Comote en dulce is a holiday favorite in many Mexican homes, but can also be found early in the morning at a market area in the nearby city of Calvillo.
“They start early in the morning, around 6 a.m.,” Cruz said. “People get up early to buy fresh bread, and people love to eat sweet potatoes in the morning.”
Sweet Potato Street Food
Cruz said vendors sell the dish from small carts near a populated business area. “They’re like little restaurants that sell one thing,” he said. A pound of Comote en dulce costs about 20 pesos, or roughly one dollar.
Cruz said hungry breakfasters can eat their Comote en dulce when it’s warm, right when they buy it. As street food, the potatoes are served whole, topped with milk and eaten with a spoon and drizzled with piloncillo syrup. Others might buy a few pounds of the glossy syrup-cooked potatoes and bring them home for the family. “It’s like McDonalds,” Cruz said, laughing. “You can get it here or to go.”
Harvesting Sweet Potatoes is a Family Matter
Cruz leads The Chef’s Garden’s crew responsible for harvesting sweet potatoes. His role is fitting since the fall vegetable is part of his family heritage. Growing them is literally in his blood. “My grandfather on my mother’s side grew sweet potatoes and transported them by donkey to the villages,” he said. But that was then.
“Sweet potatoes don’t grow well there anymore because there isn’t enough irrigation,” he explained.
But on this day, Cruz and his team are gathering potatoes that are ready to be pulled from teeming mounds of soft, slightly damp soil. Cruz drives a tractor pulling a potato digger that gently turns the soil to bring the potatoes to the surface. Harvesters rake through the soil with their fingers, pulling out heavy bundles that hang down like enormous bunches of fat orange bananas.
No Two Sweet Potatoes are Alike
Sweet potato sizes and shapes are as varied as can be, molded by the earth surrounding them since being planted in early May. Some are slender and long, like carrots. Others are a classic potato size and shape. Still others are the size and shape of Nerf footballs. Cruz holds his hands about two feet apart and says that, if the potatoes remain in the ground much longer, they will quickly grow that big.
“They’ll get as big as my baby son,” he said, referring to three-month-old Javier.
If they grow too big, sweet potatoes lose flavor and color and can get fibrous. Smaller sweet potatoes are superior in sweetness, flavor, color and texture. According to Cruz, the big guys are okay for cooking into sweet potato fries and chips, but definitely not for Camote en dulce.
This year, our team will harvest eight sweet potato varieties. Today they are harvesting one of Cruz’s favorites, “Bonita.” But, for him, “Bellevue” is really where it’s at.
“It is so sweet,” he said. “You can cut the flesh with a spoon, like butter.” Add in piloncillo and it’s the perfect sweet potato for Comote en dulce. Smaller potatoes work better here as well, because they are small enough eat whole.
“They’re looking for medium,” he said. “The size of the sweet potato is the secret. It makes the difference in the flavor.” (So does the amount of piloncillo in the recipe, he said.)
Don’t Peel Them
For Comote en dulce the sweet potatoes are left unpeeled for a couple of reasons. One, the intact skin holds the potatoes together and keeps them individually contained so they don’t overcook into one big pot of mush. Also, it adds to the deliciousness.
“If you’re peeling the sweet potatoes, you’re overcooking,” Cruz said. “The skin gives the recipe something extra. Extra flavor.”
Cruz said many cooks guard their family recipes closely. “Some people have a secret recipe,” he said. “They put in something else. Honey. Cinnamon.” Clove and vanilla bean are sometimes added, as well.
Sweet Potatoes the Right Way
He said his favorite way to eat Comote en dulce is warm in a bowl, covered in nata, a naturally sweet, silky cream that congeals from boiling raw milk. When he was a boy, Cruz said his mother boiled the raw milk she bought from the milk vendor who came to their village.
The side benefit of boiling the milk was a cream called nata. Cruz insists that regular store-bought cream is nowhere near as delicious.
According to Cruz, traditional Mexican sweet potatoes ought to be savored in order to appreciate the nuances of the dish. “You should eat it slow to enjoy all of the flavors between one bite and another bite,” he said.
If you can’t be to Mexico by 6 a.m., try this recipe.
Basic Camotes en Dulce
2 medium sweet potatoes
1 cup water
½ of a cinnamon stick (optional)
8 oz. piloncillo raw sugar cone
Wash sweet potatoes and place whole in a large heavy pot.
Add piloncillo, water and cinnamon.
Cover and cook on medium-high for 25 minutes until tender.
To serve, cut sweet potatoes in half and serve covered with the piloncillo syrup. Topping with milk or cream is optional.