Sweet Potato Obsession
I have a sweet potato obsession.
I make chips, fries, and pies—I like sweet potatoes sweet or salty. I love them baked when I top them with caramelized onions and blue cheese, and I love them in the fall when I make sweet potato kale bread pudding. At this time of year I prefer not to heat up the house too much, and make sweet potato chili in a slow cooker (recipe below). I like to eat them as long as they're available from a local source, which, luckily for us, is usually at least 8 months of the year.
Even though sweet potatoes are available to buy from many sources, I like to grow them in my garden. They're not an ideal crop for everyone because they take up to four months to grow and they require some room to sprawl. But I love growing them because I don't particularly like gardening when it's hot. I prefer to plant sweet potatoes at this time of year, then let them wander for about four months. They ramble all over my raised beds, crowding out the invasive summer jungle weeds, and building energy in their tubers that I can harvest in the fall.
To start growing your own sweet potatoes, begin with the sweet potato plants, called slips. Slips are sometimes available at garden stores, but if not, they're easy enough to start on a windowsill. Take a sweet potato and stab with three toothpicks, then suspend in a jar of water and set on a sunny windowsill for a few weeks. Gradually buds will form, sprouting into leafy sweet potato slips. Once leaves form, and the slips are about two inches tall, it's best to pluck each slip from the potato parent and stick them in water. In just a matter of days, they will form their own roots, and then be ready for transplanting into the garden.
I plant them about 12 inches apart and water well to start. Then I let them sprawl, and try to forget about them. I've gone on vacation without watering them for weeks and they seem to adapt to the rain schedule here with no trouble at all.
It takes at least three and sometimes four months for the roots to fatten up, but the harvest is fun. I dig them up in September, when I'm ready to make room for fall crops and the weather is getting nice and I have renewed energy for planting. Each shovel full of dirt is like a treasure hunt: sometimes lots of fat, bright orange potatoes emerge, ready to be stored for fall and winter use.
Another benefit to growing and enjoying sweet potatoes is that they're not perishable right away. In fact, much unlike their starchier, Irish cousins, sweet potatoes get sweeter with a little age, and don't taste that great right out of the ground. They need at least a month to cure out of the ground before they taste right, but then they last for months. Since this is the last time I'll be enjoying sweet potatoes while they're growing a new crop over the summer, I like to choose a warm weather-appropriate way to enjoy them and make chili outside, by plugging my slow-cooker in on the back porch.
Slow-Cooker Sweet Potato Black Bean Chili
• I large onion, diced
• 3 sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cubed
• 1 medium zucchini, diced
• 1 jalapeno pepper, finely diced
• 1 can black beans, or 1 and a 1/2 cups dried black beans soaked overnight
• 2 tomatoes, diced
• 1 1/2 T chili powder
• 1 tsp cumin
• 1 tsp salt
• 1 tsp unsweeted cocoa powder
• 1 cup broth (if you're out, use water with 1 extra tsp. salt)
Combine all ingredients in slow cooker and cook on low for 6 hours, or high for 4 hours. Garnish with chopped green onions or cilantro and sour cream.
Alternately, you can cook the chili on the stove by bringing all the ingredients to a boil, then reducing the heat to simmer for a few hours until all the vegetables are tender.