This month, we take a closer look at sweet potatoes. They are that starchy vegetable we all know and love, but we are also slightly confused about them. See, sweet potatoes aren’t actually potatoes or yams (a starchier and drier tuber native to Africa and Asia). They are part of the morning glory family, native to Central America.

About the Sweet Potato

There are more than 300 varieties of sweet potato. Colors of flesh range from deep orange to purple and white. They are high in fiber, iron, and potassium as well as vitamins A and C.

Unlike standard white potatoes, sweet potatoes are healthier because they are true roots (not tubers). That means they contain more complex carbohydrates and other nutrients. They also contain heat-activated enzymes that convert their starches to the sugar maltose. That’s why they become sweeter when cooked.

A Brief History of the Sweet Potato

Humans domesticated sweet potatoes more than 5,000 years ago in Central and South America. Explorers found sweet potato remains in a cave in Peru, proving their place in our diets since prehistoric times!

Sweet potatoes are the most prolific of all cultivated plants. They produce more pounds of food per acre than any other. They also exceed other high-yield crops, like corn and standard potatoes. High-yield and extremely nutritious, sweet potatoes are a staple in Central and South America, the Caribbean, the Southern United States, and countries around the world.

Sweet Potatoes in Central American and the Caribbean Cuisine

In Central America and the Caribbean sweet potatoes are known as “camote.” They are served mashed, roasted, or fried. There, sweet potatoes are often eaten as a side dish. They are also used in mixed dishes, like casseroles and stews, and as a filling for tacos and enchiladas.

Sweet potatoes are used in South America to make a classic dessert called dulce de batata (or dulce de camote), which translates to “sweet potato candy.” It is a sugary jelly with a firm texture often eaten on crackers or served with cheese. And they aren’t just used as food. The juices of different varieties are used to make dyes for food and fabric in colors ranging from pink to black.

This Month’s Recipe: Warm or Cold Black Bean & Sweet Potato Salad

This month’s recipe combines sweet potatoes with corn and black beans for a tasty salad. The addition of wheat berries  adds fiber, texture and oomph, helping it to stand alone as a complete meal.

The simple vinaigrette brings the flavors together with a good balance of sweetness from the maple syrup and acidity from the vinegar. Oregano and cilantro, along with the beans and corn, lend the dish a subtle Meso-American character. Enjoy this healthy and hearty salad!

Warm or Cold Black Bean & Sweet Potato Salad

  • 1/4cupwheat berries
  • 1/2cupwater
  • 1/2lbsweet potatoes, 1/4 inch cubes
  • 1/4lbfresh corn kernels, cut off the cob
  • 1/4lbred peppers, small diced
  • 1/2small red onion, diced
  • 2tspVermont sunflower oil
  • 1/8tspfresh oregano
  • 1/8tspKosher salt
  • 1/8tspblack pepper
  • 10ozVermont black beans, cooked
  • 2Tbspfresh cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 2Tbspcider vinegar
  • 4TbspVermont sunflower oil
  • 1TbspVermont maple syrup
  1. Cook wheat berries in water for one hour. Drain off excess water and let cool.
  2. Combine sweet potatoes, corn, peppers and onion with 2 teaspoons of oil, oregano, salt and pepper. Spread evenly on a sheet pan and cook in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. Cool.
  3. In a large bowl, combine roasted vegetables, beans and cilantro.
  4. In a small bowl, combine vinegar, maple syrup and 4 tablespoons of oil. Whisk until combined.
  5. Add dressing to bean mixture and mix well. Keep cold for use as a cold side dish or heat in the oven at 300 degrees for 20 minutes or until an internal temperature of 135degrees has been reached.
University of Vermont Medical Center Nutrition Services
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For more on sweet potatoes, including recipes, book recommendations, and fun activities for kids, check out the Vermont Harvest of the Month website.

Get more recipes from the UVM Medical Center. View our Recipe Collection by clicking here. 

Bridget Shea, RD, is a clinical dietitian at The University of Vermont Medical Center.

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