Climb any of Auckland's volcanic cones and you notice lots of large grassy indents in the earth, the remnants of the food storage pits of the early Maori. Known as rua kumara, they were used to store kumara after harvests.

A huge variety of kumara were cultivated throughout the Pacific long before the first Europeans arrived. Known under many names, including kuara, kuawara, uala, umara and kumara, these sweet, starchy tubers were an important food source.

In Maori mythology, Rongo was the deity appointed to cultivated foods generally, but more particularly the kumara. Rongo represents the moon, and the 28th night of the moon, when the sweet potato was planted, was called orongonui. Planting was done under rigid laws of ceremonial tapu. Kumara plants, set with their sprouting ends to the north, were planted separately on little hemispherical hillocks. Great care was taken in their cultivation, and often skulls or bones of the dead were brought to the field and elevated on stakes at the head of the cultivation, to ensure vigorous growth and a good crop.

The kumara or sweet potato (ipomoea batatas) is the tuberous root of the morning glory family - and its leaf (which is edible) is similar to that of the invasive weed convolvulus (which is poisonous). The kumara grown here more than 1000 years ago were tiny - no bigger than a finger - until a larger South American variety brought over by the whalers in the 1850s quickly superceded them. The red kumara we enjoy today, Owairaka, has evolved from this South American variety.

Advertisement

Of the two Japanese ones coming on-stream here, Kokei is red-skinned with a creamy white flesh and Kogenesengan has a creamy white skin and flesh.

Plant and Food Research has bred two new varieties - Purple Dawn, which has purple skin and flesh and is not as sweet as other varieties, and Orange Sunset, which has bronze skin and orange flesh with a purple fleck. The Orange Sunset flesh is soft and when you cut it a white, sugary, sap appears.

Due their high natural sugar content, kumara are prone to spoilage by fungal organisms. Care must be taken before storing them to ensure there are no breaks in the skin or damage to the roots from insects or tools. This risk of fungus and mould also means that commercial kumara, unless organically grown, are treated with a fungicide, which is a good reason to buy organic whenever you can. Peel non-organic kumara or, if baking whole, don't eat the skins.

Mexican Harvest Soup

Ready in 30 mins
Serves 8

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 red peppers, cut into chunks
50g tomato paste
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1-2 fresh chillies, finely chopped
1 large kumara, peeled and cut into 2-3cm chunks
600-800g pumpkin, peeled and cut into 2-3cm chunks
3 potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-3cm chunks
4 chicken breasts or 600g boneless thighs, thinly sliced
6 cups chicken stock
3 cups water
Salt and ground black pepper
½ packed cup coriander leaves, to serve

Heat oil in a large pot and gently sizzle onion with peppers, tomato paste, cumin and chillies until softened but not browned (about 10 minutes).

Add kumara, pumpkin and potato to pot with chicken, stock and water. Bring to a boil then lower heat and simmer until vegetables are tender (about 15 minutes). Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve garnished with coriander.

Annabel says: Throughout South and Central America meal-in-one soups like this are called "puchero". They are often prepared using a piece of brisket or a whole chicken as the base, with corn, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and peppers added to the flavoursome broth. They make a great weekend lunch.

Couscous with Roasted Vegetables

Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 1 hour
Serves 6

2 red onions, peeled and cut into 2cm wedges
2 kumara, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
3 beetroots, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
200g pumpkin, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
6 small or 3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp maple syrup or honey
Salt and ground black pepper
2 cups couscous
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp salt
2 cups boiling water
½ packed cup mint leaves (about 50 leaves), chopped or torn
¼ cup lemon juice
½ cup shelled unsalted pistachio nuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 180C fanbake. Place the prepared vegetables in a very large roasting dish lined with baking paper for easy clean-up. Drizzle with oil and maple syrup or honey and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread out in a single layer and roast until the vegetables are tender and starting to caramelise (about 45 minutes). In a large bowl, mix the couscous, lemon zest, salt and boiling water. Allow to stand for about 10 minutes, then fluff up with a fork. Add the roasted vegetables, mint and lemon juice to the couscous and toss gently to combine. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with the pistachios.

Annabel says: I love the idea of bowl meals - where you roast up a big tray of vegetables and then combine them with a grain. Here I've used couscous but you could use quinoa, barley or any other grain you fancy.

Roasted Kumara Salad with Beets & Beans

Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 45 mins
Serves 4-6

2 large kumara, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
2 large beetroot, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
400g green beans, trimmed
1 spring onion, green part curled, to garnish
Orange and Ginger Dressing
¼ cup orange juice
2 Tbsp olive oil
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lime
1 tsp finely grated ginger
1 tsp honey
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 200C fanbake. Toss kumara with 2 Tbsp oil, salt and pepper on a roasting tray lined with baking paper. Spread in a single layer and roast until golden and tender (about 40 minutes). Boil beetroot in lightly salted water until tender. Drain well and mix with remaining 1 Tbsp oil. Set aside. Cook green beans in lightly salted water until just tender, cool under very cold water and drain well. To make dressing, shake ingredients together in a jar, ensuring honey is dissolved. When ready to serve, arrange vegetables on a serving platter, top with spring onion curls and drizzle with dressing.

Annabel says: This a great prep-ahead salad. To hold the green colour of the beans dress the salad just before serving - the acid in the dressing will turn them brown if they sit in it for long. To curl spring onion greens, cut into strips lengthways and place in a bowl of water with ice cubes for about 10 minutes.

Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65) is a beautiful compendium of Annabel's best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips and it's on sale now at Paper Plus, Whitcoulls, The Warehouse and all good bookstores. Find out more at annabel-langbein.com or follow Annabel on Facebook or Instagram.