Sweet potatoes are perhaps most familiar in the U.S. smothered with melted marshmallows in a Thanksgiving casserole. But baked, boiled or raw, they can be a healthful part of California cuisine any time of year.

California is a significant producer of sweet potatoes. About 90 percent of the California crop – 18,000 acres – is grown in Merced County, on farms ranging from five acres up to several thousand acres. In 2011, the crop’s value statewide was $125 million.

However, you probably won’t find sweet potato farmers at your local farmers market.

“Even smaller growers tend to work with a packing shed and have their crops combined with others and marketed,” said Scott Stoddard, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Merced County.

A few years ago, when sweet potato fries began showing up at high-end restaurants and fast food chains across the country, the U.S. and the California sweet potato industries overestimated the future growth in sweet potato consumption, Stoddard said. In addition, improvements in growing practices boosted yield per acre, leaving the country with something of a sweet potato glut. Currently, acreage is inching down again as growers balance supply with demand.

Most sweet potato breeding programs are conducted in the South, such as Louisiana and North Carolina, but the characteristics sought in that part of the country are different than California. Stoddard is conducting specialized variety trials in California to select varieties with red, purple or garnet skin.

“In California, we are going for a red-skinned sweet potato,” Stoddard said. “Especially, a red-skinned variety that stores well.”

Some people incorrectly believe that sweet potatoes with moist orange flesh are yams. True yams can be found elsewhere in the world, but in the U.S., a sweet potato is a sweet potato, whether the flesh is orange, yellow or white and whether the skin is tan, dusty pink or garnet red.

Sweet potatoes are a featured California crop in Dirt Fresh News, a monthly newsletter produced by UC Cooperative Extension in Stanislaus County that introduces school children to fresh, locally grown food. The newsletter says sweet potatoes are a good source of potassium, fiber, beta-carotene and vitamins B-6, E and C.

To eat them raw, simply peel, cut into sticks and serve with low-fat ranch dressing or apple sauce for dipping. Grate fresh, uncooked sweet potatoes and add to burritos or tacos or sprinkle on salads for a sweet, nutritious crunch.

Baked sweet potatoes can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner, skin and all, plain or with a small pat of butter.

“Microwaving is a great way to save energy if you are just baking 1 or 2 potatoes,” the newsletter says. “Wash your potatoes and pat dry. Prick skin with a knife in 2 to 3 places. Cook on high for 5 minutes. Turn over. Then cook for another 5 minutes, more or less.”