Rather than mushy bland boring and overly sugary sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving, I decided to experiment. I like roasted roots, so I played around with flavors and created this new dish with a Southwest zing.
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Spicy Sweet Potatoes
2 pounds orange-flesh sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
3 Tablespoons grape seed or other neutral oil
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 Tablespoons high temperature cooking oil (avocado, grape seed)
1 jalapeño chili, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons black sesame seeds (white will do but are less crunchy)
1 Tablespoon yellow mustard seeds (brown will do)
1 Tablespoon cumin seeds
Step 1. Roast the Sweet Potatoes
Heat the oven to 475°F with a rack in the middle position.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with kitchen parchment.
In a large bowl, combine the sweet potatoes, 2 tablespoons of oil and 1 teaspoon salt.
Toss to coat, or just use your fingers.
Place on the prepared baking sheet, spread in an even layer. Don’t wash the bowl yet!
Roast until golden brown. When is that? When a fork inserted into the large piece meets no resistance. For me that was 30 minutes. Ideally stir once about halfway through.
Step 2. Prepare the Spice Mix
While the sweet potatoes are roasting, brown the spices to release their flavor.
I start with the oil, over medium heat, add the jalapeño and garlic. (2 to 3 minutes)
As they are almost done, add the rest of the spices.
Stir the mix constantly until golden brown and the mixture has a toasty aroma. (1 to 2 minutes.)
Step 3. Combine & Serve
When the sweet potatoes are done, transfer while still hot to the oily bowl.
Add the toasted spice mix.
Stir gently to not mush the potatoes but to mix in the spices. Or toss if you have the wrists and bowl shape.
Optional Serving Tips
For a touch of acidity, serve with lemon wedges.
For a rich look and flavor, drizzle with Mexican crema. This will cut the spicyness somewhat. You could use sour cream if you lack the crema.
What is Mexican Crema
Like American sour cream, Mexican crema has a slightly sour taste. It is also reminiscent of French crème fraîche, which might hark back to the few short years when France ruled Mexico. What I like about it is it combines the tastes of both American sour cream and French crème fraîche, and is so quintessentially Mexican in flavor.
But wait, there’s more! Not only does crema add its unique flavor, but helps lower the hotness of chilies. If you don’t want to do that for yourself, but aren’t sure about your Thanksgiving guests, place a dish of the crema on the table for each to use as they wish.
Why This Dish is SO Tasty
The toasted spices nicely coat the oven-caramelized roasted sweet potatoes. The contrast of crunchy seeds and soft creamy potato is delicious. There is also a pleasing balance of sweet, savory, and spicy flavors.
To up the chili heat, leave the seeds in the jalapeño before chopping.
Sweet Potatoes or Yams?
The names are used interchangeably Even though cooks use the words yams and sweet potatoes interchangeably, they’re not the same plant at all. It is most unlikely that you will find a true yam at a grocery store, farmers’ market, or restaurant in the U.S.
With rare exceptions, every orange-fleshed tuber you see or taste in the U.S. — even those sold as candied yams — is a sweet potato. Yams and sweet potatoes aren’t even botanical kin. Here’s what makes these two so distinct.
True Yams are Dioscorea
It is highly unlikely you will find true yams in U.S. supermarkets. “Yam” is the common name for plants in the genus (family Dioscoreaceae). Some Dioscorea are edible, some are used medicinally as a source of female hormones, and some are extremely toxic (Dioscorea communis)
Wikipedia states, “Yams are perennial herbaceous vines cultivated for the consumption of their starchy tubers in many temperate and tropical regions, especially in West Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Oceania. The tubers themselves, also called “yams”, come in a variety of forms owing to numerous cultivars and related species. Yams were independently domesticated on three different continents: Africa (Dioscorea rotundata), Asia (Dioscorea alata), and the Americas (Dioscorea trifida).
A little digging in my botanical books revealed that in Japan they use Dioscorea japonica (left in image), and in China they consume Dioscorea polystacha (right in image).
These Dioscorea yams are dry, starchy root vegetables, closer in flavor to the root called yuca (pronounced “you-ka”).* They are not sweet, nor soft like the sweet potatoes that are also called yams. Their skin is bark-like, and must be cut off with a knife, it can not be peeled nor eaten when cooked like sweet potatoes.
Africa is the place where 95 percent of Dioscorea yams are grown. Depending on local land race, the flesh can be creamy white, purple, or red. They are commonly consumed near the point of origin and seldom exported. As mentioned, it is highly unlikely you will find true yams in U.S. supermarkets. You can occasionally find them in international grocery stores or specialty markets. You most likely will not recognize it though, due to the bark-like skin or the strangely dotted skin.
Word Nerd Answers “Why is it called yam?”
To quote Wikipedia: “The name “yam” appears to derive from Portuguese inhame or Spanish ñame, which derived from West African languages during trade.”
What Are Sweet Potatoes/Yams?
Native to the New World are the sweet potatoes that are also called yams. They are the species Ipomea batata. Ipomea is in the Convolvulaceae or morning glory family. Morning glory flowers can be pretty, but often have toxic amount of alkaloids in them.
Like Dioscoria, Ipomea plants can be edible, or medicinal, or toxic. Seems strange that such closely related species run the spectrum from feeding, to healing, to killing, but there are a few other species where this is the case. That will have to be the topic of another post.
Sweet potatoes come in a bewildering array of diversity. This is because growers are constantly adding new varieties, and are now actively seeking our more heirloom varieties to cross with the commercial varieties. There are sugary sweet potatoes with snow-white flesh, and purple-fleshed sweet potatoes that taste somewhat like nuts.
Labels in the Store
Since yams are not typically sold in the U.S., why do we still see the word “yam” on labels? A bit of history. The early sweet potatoes were very firm, and stored well in root cellars. Softer varieties were introduced in the 1800’s and producers wanted a word to differentiate the two types. Americans of African ancestry referred to these soft sweet potato varieties as “yams,” because they had a similar texture when cooked to the food from the old country. The name “yam” was then used across the South at least, for the newer varieties offered.
In a recent attempt to clear up the confusion, the USDA now requires that labels on canned goods use both “yam” and “sweet potato” on their labels. This does not mean that the produce clerks will follow the USDA guidelines. You may see two different bins of “yams” and “sweet potatoes” in the same store.
What ever you call the Ipomea batata – be it yam or sweet potato – we wish you an enjoyable Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps with some of these tasty spicy sweet potatoes to share!
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* Yuca is also called cassava (Manihot esculenta)
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