Chow Town

Digging your own local sweet potatoes worth the effort

Talking sweet potatoes this week, the fall harvest favorite of many Americans that was discovered by members of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 expedition to North America.

I said sweet potato, not yams, and yes there is a difference. The sweet potato is not even a potato nor is it in the yam family. Sweet potatoes, are known as Ipomoea batatas and are the root of a vine in the morning glory family

Beauregard, O’Henry and Japanese sweet potatoes. That’s what this chef had on my mind last week when I traveled to Lawrence to dig sweet potatoes and that is what is grown on Pendleton’s Farm.

No bucket or shovel was required because farmers John and Karen Pendleton provided that. I arrived early and headed out to the fields. I was on a mission and while digging I was thinking about what I would prepare with my sweet potatoes.

Just like the grape harvest at Somerset Ridge Vineyard in September, I found digging sweet potatoes relaxing and interesting. To me, the sweet potato is mysterious. If not properly dug or stored correctly, the flavor and quality deteriorate. Safe handling is highly recommended. It had many uses in the kitchen and it was time for me to discover.

I’ve been told the sweet potato become sweeter in the cold, usually three to four months after planting and believe me, with temperatures down to 39 degrees, it was quite cold digging with my spade.

It had rained the previous week in Kansas and the soil was still a little wet, but Karen Pendleton insisted it was okay to dig. I’ve been told it’s best to dig when the ground is dry because it’s much easier and the potatoes are not coated with so much mud. I had no problem digging, I was there to bring something local that I harvested back to my restaurant and also to serve on my Thanksgiving table.

I also found out that sweet potatoes can bruise very easily when you’re digging so I had to be extra careful. I moved around the field and in no time my buckets were full. I weighed my potatoes, only a $1 a pound, and I loaded up my truck and returned back to Kansas City.

Back home, I did a little research on the magical sweet potato and how to store them.

According to Jennifer Kongs of Mother Earth News, the sweet potato needs to be cured before eating. It’s best to put the sweet potatoes and newspaper and wrap and store in a 85- to 90-degree room for up to 10 weeks. A greenhouse or hoop house is perfect for this. Yes, you need to cure your sweet potatoes my friends. Who knew? Karen suggest a heater in the bathroom works just as well to cure the potatoes and guarantee sweetness.

Today, I am deciding that since I have more than I need, I am thinking Sweet Potato Polenta. My wife will make her Kahlua Sweet Potatoes for the holidays but she only needs three to four pounds, so the rest will go to Jasper’s and will be puréed with polenta and used as a bed for my Slow Roasted Duroc Pork Shanks.

Just like foraging morels and harvesting asparagus in the spring, heirloom tomatoes and grapes this past summer, sourcing local vegetables and fruits make for a exciting time for family and friends but also delicious flavors for our table.

Here is a recipe I have been working on for the fall using sweet potatoes. I do hope you visit your local farmer’s market or grocer and prepare this easy side dish. I also highly recommend you mark your calendar for next October and dig your own sweet potatoes. Believe me, the experience is with it’s weight in gold … or should I say in sweet potatoes?

Pendleton’s Country Market

is located at 1446 E. 1850 Road in Lawrence.

Jasper Mirabile’s Sweet Potato Polenta 2 pounds sweet potatoes 4 cups chicken broth 1 cup instant polenta 1/2 cup brown sugar 3 tablespoon Shatto Butter 8 ounces Fontina cheese grated Salt to taste

In a large pot bring three quarts of water to a boil. Add sweet potatoes and cook until potatoes are tender. Remove and drain water. Cool potatoes. Peel potatoes and purée. Set aside.

In a two-quart pot, bring broth to a boil. Add polenta and brown sugar and stir for three to four minutes. Fold in sweet potatoes and add cheese and butter. Mix well and season with salt.

Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.