One Kansas City-area program had lots of sweet potato plants, while another had people who know how to cook sweet-potato greens. The two got together recently and showed off the culinary possibilities to a gathering of people interested in good food and sustainable agriculture. The result was an array of dishes based on this summer green — and a lot of happy and newly enlightened diners.
Katherine Kelly, executive director of the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture, dreamed up the party after she discovered that some of the immigrant women participating in a program at the center were excited about showing off some ways they use sweet-potato greens. Kelly was hoping to get some feedback on the dishes, too, to help with marketing the greens.
Of course, cooking and eating sweet potato greens isn't exactly new; sweet potatoes are eaten worldwide, and their greens are popular in Africa and Asia. Nevertheless, the concept is pretty novel for Kansas City. Still, Kelly said, initial efforts to market the greens locally had done well. A CSA associated with the center distributed them, and some of the farmers sold them at farmers markets.
"Some people really, really like them," Kelly said. "Last year, one customer bought them every week." More customer education is needed, though, she said.
Meanwhile Ted Carey at the Kansas State University Research & Extension Center in suburban Olathe has been running a program to develop seed stock for Kansas sweet-potato growers as part of a larger effort to boost production of "specialty crops" (fruits, vegetables, nuts) in Kansas. An area in eastern Kansas, the former "sweet potato capital" of the Midwest, had 2,549 acres devoted to sweet potatoes in 1910 compared with just 29 acres statewide today, according to Rhonda Janke, also a K-State professor.
Carey told me that the Kaw River Valley and Arkansas River Valley (in Kansas) are well-suited to sweet-potato production, and sweet potatoes are an appealing crop as they are susceptible to very few diseases or pests.
"It's a classic low-input crop, organic almost by default," he said.
His program has made a little progress in increasing sweet-potato production in the state, although some storage, packing and shipping aspects of commercial production remain to be resolved. Meanwhile, the K-State program continues to develop high-quality, organic seed stock.
But back to those greens. The array of dishes was wide, from pickled stems to several dishes featuring blanched and braised greens, to a sweet-potato pesto. The greens were tender and not bitter, although the various seasonings sometimes made it difficult to gauge the greens' flavors well.
Kelly said still she is hoping to get a better sense of which sweet-potato varieties produced the most appealing greens, and said a structured tasting would be required to get at that information. Still, the exercise introduced many people, including me, to the possibilities. She and Carey said they hoped that recipes can be developed to help with marketing.
(And, yes, you can eat ornamental sweet potatoes.)