Fava Champions Sweet Potatoes
The newish quick-serve restaurant offers a delicious recipe for the beta carotene-rich root vegetable.
Let’s get this out of the way: What exactly is the difference between a sweet potato and a yam?
What you probably think of as a yam is actually a sweet potato. And so is a sweet potato. Real yams originate from Africa and are much bigger with tough, bark-like skin and starchy flesh with little flavor. In the 1930s, however, a group of Louisiana farmers decided to brand their new orange-fleshed sweet potatoes as “Garnett yams” in order to distinguish them from other varieties. That nomenclature has lingered so that the orange-colored sweet potatoes are typically called yams while the white-fleshed varieties are called sweet potatoes — even though both are sweet potatoes and yams are something else entirely. Got that? (And by the way, sweet potatoes aren’t potatoes at all — they belong to an entirely separate root vegetable family.)
Whatever you call them, they’re delicious (yes, the flesh is naturally sweet) and nutritious, loaded with beta carotene, which is why they are a featured side dish at Fava. The postage-size quick-service lunch counter around the corner from Chez Panisse in north Berkeley roasts yam-style sweet potatoes skin-on with olive oil and sea salt, then broils them for crispiness and char flavor, before tossing them with chopped cilantro, fresh dill, spicy chili flakes, and lime juice for a sweet, spicy, tangy, bright treat that’s been proved popular at the months-old restaurant.
“The naturally sweet flavor of sweet potatoes makes it a favorite side dish for kids and adults alike,” said Sylvia Osborne-Calierno, who runs Fava with fellow Chez Panisse alum Jeremy Scheiblauer. “They’re rich in vitamins and minerals and have a delicious earthy skin that we avoid peeling … you cannot add too many herbs.”
Lorraine Walker from Eatwell Farms said there are thousands of varieties of sweet potatoes, but at her longtime organic family-run operation in Dixon, she primarily grows yam-like Dianes. The season in the Bay Area generally stretches from late summer through December, according to farmers market operator CUESA, with peak demand around the late November/December holiday season when sweet potato recipes are popular. When shopping for them at the market, Walker recommended picking sweet potatoes by size according to how you’re cooking them — bigger ones are better for baking, while smaller ones are fine for roasting or mashing. Similarly, the skin can be peeled or left on depending on the preparation (and your personal preference).
Once you get them home, like most root vegetables, they are best stored in cool, dark conditions with ample ventilation that mimic old root cellars, where they can keep for as long as a month (avoid refrigeration). As for how to use them, Walker has several go-to preparations, including cubed and roasted with other root vegetables, baked and topped with butter and salt (and perhaps a dash of soy sauce), and her favorite: peeled, cubed, and boiled and then combined with regular potatoes for a delicious spin on mashed potatoes.
“The color is gorgeous, and the flavor is sweet,” she said.
Whatever you call them.
Fava-Style Roasted Sweet Potatoes
4 large sweet potatoes
1½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup olive oil
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch dill
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash and cut the sweet potatoes in bite-sized chunks and toss in a bowl with the salt and olive oil until well coated. Turn them out onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper and covered tightly with foil. Make sure the potatoes are spread out into one layer so they cook evenly. Roast in the oven for 20-30 minutes until tender and then slightly char under the broiler for an additional few minutes. Toss hot with chopped cilantro, fresh dill, chili flakes, and lime juice.