The next time you would like greens for dinner, look beyond spinach (the old stand-by) but also look beyond kale (the flashy rising star). You may not find these at a big grocery store, but the farmer’s markets and Asian stores are usually packed with leaves of all shapes and sizes bundled together with a trifling rubber band. Among them, here is what I found the other day — sweet potato greens. Sadly, I have never seen these for sale in any of the big stores, even ones that have piles of sweet potatoes all through the year. If one has any kind of relationship with the growers, one could ask vendors of the sweet potato to occasionally bring in some greens too; or if one has a garden one could try growing them. If all else fails, take a trip to lovely San Francisco for the Alemany farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.
Like its more famous root brother, the leaves are packed with nutrition. Each diamond-shaped leaf is about a few inches long, and the stems are green and look like hollow reeds. They take very little cooking. Once wilted, they are pretty much done, and the tender stems can be eaten too. Only the tougher ends (you can feel them resist as you try to snap them, much like one trims asparagus) must be thrown away. Once cooked this way, their taste is extremely unobjectionable; a slight sliminess is about the only thing that sets it apart.
You know what that means — it is all about the seasoning! A simple sauté will wilt them nicely. We needed a side for an Asian meal that centered around rice. Here is what I did.
Sweet potato greens with ginger, garlic and fish sauce
The ingredients here are so few that the details matter. The ginger and garlic are minced fine and cooked in oil in a slow sizzle. Fish sauce adds a wonderful aroma so I would suggest you don’t substitute with soy (though in pinch, I have). The leaves and tender stems are cut in two-inch segments, which is large enough to have body and small enough to be bite-sized. And the sesame oil topping is just the thing.
A tip! There are other mild-flavored greens that would do just as well: pea shoots and chard come to mind. This goes very well with some plain white jasmine rice.
Sweet potato greens stir-fry
- 1 bunch sweet potato vines
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 inch piece of ginger root, minced
- Quarter teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- Few squirts of roasted sesame oil (optional)
- 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
- Red chili flakes or sesame seeds for garnish (optional)
Wash and trim the greens. Only remove the tough stems; this can be discovered by snapping them at the point where the tender stem ends and the tough stem begins, much like snapping asparagus spears. Mince ginger and garlic.
Heat the oil in a wide, thick-bottomed pan. When it shimmers, put the ginger and garlic in. Turn the heat to medium-low and allow them to cook slowly. This will ensure that all the aroma is released, but also that they do not brown. When they start to seem shriveled, pile in the leaves along with whatever drops of water cling to them.
Turning carefully with tongs, allow all the greens to be covered with oil. This will take a few minutes; as soon as the bottom ones wilt, turn it over, and shortly all the greens will have wilted. Add the small amount of salt and the fish sauce. If you are adding sugar, now is the time.
This barely needs covering in order to cook; once all the greens have wilted, remove to the serving dish. There will be some flavorful liquid left over, carefully pour that over the greens. Add a few squirts of sesame oil, and the cracked pepper and sesame seeds.
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