Quieting crickets, shorter days, red-tailed hawks swooping through the skies — the clear, startling beauty of autumn is in the air. As if rainbow-colored trees, cooling temperatures and blossoming apples weren’t enough, it’s also time for one of the best holidays of the year: Michaelmas, the harbinger of the fall season. Honoring the Archangel Michael, who represents courage and strength of will, Michaelmas is traditionally honored on Sept. 29, although many celebrate it throughout the season. The festival acknowledges the strength of will to undertake moral development and inner growth. While many images of the Archangel Michael depict him slaying dragons, now is the time to use our iron will to slay our own inner dragons. Lucky for us, we don’t have to go the road alone — the natural world gives us a fabulous framework for organizing our inner selves. We get to revel in the sensorial delights of being human and feed ourselves! So how can we joyously eat our way to courageous and inner strength?
As usual, keeping it local is your ticket to dragon-slaying success, and sweet potatoes, one of the best foods for this time of transition, are in delicious abundance at farmers markets across the region. If you haven’t been a sweet potato fan in the past, take another gander. These succulent roots are not only versatile, they’re also a powerful super-food in their nutritional content. Best of all, they will store for months under proper conditions, allowing you to thrive on local produce long into the winter months. As autumn prompts us to transition into a new state of being, our physical bodies also change. Thus, as the seasons shift, so do our bodies, and in order to support this synergistic evolution, it’s important to choose foods that can aid in transition.
So how can eating sweet potatoes help us ease into a new season? One notable nutritional aspect of these savory roots is their high iron content, and in relation to the Michaelmas invitation to strengthen the will and embrace courage, increasing iron intake is extremely important. Fueling our bodies with blood-supporting, iron-rich foods gives much-needed strength and energy.
Sweet potatoes are also packed with properties that help boost the immune system. Not only are germs flowing more freely with school back in session, but the change in temperature can put additional stress on the body. Overflowing with vitamins A and C, sweet potatoes possess unique root storage proteins high in antioxidants — the source of sweet potatoes’ unusual healing properties. They also contain manganese and are a good source of copper, dietary fiber, vitamin B6 and potassium. Vitamin A is an important source of beta-carotene, and to put the power of sweet potatoes in perspective, it would take 16 cups of cooked broccoli to provide the same amount of vitamin A provided in one cup of cooked sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes are a fantastic source of dietary fiber and vitamin E. Since they’re a complex carbohydrate, they digest more slowly than white potatoes, and this is great for those watching their blood sugar. Sweet potatoes won’t cause the same blood sugar spike that white potatoes trigger, which means they have a low glycemic index (a food’s effects on a person’s blood glucose level). With fast glucose absorption, the blood sugar rises and dives quickly, which is undesirable and leads to a high glycemic index. Finally, sweet potatoes are rich in vitamin B6, which can help keep the brain’s neurotransmitters working well, thus keeping your moods and emotions in balance.
Depending upon the variety — of which there are about 1,000 — the skin and flesh of a sweet potato can be white, yellow, orange, pink or deep purple, although white and yellow-orange flesh are most common. One of my favorite things about these roots is that they can look like a traditional potato or can be wildly individual with deep gashes and surprising twists and turns in their physical structure. Don’t be shy about choosing the most exotically shaped ones at the market — I think they taste the best. If you’re going for some immune-boosting power, try the yellow- or orange-fleshed varieties, as the intensity of the yellow or orange color is directly correlated to its beta-carotene content. Additionally, the antioxidant content in sweet potato skin, regardless of its color, is almost three times higher than in the rest of the root, giving us yet another reason to buy organic and leave the skin on.
But how to prepare these sweet treats? One of the best things about sweet potatoes is their versatility, not only in the variety of ways they can be prepared, but in the fact that they’re delicious simply baked and savored in their natural state. For the busy gourmand, they’re wonderful because you can bake several at the beginning of the week and eat them as needed, doctoring them differently according to your preference. You can bake them on a cookie sheet at 450 degrees for 45-60 minutes, or until you can pierce through them with a fork, and then they’ll keep for about a week in the refrigerator. They’re great cold and will travel well, too. Even better, they’re excellent to take on camping trips, as they don’t require refrigeration, won’t bruise easily and are phenomenal when cooked over a campfire, either wrapped in foil or roasted over the hot coals.
But as amazing as they are in their unadorned state, they also incorporate beautifully into an array of more detailed creations, one of which was passed on to me by my friend Connie during a recent sweet potato harvest at Foxhollow Farm. As soon as she said “sweet potato falafel,” I was hooked. There are similar recipes for this creation that use whole garbanzo beans, but this one, using only flour, is my favorite. Try adding any additional savory herbs you have, such as sage, oregano or thyme.
Sweet Potato Falafel
2 medium/large sweet potatoes
1½ teaspoons of ground cumin
3-4 small cloves of garlic, chopped
1½ teaspoons of ground coriander
2 handfuls of fresh cilantro, parsley or other herbs, chopped
1 lemon’s juice
1 cup of garbanzo bean flour
Splash of olive oil
Sesame seeds, salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and roast the sweet potatoes whole until tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. Turn off the oven, leave the potatoes to cool, then peel. Put the sweet potatoes, cumin, garlic, ground and fresh coriander, lemon juice and flour into a large bowl. Season well, then mash until smooth with no large chunks. Stick in the fridge to firm up for an hour, or the freezer for 20-30 minutes. When you take it out, your mix should be sticky rather than really wet. You can add a tablespoon or more of flour if necessary (the water content of sweet potatoes varies enormously). Reheat the oven to 400 degrees. Using a couple of soup spoons (put a well-heaped spoonful of mix in one spoon and use the concave side of the other to shape the sides), put them on an oiled tray. Sprinkle sesame seeds on top and bake 15 minutes, or until the bases are golden brown. Makes about 18 falafel.
Another way to savor these treasures is by mixing baked sweet potatoes with honey and cinnamon for a luscious dessert or breakfast, and cooked sweet potatoes can be added to pies, breads and pudding recipes as a great substitute for eggs/dairy if you want to veganize a recipe. And who doesn’t love sweet potato fries? Try slicing them french fry-style, tossing with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and dried herbs, then baking at 425 degrees until crispy. There are so many ways to revel in the deliciousness of these beauties; buy an armload and start exploring.
So as we courageously continue this transition from summer to autumn, we’re strengthened not only with heightened awareness of what the seasonal shift is catalyzing in our world, but we can further strengthen our physical being with these sweet beauties. Transitions aren’t easy, but Michaelmas is a fabulous time to turn the tables on old ways. Celebrate this season as an opportunity to strengthen your will and move forward. Listen inwardly and nourish yourself with the abundance of savory surprises offered by our sweet soil.