Unexpected food finds are one of the things that make shopping at any local farmers market fun and interesting. Organic produce farmers are able to do small scale experimenting to see if new varieties can be grown successfully in our climate.
Over the past several years there have been a couple of memorable moments. Red Barn Lavender (Ferndale) brought ground cherries to the market.They grow fairly easily here but are labor intensive to harvest, so are not usually available for retail purchase.
Terra Verde (Everson) has been wowing market goers for the past several seasons with their locally grown organic ginger. Now is the time of year to buy enough from them to put in your freezer for the entire year.
Smoked cayenne peppers from Rabbit Fields Farm (Everson) is another local specialty that is a special Farmers Market treat. It's still a little early in the season, but watch for them soon after the first frost.
Most recently I was excited to find another new Bellingham Farmers Market treasure - locally grown organic sweet potatoes from Broad Leaf Farm, Everson. Sweet potatoes require quite a long growing season, and are grown commercially mostly in the southeastern US. I had never seen them at our local market before.
Sweet potatoes are a particularly healthy and nutritious food. Their bright orange color is a tip off for their high beta-carotene (vitamin A) content. Just a cup of sweet potatoes can provide more than enough vitamin A for a full day, especially for children.
But that's just the beginning. Sweet potatoes are rich in phytonutrients which act as antioxidants, and they contain high amounts of vitamin C and manganese. Sweet potatoes also have anti-inflammatory effects.
To take best advantage of the nutrition in sweet potatoes, steaming or boiling is recommended over roasting or baking. If you chop them into slabs or cubes a half inch or so thick before placing them in or above boiling water, it will only take about 10 minutes for the sweet potatoes to be ready to eat.
If your sweet potatoes are organic (as are those grown by Broad Leaf Farm), you can eat them without peeling. Non-organic sweet potatoes should be peeled to remove most chemical residues.
For maximum nutritional benefit, it's also important to eat a little fat with sweet potatoes. Hazelnut oil or butter can help with the uptake of beta-carotenes.
Surprisingly, recent studies have indicated that sweet potatoes can actually improve the body's regulation of blood sugar. Eating high carbohydrate foods is usually associated with raising blood sugar levels quickly - sometimes too quickly. For some reason, still poorly understood, sweet potatoes don't seem to have that effect.
Have you ever wondered about the difference between sweet potatoes and yams? Here's an interesting fact: the produce sold as yams in supermarkets are not yams at all. They are just different kinds of sweet potatoes. True yams are grown mostly in Africa, and are related to the lily plant family. Sweet potatoes are related to morning glories and grow on vines. If you look at the packaging on bags of "yams" in the store, you'll find them also labeled "sweet potatoes" - a USDA labeling requirement.
Not all sweet potatoes are orange. They can also be bright purple or a paler yellow or even white.
Aside from all the facts and nutritional information, the most important thing to know about sweet potatoes is that they taste delicious! Sweet and hearty, I can make a meal of one.
Sweet potatoes can be prepared exactly as you would prepare regular white potatoes. In salads, as fries, mashed, sautéed, boiled, steamed, or however you choose to prepare them, sweet potatoes add a sweet earthy flavor to any dish.
I also use them in recipes just as I would squash or pumpkin. Their sweetness makes them ideal for desserts as well as savory dishes. The classic sweet potato pie is a good example. In the recipe below, I've used a favorite German potato salad recipe and adapted it to use sweet potatoes instead.
CLOUD MOUNTAIN FALL FRUIT FESTIVAL
For more than 23 years, Cloud Mountain Farm Center has hosted an annual Fall Fruit Festival. This year's event was last weekend. Watch for a full report in this column next week!
GERMAN-STYLE SWEET POTATO SALAD
2 pounds sweet potatoes (Broadleaf Farm, Everson)
2 tablespoons hazelnut oil (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
1 small onion, chopped (Full Bloom Farm, Lummi Island)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup water or chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary, finely minced
2 teaspoons fresh chives, minced
(optional) 3 strips bacon
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, start boiling enough water to cover the sweet potatoes. Add a generous amount of salt, as if you were cooking pasta.
While the water comes to a boil, peel the sweet potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch cubes.
Add the sweet potatoes to the boiling water, return to a boil, and continue cooking until potatoes are just fork tender, about 10-12 minutes. Do not overcook or your salad may be mushy.
Remove from heat and drain the potatoes.
In a skillet, heat the hazelnut oil over medium high heat. When oil is hot, add the chopped onion and sauté until just beginning to brown. (If you are using bacon in this recipe, you could cook the bacon first and then sauté the onions in the remaining bacon fat.
In a mixing bowl, mix the cooked sweet potatoes, onions (and optional bacon), vinegar, water or chicken stock, and minced rosemary. Stir gently. until all liquid is absorbed.
Salad tastes best if refrigerated overnight so flavors can blend well. You can reheat, if desired, or serve cold or at room temperature. Garnish with finely chopped chives.
Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day to day locavore activities, "like" Whatcom Locavore on Facebook (www.facebook.com/whatcomlocavore) and "follow" on Twitter, @WhatcomLocavore. For locavore menus, recipes, and more resources, read her blog at whatcomlocavore.com.
Reach JULIE SHIRLEY at email@example.com or call 715-2261.