The sweet potato, packed with vitamins and fiber, low in sodium, cholesterol-free and fat-free, has been reinvented, just in time for the last Thanksgiving of the millennium.

It's the favorite of the health conscious--both its skin and orange flesh are packed with beta carotene, in addition to all those vitamins. And it has moved onto the best-seller list thanks to the popularity of "Sugar Busters" and other low-carbohydrate diets that value its fiber and eschew white potatoes.

Growers and packers are also paying more attention to the sweet potato. Roger Lane, who manages 500 acres of sweet potatoes for Pride of Sampson Farm in Clinton, N.C., says that superior sweet potatoes are the result of micropropagation techniques that allow growers to control size, shape, flavor and disease resistance. And once harvested, they are taken to curing houses and placed in slanted bins where warm dry air causes starch to change to sugar. In the past, this curing was done in the field where harvested potatoes were covered with sand for several weeks to be ready for the Thanksgiving holiday. The new method produces a sweeter potato in just four to five days.

The sweet potatoes that arrive in our supermarkets are generally of two types: One is pale yellow or orange, with a dry, sometimes mealy texture; the other is intense orange, moist and very sweet. For cooking, a general rule applies, though there are exceptions: the darker the color of your sweet potato, the more moist it will be.

How can you tell the difference when you shop? According to the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, the skin of the drier potato is usually light yellowish-tan or fawn colored, while the skin of the moist-fleshed varieties may vary in color from whitish tan to brownish red.

Many people mistakenly refer to the second type, richer in color, as a "yam." It is not. Sweet potatoes are large edible roots belonging to the morning glory family and are grown in the United States. Yams, thick, tropical-vine tubers, are popular in South and Central America, the West Indies and parts of Asia and Africa. They are usually available in ethnic or specialty markets, but rarely in supermarkets.

As long as we're discussing mistaken identities, the sweet potato is in no way related to the white potato, though--to confuse matters further--a white variety of sweet potato is sometimes available at specialty food stores and at farmers markets. It bakes to a pale, cream color and is grown on the Eastern Shore, where it is loved by locals.

While North Carolina produces about 40 percent of the nation's sweet potatoes, Virginia does its share. The sandy soil of the Eastern Shore is perfect for growing root vegetables, according to Laurie and Tony Brown, owners of Farmstead of Charlotte Hall, an organic farm. They grow Jewel sweet potatoes and Hyman white sweet potatoes to sell at the farmers market at Dupont Circle. Their modest operation sells about a bushel a week beginning in mid-October.

Sweet potatoes are appearing on menus in some unlikely places. At any Outback Steakhouse you can get a jumbo baked sweet potato that is creamy, moist, fluffy and delicious, with only a little butter to heighten the rich flavor.

Vidalia and the Occidental Grill downtown and Clyde's restaurants have also turned to the sweet potato--baked and french fried, pureed and in soups. Japanese restaurants commonly use sweet potatoes fried in a wisp of tempura batter.

Corporate Chef John Guattery of Clyde's Restaurant Group wasn't sure a sweet potato appetizer would fly but his Pennsylvania farmer brought in some tiny fingerling sweet potatoes. He roasted the three-inch darlings and served them with apple butter. They flew out the door. The drought took its toll on the fingerlings this year but since Clyde's and Old Ebbitt Grill emphasize seasonal menus sweet potatoes are a core item. At Clyde's in Georgetown, they arrive as part of a root vegetable mash, heavy on sweet potatoes, with smoked duck breast.

You may want to join the trend by cooking up a few of these plain and fancy recipes yourself.


Sweet Potatoes

(4 servings)

Sweet potatoes, like regular potatoes, can be roasted with any of a variety of herbs or spices. Try this recipe for starters, then adjust for personal preferences the next time.

2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon rosemary leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup minced fresh parsley

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, toss together the sweet potatoes, garlic, rosemary and oil. Transfer the potato mixture to a rimmed baking sheet, spreading the potatoes out into a single layer.

Bake the potatoes until tender, about 50 minutes. Toss with the parsley, salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Per serving: 364 calories, 5 gm protein, 72 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 668 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Sweet Potato Gratin

(6 servings)

This recipe is based on one that Franette McCulloch, then-assistant pastry chef at the White House, demonstrated at a L'Academie de Cuisine class. It's exceptionally beautiful when made with white sweet potatoes, but regular sweet potatoes work just fine. White sweet potatoes are shaped like red sweet potatoes, but the skin is light tan with dark blotches. Bake as you would other sweet potatoes.

Butter for the baking dish

3 pounds large sweet potatoes

2 cups heavy (whipping) cream

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 2-quart baking dish.

Wrap the sweet potatoes in aluminum foil and bake until soft to the touch, about 90 minutes, depending on the size.

Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees.

Peel the potatoes and cut into thick slices. Place the slices in the prepared baking dish. Set aside.

In a saucepan over medium heat, heat the heavy cream until it barely comes to a simmer and cook until reduced by one-third, about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic, salt and white pepper. Simmer for 2 minutes.

Pour the cream mixture over the potato slices. Bake in the preheated oven until heated through and tan spots appear on the surface of the cream, about 25 minutes.

Per serving: 592 calories, 6 gm protein, 74 gm carbohydrates, 31 gm fat, 110 mg cholesterol, 19 gm saturated fat, 500 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Chipotle Sweet Potatoes

(4 servings)

This goes perfectly with black beans or tucked inside burritos.

2 pounds sweet potatoes

4 tablespoons butter, melted

2 tablespoons pureed chipotle chilies in adobo* (may substitute chipotle sauce)

1 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Wrap the sweet potatoes in aluminum foil and bake in the preheated oven until soft to the touch, about 90 minutes, depending on the size. Set aside to cool.

Peel the sweet potatoes and place them in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer or a potato masher, combine the potatoes until creamy. Stir in the butter, pureed chipotle in adobo and salt. Serve immediately.

* Note: Canned chipotle chilies in adobo sauce can be found in Latin American markets and most supermarkets.

Per serving: 421 calories, 5 gm protein, 71 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 33 mg cholesterol, 8 gm saturated fat, 665 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Orange and Black Walnut

Sweet Potato Casserole

(8 servings)

This casserole is actually more of a puree. If you prefer a chunkier texture, chill the baked sweet potatoes, then peel and cut them into rounds before placing them in a baking dish. Pour the remaining ingredients over the top.

This dish may be prepared several days ahead of time and refrigerated; simply warm it in an oven or microwave.

3 pounds sweet potatoes

4 tablespoons butter, plus additional for the baking dish

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup pitted prunes, chopped

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons orange juice concentrate, thawed

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 cup black walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a baking dish.

Wrap the sweet potatoes in aluminum foil and bake until soft to the touch, about 90 minutes, depending on the size. Set aside to cool.

Cut the potatoes in half and scoop out the flesh and transfer it to a large bowl. Discard the peels. Using a potato masher or an electric mixer, mash the potatoes until creamy.

In a saute pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in the ginger, raisins, prunes, brown sugar, orange juice concentrate and lemon juice and simmer for 1 minute. Stir the butter mixture into the sweet potato puree. Transfer the puree to the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the walnuts.

Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes or heat in a microwave until heated through. Serve hot.

Per serving: 361 calories, 7 gm protein, 53 gm carbohydrates, 15 gm fat, 16 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 18 mg sodium, 6 gm dietary fiber

Cashew-Lemon Baked

Sweet Potatoes

(8 servings)

This sweet side dish may be prepared, covered tightly and refrigerated up to 2 days in advance.

2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Juice and zest from 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter, melted

1 cup chopped cashews

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Add the unpeeled sweet potatoes to the water and boil until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.

Peel each potato and cut it in half lengthwise. Transfer the potatoes to a baking dish. Set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the maple syrup. Stir in the nutmeg, lemon juice and zest, salt and butter and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat; pour over the sweet potatoes. Sprinkle with the cashews.

Bake in the preheated oven until heated through, 15 to 20 minutes.

Per serving: 402 calories, 6 gm protein, 64 gm carbohydrates, 15 gm fat, 16 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 202 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Sweet Potato Pancakes

(8 to 10 pancakes)

These are wonderful when served with grilled pork loin or roast chicken. Add a little cinnamon or cayenne pepper, depending on your preference. Or for breakfast, serve with soft butter and apple butter.

1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and shredded

1/2 cup minced scallions

3 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

Pinch of nutmeg

About 2 tablespoons butter or canola oil

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Have a baking sheet ready.

In a medium bowl, mix together the shredded sweet potatoes, scallions, eggs, flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt about 1 of the teaspoon butter or oil. Spoon about 1/4 cup of the batter on the griddle and spread to about 1/4-inch thickness. Cook until the underside is golden brown. Flip and cook until the second side is well browned. Transfer the pancake to the baking sheet and transfer to the oven to keep warm. Repeat, adding butter or oil to the pan as necessary.

Per pancake (based on 8): 164 calories, 4 gm protein, 24 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 88 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 336 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Spicy Sweet Potato and

Apple Soup

(8 servings)

For drama, warm 1/4 cup of bourbon and ignite it as you pour it into the soup tureen. The show is great, the taste even better.

2 tablespoons butter

8 ounces Canadian bacon, cut into 1/2-inch dice

2 cups diced onion

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped

3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 5 cups)

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 cups chicken stock or broth

Salt to taste

Lemon juice (optional)

In a large stockpot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the Canadian bacon and cook until browned. Add the onion and garlic and cook until golden. Add the apples, sweet potatoes, cayenne and black peppers and stock or broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the sweet potatoes are soft, about 1 hour. Add salt to taste and adjust the seasonings accordingly. If the soup is too sweet, add a bit of lemon juice. If you prefer more of a puree, cook for an additional 20 to 30 minutes.

Ladle into individual soup bowls and serve immediately.

Per serving: 266 calories, 11 gm protein, 40 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 24 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 489 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Sweet Potato Custard Pie

(2 pies, about 12 servings)

If you're in the mood for indulgence, add a dollop of whipped cream to this rich, traditional pie.

3 cups mashed, cooked sweet potato

3/4 cup light brown sugar

4 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup heavy (whipping) cream or evaporated skim (nonfat) milk

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon dark rum (optional)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Two 9-inch unbaked pie crusts

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium, cream the potatoes with the brown sugar. Stir in the eggs, heavy cream or evaporated milk, butter, vanilla extract, rum (if using), cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg and beat well.

Divide the filling evenly between the unbaked pie crusts and bake in the preheated oven until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 45 to 55 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before cutting.

Per serving using cream (based on 12): 406 calories, 6 gm protein, 47 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 104 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 216 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Joyce Piotrowski is a catering manager and freelance writer in Virginia.