Nov 18, 2009

I Yam What I Yam...a Sweet Potato

True sweet potatoes are the roots of Ipomoea batatas, a relative of the morning glory.  These tuberous roots are designed for food for the plant and for us.  True yams are not related to sweet potatoes.  They aren't even the same type of plant structure.  Yams, like Irish potatoes, are tubers...modified underground stems.  Not roots at all.  Although these specialized stems are also food storage organs.  So why do we call sweet potatoes yams?

According to the LSU AgCenter, part of the answer (not surprisingly) lies in cultural influences.  African slaves in the Southern US thought that sweet potatoes were similar to their native African yams.  So they referred to sweet potatoes as "nyami." 

Louisiana produces a significant share of sweet potatoes in the US.  Opelousas, one of LA's oldest cities, hosts the annual Yambilee Festival.  Not the Sweet Potato Festival, but Yambilee.  Why use the term "yam" when that's not technically what's being grown?  Because to LA farmers those orange roots are yams...Louisiana Yams.  Also according to the LSU AgCenter, in the 1930s LA farmers wanted to set their sweet potatoes apart from the rest of what was grown in the US.  The variety that LA farmers grew back then was a Puerto Rican one and, at the time, was different than what was being grown in the rest of the country.  (This isn't the case any longer).   These sweet potatoes were sweeter, fluffier, and the flesh more orange.  So, they were called yams.  Louisiana Yams.

About this time last year, I wrote about my Great-grandma Vick's specialty and family favorite, Sweet Potato Crunch.  This year I wanted to share the sweet potato recipe that is my husband's favorite: Praline Yams.  It's similar to my great-grandma's since it has a sweet pecan topping and no marshmallows.  I really can't stand the marshmallow type of sweet potato casserole.  Anyway, I found this recipe many years ago on the back of a can of Sugary Sam's Sweet Potatoes.  I changed the recipe a little since no respectable praline would be caught dead with coconut...and we don't like coconut anyway.

I prefer making grandma Vick's sweet potato dish and using "fresh" sweet potatoes...the quotation marks because sweet potatoes are cured for a few weeks after harvesting to up the sweetness.  But back to fresh v. canned.  Let's face it, Thanksgiving plans usually end up spinning out of control and extra kitchen prep is about as welcome as an alligator to my Thanksgiving backyard turkey fry.  Using canned yams definitely saves some time.

Here's the meez: pecans, brown sugar, flour, butter, canned yams.  Yep, that's really all there is to it!

Be sure to drain the yams.  And look...don't go dirty any extra dishes!  Go almost all the way around the can with your can opener and use the lid to help drain away the juices.  Trick from mom.

Sometimes I spend more time scheming to avoid dirty dishes than actually cooking.

Place the yams in a greased casserole dish.  If some of the chunks are bigger than you'd like, take control and cut 'em.  You're the boss.

Mix together the pecans, brown sugar, flour, and melted butter to make the topping.  Don't worry, it's supposed to be thick.

Since it is so thick and paste-like, I just use my hands.  I promise they're clean.

I'm making half a recipe here, since it isn't Thanksgiving yet and I don't need all that food.  But, I'm still using a 2 qt dish.  When making the full recipe, I use one larger than 2 qt that way almost every sweet potato chunk gets coated in the sweet, nutty topping. But that's just me.  I like to play fair with the topping.

Bake for 35-45 minutes at 350.
And here it is, all baked up.  The pecans are toasty and the topping is a little bit crunchy and a little bit gooey.  And I'm going in.

Praline Yams
Ms. EnPlace, adapted from Sugary Sam's Sweet Potatoes

1 40 oz can cut sweet potatoes, drained
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup butter, melted

Heat oven to 350. Place drained yams in an ungreased 2 qt casserole or baking dish.  (Note: I like to spread the yams out even more in a larger dish so that the topping is more evenly distributed)  If some pieces are too large, cut them to the size you'd like.  In a small bowl, combine remaining ingredients; blend well. Sprinkle over yams. Bake at 350 for 35-45 minutes or until bubbly.


  1. LOL - I'm the same way with dirty dishes. I find any way possible to keep from dirtying something else, even if it compromises a recipe. I haven't had sweet potatoes this way, but they look delicious with the pecan topping. I wish I could get my mashed potato family behind liking sweet potatoes, but they won't do it. I'm the only one who'll eat them. Crazy!
    I'm glad you liked the John Besh review. I remember watching him on the next iron chef and liking him back then. One of the recipes he cooked in the iron chef finale is in the cookbook and it includes his story about participating in Iron Chef. Definitely an interesting read.

  2. I love sweet potatoes! Great dish for thanksgiving day!


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