Mississippi is a national leader in the production of the sweet potato, a holiday favorite and also one of the most nutritious vegetables available year-round.

Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, said the state’s sweet potatoes have a reputation for their taste and quality.

“Sweet potatoes are a naturally sweet and nutritious vegetable. Mississippi’s soils and varieties are especially ideal for their commercial use,” he said. “Gerber purchases Mississippi sweet potatoes for their baby food products because they know where good potatoes are found.”

Graves said the state’s 2008 fields produced high-quality potatoes and strong yields for ample supplies far beyond the upcoming holidays. Properly stored potatoes will keep for months after harvest. They should not be refrigerated before cooking.

Brent Fountain, nutrition specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said there is a reason sweet potatoes are described as a “comfort food.” Because they are complex carbohydrates, sweet potatoes take longer than most other foods for the body to digest and make people feel full longer.

“Plain sweet potatoes are among the healthiest foods we can choose,” Fountain said. “Most vegetables contain one vitamin or another, but sweet potatoes are a good source for vitamins A and C and for beta carotene. They are also high in fiber, especially if you eat the skin.”

People tend to decrease the healthy benefits of sweet potatoes by adding unnecessary sugar and fat.

“Sweet potatoes are naturally sweet and do not need additives to improve the taste,” he said. “Before following a recipe that adds a lot of sugar or butter, consider reducing the amount called for or using a substitute sweetener or fat.”

Fountain also recommended cooking sweet potatoes in nontraditional ways for variety and to benefit from their nutritional qualities.

“Although it is not as high in fiber as when prepared by other methods, sweet potato soup is high in vitamins and tasty and warm on cold winter days,” he said. “Sweet potatoes also make great muffins and breads.”

Consider the following methods of preparation as an alternative to some of the traditional sweet potato dishes during the holidays and year-round:

CIDER BAKED SWEET POTATOES

3/4 cup apple cider or apple juice

2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into thin slices

1/2 teaspoon apple pie spice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine ingredients in a covered glass baking dish. Bake for one hour or until tender.

Microwave: Cook for 30 to 40 minutes until tender. Check and stir product after 15 minutes.

Calories 90, Fat 0 grams, Cholesterol 0 grams, Protein 1 gram, Fiber 1 gram.

SWEET POTATO BISCUITS

2 cups self-rising flour

1/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons shortening

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 cup cooked, mashed sweet potatoes (about one large Mississippi sweet potato)

1/3 cup milk or half-and-half

Combine flour and sugar in a medium bowl; cut in shortening and butter with a pastry blender until mixture is crumbly. Add mashed sweet potato and milk, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead four or five times. Roll dough to 1/2-inch thickness; cut with a 2-inch biscuit cutter. Place on lightly greased baking sheets. Bake biscuits at 400 degrees F for 14 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned.

Slip a sliver of ham or bacon into these biscuits, and serve them warm.

Yield: 12-18 biscuits

Per biscuit: Calories 106. Fat 3.4 grams, Cholesterol 4 milligrams, Sodium 194 milligrams