It's not unusual for me to cruise the farmers markets looking for something I've never seen before. Surprise me!, I whisper to myself as I survey produce and baked goods, and prepared foods. Wow me!
I'm usually not disappointed, but when I did this recently at the La Jolla Open Aire Market, I really was stopped in my tracks when I hit the Blue Heron Farm stall. Among all the photogenic produce were bundles of organic sweet potato leaves for 75 cents a bunch. They reminded me of grape leaves, only smaller.
Now, I don't know about you, but when I was a kid we used to stick toothpicks into raw sweet potatoes to hold them up in a jar filled with water. Eventually roots would develop in the water and stems bursting with leaves would gradually trail around the kitchen. Then we'd toss the poor thing. It never occurred to us that we could actually eat the leaves.
But, in fact, not only can you eat them, you'll get nutritional benefits from them; they're terrific sources of vitamins K and A, niacin, calcium, and iron. Asian and African cultures have been dining on them, but somehow they're pretty uncommon as a cooking ingredient in North America.
Treat these leaves as you would spinach. Raw, they're tender like spinach with a neutral flavor. I even enjoy the crispy citric stems. You can eat them fresh in a salad, tossed here with Granny Smith apples, garbanzo beans, currants, and scallions.
You can sauté them and add them to pasta or an omelet or eat as a side dish. And, like spinach, they do cook down considerably. Here, I sauteed garlic in olive oil, added the leaves, and when they wilted, I added a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.
Unlike spinach, however, they lack oxalic acid--what gives spinach that unpleasant metallic aftertaste. So, another reason to eat sweet potato leaves!
How else can you use sweet potato leaves? I substituted them for spinach when I made a smoothie and loved the fact that I was getting all this nutrition without any weird flavors. You can also braise them or turn them into a soup. Because they're so mild, neutral tasting, actually, they're easily paired with all sorts of flavors--from maple syrup to curry to soy sauce.