Being the youngest boy of the youngest boy, my Mallory grandparents were quite old when I was born. I barely remember them, but years later talked with Aunt Mildred, “Aunt” Georgia Ruth, and others in the circle of elderly ladies who knew my grandparents. Like all rural women of that era, my grandma Della cooked practically all day. More than one person told me that Grandma could peel an apple faster and thinner than any woman in the county, and not only that, the peel was always one unbroken piece. I wish I had written down more of what I heard, because I know the family cooked all types of greens. One of them was “Sweet Potato Greens.”
My Mallory grandparents Dave and Della with their kids:
a hardworking farm family in the midst of the Great Depression.
My dad is the littlest, the boy on the left in the front row.
For city folk, sweet potato greens can be found at the better farmers’ markets and for country folk, they are right in your garden! Yes, these are the same sweet potatoes you’ve planted to dig up and eat later. The tender leaves are edible, and in fact, are widely eaten in Asia, Africa, and many other places in the world. They are a favorite dish in Liberia. In the Philippines, they are fondly referred to as “Camote Tops” because the word camote is Tagalog for sweet potato.
They are not bitter, like turnip greens or mustard greens can be, and have a slight sweetness. If you’ve ever eaten purslane you will see a similarity. Some suggest eating sweet potato greens raw, but I find they are too sharp that way. In fact, in my recipe I include a procedure to make the greens even milder. The nutritional content is similar to spinach.
Country-Style Sweet Potato Greens
- 1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil
- 1 quart, approximately, boiling water plus cold water (for blanching)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 onion, diced
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/4 pound sweet potato greens, thoroughly rinsed, stems removed
Rinse sweet potato greens and remove stems. Place in a strainer in the sink. Boil water and pour over greens in strainer. Let cool for 2 minutes, then pour on cool water. While that is draining, heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil. When warm, add garlic, onion and chili powder. Saute for about 3-5 minutes, till golden brown. Pat greens with paper towels to eliminate excess water. Add greens to skillet, toss all well, and allow to cook for 3-5 minutes. Greens will wilt and soften like spinach. Serve immediately.
This recipe was adapted from one sent by Terra Brockman, of Henry’s Farms, a multi-generational small-scale farm using sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices. It’s truly a family farm. She is also the author of The Seasons on Henry’s Farm, a book I highly recommend (I read it twice!) and which is nominated for a 2010 James Beard award. I get most of my farmer’s market veggies from them in Evanston, IL every Saturday in summer and fall.
Don’t go wild and decide you can eat all leaves from edible plants. Some, like rhubarb leaves, are poisonous! If you get sweet potato greens from your garden, you can start harvesting the leaves about a month after you’ve planted them. However, don’t take more than half the leaves from any particular plant, and though you can take part of the stem, don’t eat the stem; discard it. Only the leaves have a good taste. It can be harvested more than once, though some old-timers say the leaves get more bitter close to the time of harvesting the potatoes.
And I’m a big believer in listening to old-timers.