Sweet Potatoes and Shallots to Savor in Winter

Planting shallots and growing sweet potatoes from slips is easy, and the two roots pair well in decadent dishes. Try these healthy sweet potato recipes with shallots.

| December 2016/January 2017

  • Read more for recommended sweet potato and shallot varieties for growing and cooking.
    Photo by Barbara Damrosch
  • Start sweet potato slips in pots.
    Photo by Barbara Damrosch
  • Peel shallot sections like you would garlic cloves.
    Photo by Barbara Damrsoch

Having access to stored root vegetables gives a sense of comfort to the gardener-cook. There they are, always ready to bulk up a meal with their earthy flavors. But sometimes we long for the wide variety the garden yielded in summer, and then it’s time to try some new storage crops that are popular in cooking but not often grown at home. How about planting a bed of sweet potatoes or growing sweet potatoes from slips? And, for a gourmet treat, how about planting shallots? Both are easy to grow and easy to keep, since neither requires (or does well in) the moist cold of a root cellar. Sweet potatoes and shallots even pair well in cooking — one luxuriously sweet and the other pungent, with a subtle flavor all its own.

Growing Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are one of the most nutritious and sustaining foods you can grow. They’re not related to the usual “Irish” potatoes. Nor are they yams, as the bright-orange varieties are sometimes called. (The dark-skinned, white-fleshed Japanese yams sold in markets are sweet and tasty but not commonly grown in U.S. gardens.)

To succeed with growing sweet potatoes, choose a spacious section of your garden that hasn’t been heavily amended with manure. The soil should be moderately fertile for the tubers to plump up, but too much nitrogen can lead to lush, leafy vines and the skinny, underdeveloped tubers that I jokingly call “fingerling sweet potatoes.” Don’t add lime unless the soil’s pH is very low because sweet potatoes like slightly acidic soil. The soil they thrive in is deeply dug, so that the long roots can penetrate it, and very well-drained. If your soil is heavy, dig or till in a generous amount of compost, and probe the bed with a broadfork or a common digging fork to open up channels for water and air.

The other key ingredients in growing sweet potatoes are sun and heat. While you’re enduring the summer doldrums, your sweet potatoes will be rejoicing. Where summers are cool, gardeners often compensate by planting tubers into sheets of black infrared-transmitting plastic, or growing them in a greenhouse, or both.

The flesh of sweet potatoes varies from nearly white to deep orange. I prefer the latter as much for its beta carotene content as for its moist texture and good looks. The cultivar that does the best for me is the highly adaptable ‘Beauregard,’ which has good disease resistance. In areas where root-knot nematodes are prevalent, ‘Centennial’ is a better choice.

Sweet potatoes root so easily that you can just bury one in the ground and it will grow — as long as it hasn’t been treated with a sprout inhibitor. The simplest way to grow them is to buy plants, called “slips,” which are shoots sprouted from the tuber’s eyes and then rooted. You can find them at garden centers, or order them, as we do, from a supplier, such as Steele Plant Co. in Gleason, Tennessee. Or, you can just buy a few organic, untreated sweet potatoes and grow your own slips. To do so, plant a tuber in a pot with its bottom half in moist sand — or use toothpicks to suspend it halfway in a glass of water — and it will soon send up numerous green shoots. Pull these shoots off when they’re 6 to 8 inches long, and then put them in a glass of water, where they’ll quickly develop roots.

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