Popeye’s dictum doesn’t apply to sweet potatoes: a yam is what it isn’t. The name comes from African slaves who found the sweet potatoes grown in the South reminiscent of the nyami of their home continent, and farmers adopted the name to distinguish their own orange-fleshed crop from other, paler varieties. It’s a distinction that tuber consumers continue to find useful, but a true yam, some species of which can grow up to seven feet in length, is not even in the same botanical family as the sweet potato – and neither one, of course, is a proper potato at all.I say “sweet potato,” you say “yam”; you say “main ingredient in that cloying Thanksgiving dish,” I say “seasonal staple that has more versatility than you might think.”
Most American “yams,” with names like Hannah and Garnet, have a butternut-gold interior, reddish (and edible) skins, and an affinity for smoky seasonings like chipotle. They’re high in vitamin A, and can be the surprisingly filling centerpiece of a meat-free meal. Try steaming a few and pureeing with vegetable broth and a pinch of cumin, Hungarian paprika, or some chipotles in adobo. Serve the soup with a big salad of raw winter greens to cut the creaminess. Or make this hearty casserole, whose bright fall colors will forestall those winter blues.
Japanese sweet potatoes, purple on the outside and ivory inside, can be denser and deeper in flavor than yams. Reminiscent of chestnuts, these are perfect for a simple dessert, baked or steamed and topped with cinnamon and a spoonful of flax oil. Subtly sweet and nutty, it’s a far cry from your usual Thanksgiving fare: with these minimal seasonings and without all the extra sugar, you’ll be able to enjoy the rich natural flavor of the sweet potato all fall and winter long. You won’t miss the marshmallows.
Photo: Katie Kadue