Did you know that sweet potato leaves are edible?
Until last year, I didn’t know either. When I got the news, I was inspired to create this Indian-like stew of okra and sweet potato leaves smothered in coconut milk and seasoned with curry spices. As you might imagine, this is one of those dishes from the garden that will make your eyes roll back in your head. It is that good.
But of course you need sweet potato leaves. And when the sweet potato seedlings that we mail-ordered this spring failed to arrive, I was deeply disappointed to think we would not be making our special stew. We’re not eating starchy vegetables any more, so the loss of the sweet potatoes was not so great. But I was going to miss the leaves from the sweet potato vines.
Then last week I bumped into Chris Turse, the garden manager at the Washington Youth Garden, where I previously tended a plot as one of the chefs-in-residence. In the process of swapping garden stories, we got onto the subject of sweet potatoes and I told Chris about my dilemma. He invited me to come out and pick all the leaves I wanted from the plants growing in the Youth Garden. So on Saturday I made the trip and cleared the sweet potato vines from one of the garden paths. It yielded a huge bounty of fresh leaves.
People have asked me, how many leaves can you take from the sweet potato vines without hurting the plant? I have no idea. I’m guessing about 30 percent. Chris said, “Pick a number!” You want to leave enough leaves so that the vines can continue to photosynthesize. But they make a lot of leaves. I don’t think it can possibly hurt to take some.
To make the stew, sweat a medium-sized onion, cut into medium dice, in 3 tablespoons coconut oil (or olive oil) over low heat in a heavy pot or Dutch oven. Season generously with salt. Add 3 or 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped. When the onions are soft, add 1 pound fresh okra sliced on an angle into 1/2-inch pieces, plus 1 pint canned diced tomatoes (or 2 cups fresh tomatoes, skins removed). Stir in a 14-ounce can of coconut milk and add 1 pound Italian squash or zucchini, cut into medium dice. (You can substitute cooked potato here, but we are not eating starchy carbs. See the original recipe for guidance.) Season with 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes and 1 teaspoon curry powder. Finally, stir in your sweet potato leaves (or kale or swiss chard), well cleaned and roughly chopped. How many leaves to use is up to you. I had a salad spinner full, loosely packed.
Cover your pot and cook over low heat until the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.
This makes a family-sized quantity of stew. You can serve it as a side dish, but for me it’s a meal. It also freezes fairly well. We recently thawed a container from last year and it brought back great memories. But it’s definitely better hot off the stove. If I were eating rice, I’d spoon this over a bowl, garnished with toasted coconut. Make that brown rice, and serve some of your favorite chutney (we love our green tomato and apple chutney) on the side.
You will love it, and if you grow anywhere near as much okra as we do, this will easily become a recipe to rely on.