It makes a perfect addition to any slow-cooker meal, like this maple chicken and sprout one, and a really tasty substitution for standard potato in Scottish stovies.
It is hard for me to pick out my favourite sweet potato recipe as there are so many I love, but I particularly enjoy them in a curry like this prawn and pineapple one. Another one of my favourites is this chorizo and sweet potato stew, especially if you roast the sweet potatoes first before adding them to the finished broth. All my sweet potato recipes are for savoury dishes, but I have recently discovered that you can use sweet potato in sweet baking recipes as well. I have seen a few, including one for sweet potato brownies which I would like to try at some point.
Hopefully my many sweet potato recipes have inspired you to try using them yourself. If you have a particular favourite sweet potato recipe that you would like to share, then leave a comment below.
Thank you for reading and speak soon.