Sweet Potato Promenade

These starchy roots are making an apearance on many fall and winter menus.

Morrison Management Services, Sweet Potato Barley Salad

As the weather gets colder and the leaves turn colors, many operators are looking to sweet potatoes as a nutritious alternative starch in their seasonal dishes.

“The thing with fall vegetables is you have to balance the flavors, colors and the textures,” says Kevin Dorr, corporate executive chef for Morrison Management Services. Dorr covers the Chicago market for Morrison. “We do a sweet potato black barley salad with pecans and red onion, topped with a honey Dijon dressing. Sweet potatoes and black barley marry well together. Also, we make a sweet potato and apple salad with a maple vinaigrette. With sweet potatoes, you need something crunchy to add bite, like apples. Apples and the maple give it a good punch.”

At Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., Executive Chef for Food and Nutrition Richard Piskin lauds his sweet potato casserole with candied walnuts and marshmallows. Cinnamon and brown sugar are tossed and baked with potatoes, olive oil and salt. The marshmallows are then baked over the top. The dish is served with roasted walnuts.

“It’s a perfect side dish, great for the holidays,” Piskin says. “When it’s cold outside, it fills your belly and reminds you of home. I like to add fresh lemon and a half teaspoon of honey, but the marshmallows are the best part.”

At the VA Illiana Healthcare, in Danville, Ill., Nancy Allen, director of nutritional food services, says the department mixes sweet potatoes and apple slices together and serves it as a side starch.

“We use canned sweet potatoes, fresh apples, margarine, cinnamon and brown sugar,” Allen says. “It’s a healthy dish, unlike a canned apple pie filling. The community loves it and wants my recipe, but it’s really not that difficult.”

Southern style: Sweet potatoes work nicely with traditional Southern flavors, operators say. At the University of North Texas, in Denton, Peter Balabuch, associate director of residential dining, loves the department’s sweet potato cobbler.

“It goes with our Southern Creole theme,” says Balabuch. “The potatoes are baked with a sweet pastry on top and get served on the line throughout the autumn and winter months, often topped with vanilla soft serve [ice cream].”

At the University of Oregon, in Eugene, Executive Chef Doug Lang introduced a sweet potato strudel in puff pastry, served with Cajun chicken, red beans and collard greens.

“This was originally produced for a high-end holiday dinner for the students, but it was so well received that we had to plug it into our four-week cycle as part of our Southern cuisine,” says Lang. “It’s not too labor intensive and we hold it under a heat lamp with no cover or steam to keep the puff pastry crisp.”

Versatility adds value: At San Diego State University, dining services turned to the sweet potato as an alternate to the more popular white spud to create appetizers for catering.

“As the catering chef, I have found that our guests love potatoes but seem to get bored with russet mashed or roasted potatoes,” says Executive Catering Chef Ben Jenkins. “Sweet potatoes, or potatoes with character as I like to refer to them, are so versatile, they allow me to mix things up and add some color to my menu items. I can feature the sweet potato as a vegan or vegetarian main dish, in a stew or a croquette. I love to turn them on our rotating mandoline and fry them, providing some crunch and color to braised short ribs and sautéed Brussels sprouts, which is a dish I love to serve in the fall and winter months.”

Shawna Penders, general manager for Sodexo at Concord (Mass.) Academy, uses the versatility of the sweet potato in a variety of dishes, including salads, soups and sides.

“We have a roasted sweet potato and red onion salad with yogurt dressing,” Penders says. “The potatoes and onions are cubed and tossed with salt, pepper and olive oil before being roasted. Green beans are blanched and roasted along with chopped walnuts.” The dish is topped with a simple yogurt garlic vinegar dressing and served over greens.

“We also serve sweet potato and pumpernickel soup,” Penders adds. “After potatoes, turnips and onions are sautéed and blended with vegetable stock, the soup is simmered for about 20 minutes with diced rye bread chunks. The pumpernickel bowl is coated with brown sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon after rolling the bread in melted butter.”

For catered events, sweet potatoes are stepped up a notch by serving a checkered sweet potato and parsnip dish with pomegranate glaze from Chef Sal Porfino, Penders says. The dish features a checkerboard design. The sweet potato mixture includes brown sugar and butter, while the parsnips are flavored with ginger and lime. Both the sweet potatoes and parsnips are steamed and puréed separately and placed in the freezer. After the mixes are hard, but not frozen, they are cut into long strips and assembled in an alternating design to create a checkered log, which can be cut into servings. A pomegranate sauce is drizzled on the side and the dish is accented with whole pecans.

At Tulane University in New Orleans, Sodexo General Manager and Chef Tom Beckmann likes to feature sweet potato Ana with thinly sliced sweet potatoes in a cream sauce, finished with Gruyère cheese, using a spring form pan.

“The cut pie wedges can be served with meat or fish,” Beckmann says. “We also make a sweet potato bread pudding with walnut sauce, using croissants as the bread.”