• Publishers' Note Fall 2011

    Publishers' Note Fall 2011

    Recently we saw The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary by Werner Herzog. The film takes the viewer on a visual journey exploring the 30,000-year-old paintings inside the cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, in southern France. Powerful images of long-extinct animals, crafted by torchlight, transported us back in time. In the film, Herzog explores the very nature and origins of humanness and our urge to communicate; it’s astonishing to realize that at our core there is a need to convey meaningful information. And 30,000 years later, we’re still hard at work connecting with each other, trying to share what is meaningful.

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  • Crop Mobsters

    Crop Mobsters

    Barley is furry. It is, in the eyes of Nick Cowles, “…golden and beautiful and furry…and it might tickle.”

    Nick was preparing a group of Green Mountain Crop Mob volunteers to enter his fields at Shelburne Orchards this past July. He was responding to a question about appropriate clothes for that morning’s work. The furry warning, and a gesture to the bathroom (recently cleaned in our honor), were all we needed before setting off through the orchards toward the five acres of barley we’d signed on to weed that morning.

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  • Thinking Outside the Bordeaux

    Thinking Outside the Bordeaux

    Folks have been fermenting things for as long as there have been reasons to get drunk. Okay, crop preservation was probably more of a reason for fermentation, but I’m sure that inebriation was an added perk for many early consumers. Before refrigeration was an option, people needed to either dry, ferment, or culture foods to carry them through the lean months. When Vermont was more rural, each farm needed to produce food for their own winter larders, so fermented fruit, honey, and maple drinks were common.

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  • Learning at the Market

    Learning at the Market

    Shop, Learn, Connect— that’s our market’s slogan, and this summer we emphasized the second word “learn” with 15 teaching demonstrations held during market hours. Intended to match the spirit of the market (local, seasonal, and affordable), the demonstrations helped customers learn how to preserve foods to enjoy year-round, how to prepare a variety of dishes from local produce, and how to stretch their food dollar. We partnered with Montpelier-area chefs, our market vendors, and food educators to lead these almost-weekly demonstrations.

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  • Humane Heft

    Humane Heft

    Chalk up another “first” for Vermont.

    The state was the first to outlaw slavery, the first to legalize civil unions, and the first to pass a single-payer health care law, among other singular achievements. It may not be as significant, but the fact that Vermont recently became the first state to require local slaughterhouses to file a written humane handling plan falls in line with the state’s tradition of leading the way on moral issues.

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  • Classroom, Cafeteria, Community

    Classroom, Cafeteria, Community

    From the First Lady to the USDA and Governor Peter Shumlin to celebrity chef Jaime Oliver, there is a growing national interest in improving the health and nutrition of our schoolchildren. Vermont will be among the last states to appear on Oliver’s Food Revolution, a television program meant to save America’s health by helping kids and adults change the way they eat, but perhaps that’s because our state has been leading the way by developing Farm to School (FTS) programming for more than a decade.

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  • Having Both Lives

    Having Both Lives

    Why anybody would want to be either a farmer or a poet when there were spools turning in factories was beyond the grasp of the old man. That his grandson should desire to be both was almost enough to bring on a stroke.”

    According to the grandson’s biographer, “Determined in his course, Robert laid the whole matter before his grandfather. He would have a farm, live on it, produce his food with his own labor, and write poetry.”

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  • Hooping it Up

    Hooping it Up

    For much of the summer, the sun rises too early for even early birds to see it. But you probably noticed the nights arriving earlier when August rolled around. Perhaps you walked outside at dusk and felt the absence of the swallows. By the time this article hits the stands in September, you’ve probably had your first light frost(s). Maybe even a killing frost, although with climate change it’s all less predictable now.

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  • Set the Table with Sweet Potatoes

    Set the Table with Sweet Potatoes

    In prehistoric cave sites in Peru, scientists have found remains of sweet potatoes dating back to the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago. It is one of the oldest vegetables grown by humans. Yet even with that amount of history in every velvety, sensuous mouthful, the sweet potato is also a plant of the future, and may be a very important plant indeed for Vermont’s future. We are witnessing the arrival and adaptation of a new staple food crop to the Northeast—a rare and exciting event.

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  • Packing Local Lunches 101

    Packing Local Lunches 101

    Packing your child’s lunch every day can be a challenge. Below are some tips for cutting down on costs, time, and the energy you put into your child’s brown bag lunch—and adding some locally grown goods!

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Tomatillo Tamworths

    Farmers' Kitchen—Tomatillo Tamworths

    Yankee and Doodle squealed in the crate in the back of the Subaru. We were as shocked by the piglets’ lung capacity as we were by the fact that we, two former vegetarians, were about to start raising and selling meat! Once we got them home, they settled in quickly in the barn, scratching against the hand-hewn beams and eventually burying their noses in sweet-smelling hay.

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  • A Tasty Tour

    A Tasty Tour

    Year One: A Good Cause. Managing our farm, my wife and I try to respect a Sunday off, cultivating diversity in our lives as we do in our fields. So in September 2008, a neighbor and I chose to ride the first annual "Tour de Farms," an Addison County bike-to-farms ride of various lengths, organized by Rural Vermont, the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN), and the Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition. Having chosen the 30-mile loop, the rolling hills of Addison County on that clear morning were stunning.

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  • Vermont Wine & Spirits Guide

    Vermont Wine & Spirits Guide

    Vermont is home to a thriving spirits industry. Our in-state distillers are producing a wide variety of products from vodka and maple liqueurs to gin and rye whiskey. Many of them are winning national acclaim and international awards for their fine quality and appealing flavor. A number of the distilleries have their own tasting rooms where the products they make can be sampled and purchased. You may also find local distillers at farmers’ markets, special events, or festivals around the state.

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Set the Table with Sweet Potatoes

Sweet Potato

Written on

September 01 , 2011

In prehistoric cave sites in Peru, scientists have found remains of sweet potatoes dating back to the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago. It is one of the oldest vegetables grown by humans. Yet even with that amount of history in every velvety, sensuous mouthful, the sweet potato is also a plant of the future, and may be a very important plant indeed for Vermont’s future. We are witnessing the arrival and adaptation of a new staple food crop to the Northeast—a rare and exciting event.

A perennial vine in the same genus as morning glories, the sweet potato,Ipomoea batatas, is native to the American tropics. It is not related to the regular potato, nor is it related to the true yam, which is native to Africa and Asia and belongs to the monocot family Dioscoreaceae. Not to be daunted by genetic heritage, however, Americans have managed to thoroughly confuse the names “yam” and “sweet potato” to the point where the average person doesn’t have a clue which one they’re buying. The muddle began back in the mid-1900s when the orange or “soft” fleshed sweet potato was introduced to America. Until then, the name sweet potato referred to a tuber with white, firm flesh. To distinguish the new orange arrival, people started calling it a yam, presumably because it vaguely resembled the true yam. Confusion has reigned ever since.

In the U.S., most sweet potatoes are grown in the southeast, but early maturing cultivars can be grown as an annual crop here in the northern U.S., requiring early starting (see sidebar). Sweet potatoes prefer hot, dry weather once the vines are established and some local farmers feel that the vegetable will do increasingly well here in the future as climate change warms the Northeast. Unfortunately consistency is not a word that is particularly associated with climate change; more appropriate words might be erratic, unpredictable, or unknown. Weather with radically alternating spells of hot and cold slows the growth of sweet potatoes. Too much rain, too much irrigation, or poorly drained soil can prevent proper root formation, resulting in long stringy tubers instead of short plump ones. Heavy rain during the last few weeks before harvest, especially after a long dry spell, can cause the roots to split, and proper curing can be a problem in the cool, wet New England autumn. Add to this the complexities of starting the seedlings, and the prospects of a thriving local sweet potato industry appear a bit less scintillating. Still, they might be a better bet than most grains for locally grown starchy food.

In 1992, the Center for Science in the Public Interest compared the nutritional value of sweet potatoes to other vegetables; it ranked highest, rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber, beta-carotene, vitamin B6, and vitamin C. White sweet potato contains iodine. To get the best absorption of beta-carotene, eat your sweets with some fat. A little butter or olive oil works fine. And the culinary possibilities of sweet potatoes are nearly limitless. The young leaves and shoots of the sweet potato are a popular vegetable in many countries. Sauté, steam, or boil as you would any greens and season to taste. The tubers can be transformed into products ranging from flour to wine. Global creative uses of the tuber include sweet potato cellophane noodles (Korea); sweet potato tong sui soup (China); tempura (Japan); and sweet potato butters, dips, and spreads (Vermont).

Lisa Johnson of Norwich is the founder and “Y’ambassador” of Yummy Yammy, a Vermont company that sells five kinds of sweet potato dips that are delightfully versatile for culinary use. The idea for the business grew from her desire to get more sweet potatoes into her family’s meals, and to find an efficient way of doing that. She started cooking them ahead of time and “suddenly got the idea that nobody was selling sweet potato products.” Especially not savory ones.

In October 2009, she sold her first container of Yummy Yammy spread at Dan & Whit’s in Norwich. Since then, her business has “exploded.” She now supplies six additional stores: the Hanover, Lebanon and White River co-ops, the Lyme Country Store in New Hampshire, the WREN store in Bethlehem, and BG’s Market in Hartland. She has started hot-packing her products in glass jars for a stable shelf life and has moved her manufacturing operations to the new Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick. She offers her products online and is about to go national with sales.

Lisa sources local sweet potatoes whenever possible but there is a limited supply, mainly because few Vermont farmers are growing sweet potatoes. Plus, Johnson has strict criteria for quality and needs jumbo size tubers for efficient processing. She roasts the tubers whole and slips off the skins while hot. Roasting helps preserve the flavor and nutrients.

“I think sweet potatoes grown in New England are really great quality,” she says, adding that she would like to see more New England farmers growing them and would like to see an entire industry built around local sweet potatoes. If her business continues along its growth curve, she may create a substantial demand. Lisa also has dreams of an annual yammy festival, perhaps at Halloween. The Yummy Yammy website (yummyammy.com) includes many ideas for how to use the dips and short, fun, and instructional videos.

Fertile Fields Farm in Westmoreland, NH, has been growing certified organic sweet potatoes for about five years. This year they have four varieties on a quarter acre. They like to try new varieties; the ones most likely to succeed, says farmer Lori Schreier, are those that need 100 days or fewer of growing season. Fertile Fields Farms sweet potatoes are available at the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market starting in October and at the Post Oil Solutions Winter Farmers’ Market in Brattleboro in November and December.

Stock up on local sweet potatoes while they are in season and you’ll have the base for months of fun in the kitchen. Chunks of sweet potatoes make a rich curry when infused with coconut milk, raisins, cashews, and Indian spices. Pair them with local white beans and veggies for a hearty, warming chili. Whole baked sweets are great for lunchbox surprises, being just as good cold as they are hot. And sweet potato fries are a classic and couldn’t be easier—just slice, toss with olive oil and your choice of spices or herbs, and bake in a single layer, turning once until golden. Use puréed sweets as you would pumpkin in pies, breads and cookies. You can even eat them raw like carrot sticks or shred them into salads. If your tubers start to look weary as the season progresses, make a big batch of something yummy (stew, soup, baked treats) or just cook them up plain and pop in the freezer.

For a sweet and spicy start to your day, try my original Jamaican Breakfast; it marries a large percentage of local sweet potatoes with a relatively small percentage of non-local ingredients for an exotic taste experience.

Steam chunks of local sweet potato until tender (for a less sweet dish, use half sweet potato and half regular local potato). Add chunks of banana (broken, not sliced) and cubes of steamed or fried local tofu (optional). Season generously to taste with cumin, coriander, garam masala, salt, and cayenne. Toss with a little local sunflower oil or melted butter and reheat gently with a little coconut milk. Serve sprinkled with shredded unsweetened coconut and coarsely shredded Brazil nuts.

Growing Backyard Sweet Potatoes

Recently, locally grown sweet potatoes have become popular in the north, where early maturing cultivars are treated as an annual. You can grow your own; the propagation technique is interesting and unusual. Like tomatoes (also a tropical perennial in the south), sweet potatoes need to be started inside early, say, in March. These instructions are based on information from Sylvia Davatz of Solstice Seeds in Hartland.

Choose organic tubers (non-organic ones won’t sprout) of an early maturing variety such as Georgia Jet or Beauregard. Use toothpicks to suspend the tuber vertically in a glass of water with 1/3 of tuber submerged. If you can determine which end of the tuber was attached to the plant (the end that’s broken), this end should be pointing up. When the sprouts or slips get to be a minimum of 2–3 inches long (longer is better), gently break them off the tuber right at the base. Put the slips into water and let them root. When well rooted, pot them up in small pots until the weather and soil have thoroughly warmed up (usually late June), then transfer them to the garden. The vines spread quickly—shading out weeds—and have few pests.

In fall, if you like, you can take cuttings from your vines in the garden before they are damaged by frost. Root the cuttings in water, plant into pots, and grow inside for the winter. The growth will slow dramatically but will pick up in spring; then you can pinch the plants to make them branch and use them for a new batch of cuttings to root and plant in the garden. Growing your own means you can also have fun eating the leaves and shoots!

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Home Stories Issues 2011 Fall 2011 | Issue 18 Set the Table with Sweet Potatoes