Expecting something with bran that’s bland, and boring?

Try sweet potatoes.

This root veggie, which for years has been showing up on menus in the French fry form, is often sought after at Thanksgiving for the obligatory casserole topped with marshmallows.

But it’s time to think outside the casserole dish. Local chefs offer several ways to cook with sweet potatoes that pack a serious nutritious punch.

“You can do just as much with a sweet potato as you can with a russet (potato),” said Joshua Pleasnick, chef at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner. In fact, “I make sweet potato chips every summer. Cover them with maple sugar and salt, they’re amazing.”

Currently, sweet potatoes are featured in two dishes at Monty’s and “we try to incorporate them wherever we can,” he said.

Pleasnick turns to the sweet potato for his domestic cooking as well, often making individual shepherd’s pies with a mix of sweet potatoes and russet potatoes on top.

The dish is a variation on his mom’s original recipe and Pleasnick tends to vary the protein, incorporating everything from tempeh — a fermented soybean curd — to goat or ground beef.

Francesca Hong, executive chef at 43 North, suggests roasting sweet potatoes with other veggies such as cauliflower and finishing the medley with a hard cheese.

“I don’t usually like to do anything too fancy with them,” she said. “I think they taste great on their own. I grew up with just steaming sweet potatoes and eating them plain.”

Sweet potatoes also go great with lamb and a puree is a nice alternative to standard mashed potatoes, she said.

“It stands on its own as an element in a dish because of its sweetness,” Hong said.

Nationally, sweet potato production is on the rise.

In 2002, 1.28 billion pounds of sweet potatoes were grown, according to the United States Sweet Potato Council. In 2011, that number had increased to 2.7 billion pounds.

“People are beginning to learn just how great sweet potatoes are with nutrition,” said Charles Walker, the council’s executive secretary.

Tracy Smith, Wisconsin nutrition education program administrator for UW-Extension Dane County, agrees the health benefits of sweet potatoes are not overstated.

Just one medium sweet potato has more than 100 percent of the amount of vitamin A a person needs for the day, she said. Plus, “for people who are diabetic, (sweet potatoes) have a lower glycemic index, which means it doesn’t break down into sugars as fast. It’s a great vegetable.”

Smith concedes consuming sweet potatoes in the ever-popular fry version isn’t the healthiest option, but “at least you’re getting your vitamin A and a little bit more fiber.”

Another plus for sweet potatoes, beyond their health benefits, is how long they stay fresh after harvest. It’s this feature, coupled with a need for more fresh produce at area food pantries, that’s driving a Madison movement to encourage community gardeners and larger farmers to grow the plant (which technically isn’t a potato at all).

Joe Muellenberg, horticulture program coordinator for UW-Extension Dane County, is working with the Community Action Coalition and River Food Pantry to launch a program next spring that would give gardeners free sweet potato plants with the understanding that they donate half of their yield to a food pantry.

“It’s such a hardy, high-yielding, nutritious food that’s perfect for food pantries,” Mullenberg said.

Growing sweet potatoes in Dane County can be challenging because of the county’s hard, clay soil. However, “it is possible to do it,” he said.

Workshops and publications outlining how best to grow the crop in Dane County are being planned for the spring.

The project is based on a model in Kansas City and organizers plan to order between 1,500 and 2,000 plants to give to area farmers.

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