This year, for the first time, I learned that there’s more to the sweet potato than its tuber. It came as news to me that throughout Africa and southern Asia the vine that we know as the sweet potato (Ipomea batata) is often grown for its leaves. Mine were started by putting an organic sweet potato in a pot of dirt in a warm place. It needs to be organic, because the grocery-store kind are treated with chemicals to stop them from sprouting. I planted a few in a pot thinking that they would be lush and green and heat-resistant, and any tubers that they produced would be a bonus. After reading about the use of their leaves in other countries, I cautiously broke off one and nibbled on it. It had a crisp texture and a mild pleasant flavor, and I started adding them to salads. As the vines grew, I had enough to start cooking them. I used them in greens mixtures (see the “recipes” page on my website, www.localfoodalbuquerque.com) and found that they balanced the stronger-flavored greens very well. I especially liked using them to make Hawaiian creamed greens. Here in the high desert, a source of fresh green leaves that takes our summer sun and heat in stride is a valuable commodity, and even after a summer of snipping them to bits, I got some roots in the fall. Not as many as if I’d left them alone, of course, but the total harvest of salads, greens, and tubers over 3 months was considerable, and all from one 19″ pot.
By the way, I couldn’t find any exact assays, but I’ve read that they are unusually high in protein for greens, high in lutein, and full of all the other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants typically found in leafy greens.
Hawaiian Creamed Sweet Potato Leaves
Pick over and wash well about 6 quarts of sweet potato leaves. This measure is the very loosely packed leaves just as they come off the vine. Chop 2 cloves of garlic and a 1X2″ peeled section of ginger into fine bits. Heat about 2 tablespoons of coconut oil (preferable) or canola oil in a pan and when hot, add the garlic and ginger bits. As soon as the fragrance comes up, but before the bits brown or burn, toss in the leaves, a can of coconut milk, a small green chile (Serrano or similar) chopped up, and a tablespoon of Asian fish sauce. Bring to a boil, simmer about 10 minutes, check whether any salt is needed, and serve. To make a full meal you can serve with a good turmeric rice pilaf, and if you aren’t a vegetarian, some good peeled shrimp simmered with the rest are really delicious. I like a squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the top, too.
If you have the energy to make your own coconut milk, well, more power to you. I used to be that sort of purist but tend to use organic canned these days. Just make sure it’s pure coconut milk (no sugar), and avoid the “lite” low-fat versions, which lack both creaminess and flavor.