I’m one of those ignorant rubes who managed to make it through 30 years of life without knowing the difference between a sweet potato and a yam. But no longer. With a little help from On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee (a book which I can’t recommend enough to anyone whose interested in the science of food), I now know that sweet potatoes are the storage root of a plant member of the morning glory family and are indigenous to South America. Yams (from a West African word meaning “to eat”) are the tubers (underground storage organs) of a group of tropical plants that grow in Africa, South America, and the Pacific and are related to grasses and lilies. For more practical purposes, yams, with their orangey flesh tend to be bigger and sweeter than sweet potatoes (which can range in color from pale to orange to even red or purple). Apparently the long history of confusing the two dates back as far as the 1930s (if not farther), when a marketing campaign promoting sweet potatoes called them “yams”.
What I had on my hands last night, it seems, was a handful of pale sweet potatoes so exceptionally small that the check-out clerk at Henry’s last week had to ask, in disbelief, whether they were, in fact, sweet potatoes. Finding myself in the unusual position of also having half a tub of sour cream in the refridgerator (a Superbowl leftover), I quickly decided that sweet potato pancakes (or latkes) were in order. My recipe is derived from one I found on Epicurious here, and was originally printed in Gourmet in 2001. Reading the reviews (all of which were very positive) and thinking of my cholesterol, I decided to try out a variation that bakes the latkes rather than frying them in 3/4 cup of oil. If you have no fear of frying, then try the original version, by all means. But the baked version was pretty good as well- just keep a close eye on them as I burned one side in the oven (which is unfortunately quite obvious from the charred bits in the picture above!). Finally, if you want a sweeter flavor (mine had just a hint of sweetness), choose a sweet potato with a more orange flesh.
1 lb sweet potatoes, peeled and coarsely grated
1/2 large white onion, diced
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tbsp vegetable oil
pinch each of nutmeg, brown sugar, cumin, and ginger
Preheat oven to 425. Spray a cookie sheet (or 2) with vegetable oil to prevent sticking. Stir together all of the ingredients. Form mixture into small, flat patties (in our case, it yielded 14 patties). Bake on first side until golden brown (approximately 10-12 minutes). Flip and bake on second side for an additional 10 minutes. Serve warm with sour cream or apple sauce.