Friday morning May 13 several Friends of Goat Hill gathered to work on the Goat Hill berry bramble patch – weeding, mulching, and pruning away dead canes that escaped our attention back in February when we held our big pruning days. Now that plants are …
We love sweet potatoes for many reasons:
#1. They are easy to grow and pest free – provided that you can protect them from mice (they eat the tubers) and deer (they eat the vines)
#2. They are delicious (if properly cured – I’ll tell you how)
#3. They are versatile and can be used in all kind of dishes, from simply baked or steamed; in soups or savory puddings; in pancake and muffins; mixed with meat in casserole (for example this recipe with lamb or beef); turned into pie or cakes.
#4. They keep for a long time at cool room temp (provided they are properly cured after harvest). No need for a fridge or a root cellar.
#5. They are easy to propagate (but you need to plan for it).
#6. The tender shoots are a delicious summer green – particularly when quickly sauteed with onion, ginger, and finished with a splash of coconut milk.
I already wrote about how to propagate sweet potatoes. This year, I went one step further: I filled a tray with light weed-free soil,nestled my “seed stock” sweet potatoes in there (at harvest time, I picked a few tubers to save for propagation, and labeled them so we would not eat them by accident), placed the tray on a heat mat, and created a clear tent with hoops & a large clear (clean) trash bag held by small clips. They loved it, and produced lots of slips – lots more than I can use for myself.
Of course you can buy slips, and sometimes plants. But is it easy to produce them and I am in total control of the timing. No back-order or anything like that! It also provides several extra weeks of growth (compared to mail-order slips) which translates in a bigger harvest at the end of the season.
Wait for planting till there is absolutely no threat of possible frost. For me that means mid-May. I do look at the long-range forecast in early May, and sometime (especially if I have extra slips), take a chance in early May – with row covers at the ready. Sweet potatoes are tropical plants from the lowlands and they cannot manage cold. They will take all the heat you can give them. If you receive slips when the weather is not yet warm enough, pot them in 6″ or 8″ tall pots, they will start developing roots and can wait happily for a few weeks.
I used to plant my sweet potatoes in the ground, until 8 years ago, when the tubers (while still growing) were eaten by mice. The above ground plants did not show any sign of damages, so I did not know the extent of crop loss until I went to harvest. We lost 90% of our crop that year! Ever since I plant the sweet potato slips (or plants) in sturdy 15-gal containers, or 1/2 barrels (about 25-gal) in full sun. I use a mix of garden soil, composted horse manure, and rehydrated coconut coir (I used to use peat) and one slip per pot. They look lonely in their big tub, but do not be tempted to plant more than 1 per container. It really will not increase your yield. It just takes a few weeks for the plants to take off, and then they grow and grow and grow. We water well and often.
Throughout the summer, I pick vine tips for eating. Just the tips, so they are tender, and cook quickly.
By August, the sweet potatoes vines have created a dense cover, which – by mid-October is threatening to take over the bee yard (in spite of the deer eating all the vines that grow on the other side, through the fence). Good thing that it is then time to harvest before frost damages the plants!!!! The first frost is generally in late October/early November for us, and I let the sweet potatoes grow as long as the weather permits; since they are perennial, the longer the growing period, the heavier the harvest.
Finally comes a day in mid October when the nights are consistently under 50F. It’s time to harvest. It’s easier as a 2 person job. We first cut off the vines at the soil line and drag them to the compost pile. And then we dig the sweet potato out with our hands first, and finally tip out the very heavy containers to get all the tubers. Sometime, they are all the way at the bottom of the pot. There is a video of the the actual harvesting in 2019 on our Facebook page.
Our typical harvest is about 10 lbs of tubers for every slip. Sizes vary, in part depending on the cultivar planted: Beauregard, for example, tends to produce huge tubers – some have weighted over 5 lb EACH; that’s not a problem for texture or taste (a huge sweet potato is just as tasty as a small potato), but it is a lot of sweet potato at once! Better to use those for a large dinner party, roasted or steamed.
As we dig, I select a few good looking healthy tubers from each cultivar I grow and set aside them, labeled with their name. Those are my “seed stock” for the following years – the tubers from which I will produce slips. The sweet potatoes are sorted immediately by size, and washed with a water spray. Any damaged one is set aside to be eaten very soon. The rest (including the seed stock) goes into the curing chamber.
Sweet potatoes should be cured to develop flavor (starch turning into sugars), and to harden their skin. Both phenomena allow the tubers to stay in good shape, edible, AND delicious, at cool room temperatures (60F/ 15C) for months. We often eat sweet potatoes from the fall harvest until late spring or early summer the following year.
Curing – in that case – simply means to keep the sweet potatoes above 85F (29C) with a high humidity in a dark space… but with air circulating. For about a week. We set up wire shelves in a shower stall, with a space heater, and a fan. The shower is blocked off with a sheet of light plywood. Depending on the year, we either set a bucket of water with a cloth hanging out of the water to wick moisture out to humidify the air (the simplest), or I use the shower head once or twice a day to thoroughly wet the sweet potatoes (removing both fan and the heater before watering, and putting them back afterwards – which is more thorough and more work).
Once cured, I simply store them between sheets of newspaper in crates. I check the remaining stock a few times in the winter and remove the few that go bad.
Then comes March; the cycle starts again, with forcing my seed stock to produce slips.
I like beets. I like them raw, grated or mandolined. I like them cooked. I like them pickled, whether a simple wine-and-vinegar pickle or in relishes (delicious with meat, salmon, or vegetarian burgers, or a mature cheddar). I like beet sorbet. I like them juiced too! I even fold them in chocolate cake (thank you, Nigel Slater), and make pesto. Or whatever you’d call beet puree mixed with nuts, garlic and olive oil. I wrote 2 recipes for beet root pesto and beet leaf pesto a while ago, but recently have made another just as delicious version… maybe even more delicious. Even people who profess to loath beet often like beet pesto.
Beets keep well in cold storage and are easy to find in supermarkets, even in winter, and sometimes the beet greens still look good (cook those! They are delicious too).
So, get yourself some red beet roots, trim them, peel them, slice them as evenly as possible. Yes, do it before coking them, and yes, your hands will stain, but you can scrub that away easily enough. I really prefer to cook the beets without their skin: it’s a sweeter, purer taste at the end. Some people who object to beets don’t mind them at all when they are cooked without the skin on (and are really surprised to find it so). I know that, having served beets to hundreds of people through my catering and personal chef services. The only time when I cook beets with their skin on is at camp, where we are feeding over 100 people and I have lots of kids willing to help peel roasted beets with their hands (also lots of parents not comfortable with their kids using a peeler or a knife… and not nearly enough peelers or knives anyway).
Back to the peeled and sliced beet! Dump them in a generously oiled oven-proof pan, add a couple of cloves of peeled garlic, cover tightly, and roast until done. I always cook them with other things and never by themselves so it’s at whatever temperature the other dish calls for (A mostly empty oven feels wasteful to me) … unless again, it’s camp, and we are cooking 40 lbs of beets (then the ovens are full with all the pans of beets). Or unless I am baking a soufflé… then there is no oven-space sharing: soufflé are selfish that way. Anyway, the hotter the temperature, the faster the beets will cook. The thinner the slices, the faster they will cook. Thirty at 30 minutes at 350F (180C) generally does it for me. Or you can just do it stove top, as described here.
Decide how much beet pesto you want, and transfer all or some of the cooked slices to a food processor – let’s say 2 cups – along with the accumulated pan juice, and a few garlic cloves. Save the rest of the beets (and garlic) – if any – for a salad. You don’t have to wait till the slices cool to process them, hot is fine. Add a good pinch of salt, a couple of tablespoons of almond butter, and a glug of quality balsamic vinegar (the thicker the better) to the food processor. Blitz until smooth. Taste: add salt, nut butter, or vinegar, as needed to your taste.
I use almond butter because it’s relatively inexpensive and easy to find – and less assertive than peanut butter. Use peanut, cashew, hazelnut… the taste will vary of course, but they all work.
Serve with crackers or flat bread or celery sticks; spread it into a sandwich (maybe with some goat cheese, and finely sliced roasted beets); toss it with pasta; serve it as veg, maybe as a little nesting bed for a small steak… the possibilities are endless.
And with the remaining beet slices? Toss them with a few tablespoons of fire-cider and olive oil, and scatter on a bed of winter greens with a few citrus segments, some crumbled goat cheese (or feta, or blue), and maybe some honey-preserved kumquats (or cranberries). Something like that:
Sweet potatoes are now a winter staple in our household, because they are tasty, nutritious, versatile in the kitchen, fairly easy to grow and store well.
Despite their name they are NOT a potato (no more than a day-lily is a “lily” or a primrose a “rose”). Nope, they are not even closely related t potatoes botanically speaking, they are in fact in the morning glory family – as their botanical name indicates: Ipomea batata. Why should I care, do you ask? because it helps understand what they like to grow well and how to store them so they last for you.
Sweet potatoes are tropical perennial vines. In tropical climates, they just grow and grow and grow… and produce lots of tubers, and big ones too, without having to be replanted every year. That’s permaculture! In Virginia – and other temperate climates – they grow until killed by cold. And so every year, they must be planted anew.
You can buy “slips” (very small started vines, often barely rooted), plants (rooted and potted slips) or you can start your own. Really you can, and it’s not too late.
Since sweet potatoes doe not do well until the weather is quite warm, here in Virginia you have till the end of May / early June to plant them, and still have a good harvest, as they will grow well through September and sometimes October (when we have a warm fall). The sooner you plant them once it is warm, the larger the harvest and the heavier each individual tubers. Which some people don’t like. Some people do not want a 5-lb sweet potato! So for smaller tuber, plants your sweets in late May.
It really is easy to make your own slips. All you need a good looking, firm sweet potato (preferably one from last year’s garden but a purchased one if needed as long as it’s a healthy firm sweet), a pot, some soil, and a very sunny window or a cold frame.
Pot the sweet potato with good fertile potting soil, with the stem end sticking out slightly. Check before you plant: a sweet potato that’s been in storage may well start to sprout. Plant the sprouted end up (that’s the stem end). If you can’t tell, plant it flat, covered with 1/2″ inch of soil. If you do not have a pot large enough, use a shoe box or something similar (place in a waterproof pan first). Put it in your sunniest window — on a heat mat if you have one. Give it a saucer (if using a pot). Water liberally (at least once a day), mist often. The warmer and the more humid, the faster sprouts will grow. You could also try to plant it directly in loose sandy fertile ground in a very sunny cold frame, barely covering the top of the potatoes. Again, water well. Obviously, the latter might be more finicky if the temperature drops down below 50F (10C).
The potted sweet should start spouting in a few weeks.
Once the shoots are 3 to 4 inches tall, carefully remove them trying to get a bit of the tuber’s skin. Immediately insert the shoots in a moist light fertile soil. You should be able to get 12 slips or more from a sweet potato. I use tall cell packs to give them room to grow but you can also use 2″ or 4″ individual containers. Don’t plant them all together into another containers as the roots will tangle up.
Put your sprouts back in your sunny window (on your heat mat if you have one) and continue to water liberally (at least once a day) and mist a few times a day if you can. After a couple of weeks, the slips will develop roots. As soon as the roots show through the bottom, you can plant the slips out — ASSUMING the nights are reliable above 60F (15C).
Don’t throw out the original sweet potatoes which sprouted all those slips for you. Leave one or two shoots on it, and plant the whole thing. It deserves it!
And that’s it!
Yes, I know about growing tubers in a glass of water (with the help of toothpicks to hold it half above the water line), but this method of starting them in soil works much better for me. Give it a try!