Claims for the all-round utility of sweet potatoes are often based on the idea that they can replace regular potatoes in most recipes – but I think this is also why a lot of people don’t like them. If you are expecting the taste of potato in a dish, the substitution of sweet potatoes may be alarming. We will make an exception for sweet potato fries, especially Felicity Cloake’s perfect formulation, but by and large sweet potatoes work best in their own recipes.
Although both have South American origins, potatoes and sweet potatoes are not that closely related: the former is a tuber, the latter a root. Sweet potatoes are in the same family as morning glory and bindweed, but they are a fairly wholesome crop – they have no natural enemies, so they don’t require much in the way of pesticides to grow. They are also lower in carbs and higher in fibre than potatoes and taste more like carrots.
Like carrots, and unlike potatoes, sweet potatoes can also be consumed raw. Shredded or spiralised, they feature in a lot of healthy salads, such as this one from Simply Scratch, but you can also experiment with grating. More commonly they are lightly roasted first, as in Angela Hartnett’s sweet potato, chorizo and red pepper salad, or in Thomasina Miers’ salad of mushrooms, sweet potatoes and goat’s cheese.
Sweet potatoes make an ideal base for soup – they are rich, earthy and brightly coloured (ranging from yellowy orange to the more exotic deep reds and purples). Anna Jones makes a virtue of simplicity with her coriander, lemon and sweet potato soup, which can be blitzed smooth at the end or left as is. David Atherton’s laksa noodle soup doesn’t have to be any more complicated, as long as you buy ready-made laksa paste, but if you have the time and the inclination he includes instructions for whizzing up your own from chilli, garlic, ginger, cashews, lemongrass, shrimp paste and spices. Likewise, Ben Tish’s za’atar-spiced sweet potato soup with chilli yoghurt requires very little from you, other than the presence of mind to have some za’atar to hand. If you haven’t got any, now is the time to pick some up. It is going to be a long winter and za’atar helps.
At their simplest, sweet potatoes can be baked like jacket potatoes, although if you cut them into wedges they won’t need quite so much oven time. Then they can be subjected to some more elegant treatment, such as Anna Jones’s charred sweet potatoes tossed in honeyed lime butter. Nigel Slater bakes thinly sliced sweet potatoes and tops them with soured cream spiked with harissa paste – an idea, he says, that will work just as well with regular potatoes (and a bit of additional baking time).
Meera Sodha frequently incorporates sweet potatoes into her vegan cooking in a way that makes them seem like a familiar and indispensable staple, a part of one’s basic, everyday meal-making. Her creamy macaroni with sweet potato and gochujang is a perfect example, or it would have been if I hadn’t had to look up gochujang – which turns out to be a Korean chilli paste. She also has a tempting recipe for cauliflower and sweet potato tacos and a simple sweet potato and aubergine massaman curry.
The clue is in the name, I suppose, but it may not be immediately obvious that sweet potatoes are sweet enough to be a main ingredient in puddings. This isn’t some new-fangled, privation-based initiative: the classic Portuguese pudim de batata doce is a sort of sweet potato flan, so traditional that it is hard to find a recipe in English, but here is a Brazilian version.
In most cases, puddings call for cooked and mashed sweet potato. You can bake the potato first, but microwaving would work just as well. The Hairy Bikers’ sweet potato brownies use the mash as part of a batter studded, additionally, with small chunks of caramelised sweet potato and bourbon-soaked raisins. For Yotam Ottolenghi’s winter-spiced cheesecake with marmalade glaze, cooled, mashed sweet potato is mixed with cream cheese, mascarpone, sugar and lemon juice before being poured into a crushed biscuit base (half amaretti, half Hobnobs) and chilled to set overnight.
This sweet potato pecan pie, from the Great British Bake Off finalist James Morton, is described as a hybrid of two American classics: pecan pie and pumpkin pie. If you like either, you will like this more.
It is even possible, if perhaps unnecessary, to make sweet potato ice-cream. Indeed, ube ice-cream, made from a bright purple yam from the Philippines, has become a very Instagrammable dessert. Ube is not that easy to find in the UK, but you can make vegan chocolate ice-cream from orange sweet potatoes. It may sound weird, but it has only four ingredients – sweet potato, coconut milk, chocolate and vanilla – so it is hard to imagine any way that it could go wrong, apart from one: do not try this with a regular potato.