Nakashima Farms Comes to the Market in the
With the advent of fall, most vendors at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market are beginning to wind down for the season. Their stands are getting smaller and smaller as the harvest season comes to an end. But that's just the time that Nakashima Farms bursts onto the scene with their first harvest of sweet potatoes -- a fall crop that starts in mid-October. Nakashima Farms grows and sells only sweet potatoes, so you'll find them at the Market every Saturday only during the sweet potato season, which runs from mid-October through May.
Setting the Record Straight on Yams and Sweet
I hope that I'm not the only shopper-cook that wonders about the difference between "yams" and "sweet potatoes".
In super markets in the U.S., there is no botanical difference between what's sold as a "yam" and what's sold as a "sweet potato". In fact, they are both sweet potatoes, which are in the morning glory family. "Yams" are simply a type of sweet potato and were given that name to distinguish them from other types of "sweet potatoes". Because the USDA requires that "yams" be labeled to show that they're a form of sweet potato, you may sometimes see them labeled as "yam-sweet potato".
There are three features that distinguish "yams" from other sweet potatoes -- skin color, flesh color and moisture. Using the following descriptions, you'll easily be able to tell the difference:
|Skin||Generally, lighter in color than yams. Light yellow or tan.
The exception is the Japanese sweet potato, which has a deep purple skin, but meets the other characteristics of sweet potatoes.
|Deep red, purplish or dark copper tone.|
|Flesh color||Light yellow to pale orange.||Deep or vivid orange.|
|Moisture||Drier than a "yam" and somewhat sweeter.||Quite moist; almost "mushy".
Not as sweet as sweet potatoes.
Within each of the "sweet potato" and "yam" categories, there are several sub-varieties. Unfortunately, most recipes that call for sweet potatoes or yams don't alert you which sub-variety is best for the recipe. Super market labeling also isn't much help. You'll simply find them labeled as "sweet potato" or "yam" without any indication of the variety.
Because there are considerable differences among the flavors and uses of the different sub-varieties within the "sweet potato" and "yam" categories, being able to identify them yourself in the super market by their physical appearance and choosing the right one for your recipe is a daunting task.
Here's a sampling of the uses of the most standard varieties and their characteristics:
(Japanese Sweet Potato)
|Light-colored flesh with a nutty flavor somewhat like a roasted
Not as moist as the "yam" varieties.
Not a "traditional sweet potato" in western cooking.
|Baking, salads, tempura, soups and stir- fry|
|This is the "classic" yam
Deep red or purple skin. Soft, moist orange flesh.
|Pies, cakes, breads.
Because the flesh becomes soft with cooking, this variety is best used in recipes that call for mashed or grated "sweet potatoes".
|Light copper skin.
Crispy, moist bright orange flesh.
Flesh retains its firmness after cooking.
|Salads and recipes where color and appearance are featured.|
|Creamy-yellow or tan skin.
Flesh is pale yellow and "dry".
Good mashed or pureed.
Takes well to seasoning with herbs.
Good to shred in bread and muffin recipes.
|Considered to be the most versatile of the sweet potato
Bright orange, moist flesh.
Retains vivid orange color when cooked.
|Salads, baking or steaming.
In any recipe where color and appearance are important.
(Japanese Sweet Potato)
|Light-colored jacket. Dark purple flesh when baked. Delicious flavor, similar to Kotobuki but more full-bodied.||Baking, salads, tempura and stir-fry.|
So Much Nutrition in Sweet Potatoes
The literature published by the Sweet Potato Council of California and the Livingston Farmers' Association are enough to convince me to eat more "sweet potatoes" and "yams":
Sweet potatoes and yams have:
Twice the daily recommended allowance of Vitamin A
1/3 of our daily requirement of Vitamin C
High in Vitamin B6, iron, potassium and fiber
High in complex carbohydrates
Low in calories (a 5" x 2" potato has only 161 calories)
Will the Nakashima Tradition Continue?
Tom Nakashima is a second generation farmer. His father migrated to California in the early 1900's from Japan and found his way to Livingston, 30 miles south of Modesto in California's Central Valley, where there was already a well-established Japanese-American community. Starting with only 10 acres of subsistence farm land, the Nakashima family grew and gradually expanded into its present operation, which comprises a 500-acre farm growing sweet potatoes, almonds and peaches.
Although the Nakashimas have four children, they're worried that none is interested in succeeding them to run the family farm. Only their daughter Dawn is involved in the business, taking care of some retailing by tending the stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market. But with an M.A. degree in fine arts and a job at S.F.'s MOMA she admits that she's not thinking about taking over running of the farm.
Good Enough for Baby Food
Most of the Nakashima Farms' organically-grown sweet potatoes are sold to Earth's Best Baby Food Company. The balance of the crop is sold to the farmers' cooperative in Livingston, which handles all the wholesale distribution. The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market is the only retail outlet where you can buy these fall - winter gems.
4 Varieties at the Market
Nakashima grows 4 varieties of sweet potatoes that you'll find available at the Market weekly. The Garnet, Jewel and Kotobuki varieties will be available through May. The Okinawan variety, which is new to California and is grown in limited quantities, should be available through January or February.
December 1996 (updated November 1998)
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