In the culinary competitiveness of the Thanksgiving season, much noise and ado is made over poultry and side dishes. Cooks strive for greatness in their take on stuffing, outdo themselves in pies, or reach for the Holy Grail eluding many of us: perfectly prepared gravy.
Between the bowls of cranberry sauce or green bean casserole, two staples of the holiday often play second fiddle: winter squash and sweet potatoes. Before you take umbrage and send me stern emails about your lovely candied yams or sliced, roasted squash, I’m not saying the two items are not on the menu. I’m saying they should be center-stage, and here’s why.
Sweet potatoes and squash are more American than apple pie, or Thanksgiving for that matter. They’re both new world foods, cultivated for thousands of years here in the Americas by indigenous peoples.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sweet potatoes came from Central and South America where Aztec and Incan peoples made them a staple of their diet. They found their way to Europe by Christopher Columbus and to Asia through explorers of the New World.
Squash, one of the Three Sisters, is a North American plant domesticated by Native Americans. They introduced European settlers to the staple food who gave squash its name, derived from the Coastal Algonquin Native American word askutasquash, for “eaten raw or uncooked.”
Both plants are nutritious and rich in vitamin C, although a side to side comparison between butternut squash and sweet potatoes shows butternut squash lower in calories, sugars, and carbs. It’s also packed with vitamins, calcium, potassium, and magnesium while sweet potatoes have protein and fiber.
They’re healthy and that’s nice, but at Thanksgiving, what matters is that they’re delicious. The sugary, flaky goodness of winter squash or silky-smooth, sweet flesh of sweet potatoes are hallmarks of fall. They’re comfort foods anchoring the feast like a reliable friend you grew in your garden in order to eat.
Rich, flakey, light, and nutty, delicatas, hubbards, buttercups, acorn squash and their kin all grow well here, along with pie pumpkins and a few of the butternuts. These roast well and store for a few weeks, easily. Spaghetti squash is better suited to pesto or sauces, since its flesh pulls apart in strings once it’s cooked. Winter squashes can be roasted, pureed for soups, mashed, put in pies, chutneys, and casseroles.
Smaller, thick-skinned pumpkins are ideal for using in pies or baked goods. Often called sugar pumpkins, they have a very rich, sweet flavor. Use them immediately – while other winter squashes taste better as they age, the pie pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) loses its flavor if stored.
There are two types of sweet potatoes, depending on your preference. Dry fleshed types are commonly sold as sweet potatoes while the moist fleshed types are labeled yams, despite not being the true yam (botanically, they’re unrelated). Moist flesh sweet potatoes are a favorite of southern cooks, because as they roast, their sugars make a nice, caramelized layer just under the skin. Grocery stores in our area more often carry dry flesh sweet potatoes, which store well and provide dependable flavor and texture.
Sweet potatoes can be baked as pie, roasted, mashed, cubed into salads, candied, or enjoyed with butter and brown sugar. Leave room on your plate for one, or both, of these American foods.
By Carol O’Meara. Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Colorado State University Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.