Many people are surprised to learn that tropical sweet potatoes, native to Central and South America, are commercially grown in Ontario, predominantly along the sandy north shore of Lake Erie. They’re often confused with yams, which are native to Asia and Africa and do not grow in Ontario.
The most common sweet potato varieties grown in Ontario are Beauregard and Covington. A limited amount of the white-fleshed O’Henry variety and the Japanese Murasaki and Okinawa are also grown.
The sweet potato’s deep orange flesh makes it a nutritional powerhouse. One serving has four times the recommended daily allowance for beta carotene. Not only does this acclaimed antioxidant, which converts to Vitamin A, help keep our skin, hair and eyesight healthy, but its low glycemic index makes it ideal for diabetics.
Ontario sweet potatoes also contain fibre. They’re fat and cholesterol-free and can replace regular potatoes in most recipes.
Plant historians believe this perennial vine with heart-shaped leaves was domesticated at least 5,000 years ago in Central America. The flesh of its long edible root may be beige, yellow, orange or purple.
Sweet potatoes are now grown all over the world, wherever there’s sufficient water and sunshine. They do not tolerate frost.
China produces 80% of the world’s sweet potatoes, planting more than 100 varieties.
Select tubers with tight, unwrinkled skins and no blemishes or bruises.
Sweet potatoes are sensitive to cold and should not be refrigerated, which hardens the core. Instead, store them in a cool, dry place at about 54° F (12°C).
Refrigerate cooked sweet potatoes 4 to 5 days in a covered container.
To freeze, pack cooked sweet potatoes in an airtight container, leaving 1/2-inch (1 cm) space. Freeze up to a year.
Ontario sweet potatoes are great baked, roasted, microwaved, steamed, boiled, sautéed or grilled. Serve them as a main course, in soups or stews, or as a side for meat, poultry or fish. For gorgeous scalloped potatoes, layer half white and half orange sweet potato slices. Peel and grate raw sweet potatoes into salads, or slice thinly for a vegetable and dip platter.
For dessert, add cooked, puréed or shredded raw sweet potato to muffins, cookies, quick breads, brownies, pie and puddings.
The following instructions apply to the moist, sweet, orange-fleshed varieties grown in Ontario. Drier, white-fleshed varieties have different cooking times.
Baked sweet potatoes are so rich in texture and flavour, you hardly need butter. Scrub and dry whole potatoes and pierce several times with a fork. To preserve their sweetness, wrap in foil and bake at 325°F (160°C) to 350°F (180°C) until soft. Season with salt and pepper.
Arrange a medium sweet potato on a paper towel. Microwave on High 5 minutes, turning halfway through cooking. Cook 5 minutes extra for each additional potato. Let stand at least 3 minutes before serving.
Peel and cut in 1-inch (2.5 cm) chunks or slice 1/4-inch (.5 cm) thick. Brush lightly with canola oil, place on lightly oiled baking sheet and bake at 400°F (200°C) for 30 to 35 minutes, until tender.