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Yams or sweet potatoes?

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 20 1998 12:00 a.m. MDT

Please pass the candied yams . . . uh, sweet potatoes . . . Oh you know . . . that melted-marshmallow-coated casserole of orange veggies bobbing around in a brown-sugar-and-butter bath.

Well, what are they? Yams or sweet potatoes?You're about to become enlightened regarding the difference between the two. And as a bonus, your newfound knowledge will prepare you for Thanksgiving dinner if the conversation begins to wane.

And . . . when waning sets in, you can quickly offer some interesting tete-a-tete by posing the question: "Did you know that a yam is a thick, tropical-vine tuber, having nothing whatsoever to do with a large musical instrument?"

Here's the scoop - real yams are large, fleshy root vegetables that have been cultivated in Asia since 8000 B.C. The tuber (yam) has a brown or black skin that resembles the bark of a tree and off-white, purple, deep orange or red pulp - usually sweeter, moister and denser than the sweet potato.

Yams are popular vegetables - though not so much in these parts - with more than 150 varieties throughout the world. They range from the size of a small potato to a massive 7 feet long and 120 pounds. These yams are often sold in Caribbean and most Latin American countries by the "chunk," measured by weight.

But here's where the confusion begins . . .

Food writers Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer explain the yam/sweet potato connection this way:

"For all practical purposes, it might be more intriguing to think of the yam and the sweet potato as twins separated at birth, growing up with different quirks and twitches but retaining the essential sweet nature that makes them virtually interchangeable from a culinary perspective."

It sounds as if they are saying that yams and sweet potatoes can be substituted for each other in recipes.

And there's much more:

- Yams contain a compound from which estrogen was first manufactured.

- What is labeled as a yam in our supermarkets is actually a sweet potato - probably a hybrid that was developed in Louisiana in the early 20th century.

- The name "yam" was used for selling purposes to set it apart from the sweet potatoes that are grown in North Carolina, which were not as sweet and not as moist and are stringier when cooked.

- The true yam is not even distantly related to the sweet potato.

- Yams are generally sweeter than the sweet potato.

And while we're dishing out these new yam/sweet potato tidbits, here's another whammy . . . sweet potatoes are not actually potatoes; they are members of the morning glory family. It wasn't until the 16th century that they were referred to as "potatoes."

Truth is . . . we've been eating sweet potatoes for years, perhaps thinking they were yams. No wonder sweet potatoes and yams have been confused with one another. In the South, sweet potatoes are often called yams. Even more mixed up is the canning practice of labeling sweet potatoes "yams."

We should probably focus on sweet potatoes since they're available and are considered a traditional Thanksgiving dish.

Consumers can purchase two types of sweet potatoes in this country. One is a pale variety and the other is a darker-skinned species that many of us erroneously have called "yams."

- Pale sweet potatoes have a thin, light yellow skin and flesh. When cooked, their texture is crumbly and dry, like a regular potato.

- The darker variety of sweet potatoes have a thicker skin and cook up vivid orange and moist.

- Choose firm sweet potatoes that are small to medium in size. They should be smooth and unblemished and free of soft spots.

- Sweet potatoes should be stored in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place for up to a week. Don't refrigerate. (In ideal conditions, sweet potatoes can be stored for up to four weeks.)

- After peeling raw, sweet potatoes, keep them from darkening by letting them sit in cold water to which lemon juice has been added (1 quart water mixed with 3 tablespoons lemon juice). Drain well before using.

- Sweet potatoes are more nutritious if cooked in their skins.

Well, there you have it, Pilgrim! You're ready to take those taters and slice and spice 'em so nobody can tell that they were originally sweet potatoes.

Finally, if you harbor the mind-set that sweet potatoes are just a Thanksgiving side dish . . . know this . . .

Baked sweet potatoes have a natural affinity for melted butter, maple syrup and freshly grated nutmeg.

It's guaranteed to stop any yammering!

*****

RECIPES

BAKED SWEET POTATO WITH CRUMBLED BLUE CHEESE

1 sweet potato

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 to 1/2 cup (1 to 2 ounces) crumbled blue cheese

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh herbs or a pinch of dried herbs (parsley, fennel, marjoram, dill)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Thoroughly scrub sweet potatoes and dry. Lightly prick potato skin with fork and bake until tender, 40-60 minutes. After cooked, cut slit in top of potato approximately three-quarters the length of potato. Push in ends of potato gently and fluff with fork. Top with butter, crum-bled blue cheese and fresh herbs. Serve immediately. Serves 1.

- Each serving contains 416 calories, 28g fat, 14g protein, 29g carb, 918 mg sodium, 73 mg cholesterol

- From American Dairy Association

SWEET POTATO COOKIES

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter or margarine

1/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 cup honey

1 egg

1 cup grated, raw sweet potatoes

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium-size mixing bowl. Set aside. Cream the butter or margarine with the sugar in a large mixing bowl. Mix in the lemon peel, nutmeg, honey and egg. Then, stir in the grated sweet potato. Blend the flour mixture into the sweet potato mixture. Place rounded teaspoons of the cookie dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet. The cookies should be spaced at least 1/2-inch apart. Bake for 7 minutes. Remove cookies from the sheet and cool on a rack. Spread Lemon Glaze over cooled cookies. Makes 4 dozen.

- Each cookie contains 58 calories, 2g fat, 1g protein, 9g carbs, 58mg sodium, 9g cholesterol.

LEMON GLAZE

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons water

In a glass bowl, blend powdered sugar with the lemon juice and water; mix well until smooth.

- Each serving contains 12 calories, 0g fat, 0g protein, 38g carbs, 0 mg sodium, 0 mg cholesterol.

- From "Really Cookin' " by Whirlpool

YAM STUFFED APPLES

1/4 pound yams or sweet potatoes, peeled and diced

2 small golden delicious apples

1 tablespoon minced shallot or onion

2 teaspoons margarine

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg or cinnamon

Mint sprig for garnish (optional)

Combine 2 cups water and yams in medium microwavable mixing bowl. Microwave on high 3 minutes. Core apples, but do not cut through bottoms. Scoop out apple pulp, leaving 1/4-inch thick shells. Reserve pulp. Add apple pulp and shallot to yam; microwave on high 3 minutes. Drain apple-yam mixture; discard liquid. Add margarine and nutmeg to mixture. Using fork, mash until smooth. Fill each apple shell with half of the apple-yam mixture. Place apples in 8-by-8-inch microwavable baking dish. Cover, microwave on high 4 minutes. Garnish with mint sprig and serve. Serves 2.

- Each serving contains 691 calories 5g fat 8g protein, 156g carb, 89 mg sodium, 0 mg cholesterol.

- From "The Flavors of Flatbush" by The Ladies Auxiliary of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY

CANDIED YAMS

8 medium yams or sweet potatoes

1/3 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup undiluted frozen orange juice (or more if desired)

1/4 cube margarine

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup corn syrup

Miniature marshmallows (optional)

Cut the yams into 1-inch cubes; place them in a shallow baking pan and pour the above syrup over them. Place the pan in the oven and heat at medium temperature. Turn the yams at least twice during the heating. Cook until the yams are brown. If desired, top yams with marshmallows and brown carefully. Serves 8.

- Each serving contains 212 calories, trace fat, 2g protein, 52g carb, 57mg sodium, 0mg cholesterol.

- From Janet Williams

SCALLOPED SWEET POTATOES

Non-stick vegetable spray

3 or 4 sweet potatoes or yams (2 pounds), peeled and thinly sliced ( 6 cups)

1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 large leeks, white part only, thinly sliced (1 cup)

1 1/2 teaspoons corn-oil margarine

1 cup low-fat milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 2-quart flat baking dish with non-stick vegetable coating. Layer 2 cups of the potatoes in the bottom of the dish and sprinkle with half of the flour, nutmeg, salt and cayenne pepper. Top with 1/2 cup of leeks. Repeat with 2 more cups potatoes. Sprinkle with remaining flour, nutmeg, salt and cayenne. Top with remaining leeks. Layer remaining potatoes evenly over the top. Dot with margarine and pour the milk over the top. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes or until the potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork. Remove from oven. Before serving, allow to rest 10 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Makes 8 servings.

- Each serving contains 80 calories, 2g fat, 5g protein, 64g carb, 126 mg sodium, 1mg cholesterol

- From "Cook It Light" by Jeanne Jones

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