No longer just a mere player in the classic 'meat and three veg' line-up, the humble kūmara has gone through a serious glow-up in recent years to become the star of dishes like gnocchi, sourdough and even desserts.
You only have to have been watching the latest season of MasterChef NZ to track its fame, framing roast lamb in a swirl of puree and elevating luscious eye fillet. Off screen, Master Chef-inspired recipes like the kūmara gnocchi below, created by show sponsor New World, are also helping home cooks explore new ways of showcasing the usually side-dished veg.
Behind the scenes, it gets even more interesting, and if you want to learn more about kūmara there is no one better to speak to than growing expert Locky Wilson and New World produce manager Chris Hunt.
Locky is the general manager of Delta Produce, a cooperative of more than 20 kūmara growers across Northland who are the main suppliers to Foodstuffs supermarkets, including more than 140 New World stores nationwide. It's a team he's worked with for over 25 years, and one he describes as "being like family".
Meanwhile, far from the wide open fields of the Kaipara District, Chris Hunt is the produce manager at Christchurch's New World Durham Street, a store well-known by locals for its superb selection of fresh fruits and vegetables.
He's been involved in the grocery sector for over two decades, and in his role managing the purchasing, quality and presentation of the always colourful produce department for the past seven years.
Alongside a network of growers, packers, transport operators, and more – people like Locky, Chris and their teammates work hard to ensure a constant supply of kūmara to customers year round.
Getting straight to the root of the matter, Locky starts by pointing out that the growing process for kūmara is "very different" than that of its potato cousin.
"Kūmara crops come from a much more delicate, hands-on planting method than most people realise," he says. Rather than dropping a seed potato in the ground, kūmara seedlings are planted and tended in nursery beds before the delicate new shoots are transferred into the kūmara gardens by hand, into soil that's been carefully weeded, aerated and prepared for the crop.
"Once in the ground they're watered and tended closely, and come harvesting time, it's all hands on deck again as the crop is cleaned and sorted."
In another twist he says: "What many people don't know is that kūmara is actually a tropical plant. We often think of it as winter produce, but it only has one crop a year, which is harvested in the late summer months."
And while summer salads are a wonderful way to enjoy kūmara, Locky says they can be at their best in the cooler months, when more of the root's starches have had time to turn into delicious natural sugars.
"Winter is one of the best times to eat kūmara — when you roast them or make them into chips you get the best caramelisation."
During their more than 50 years combined in produce, Locky and Chris have seen the varieties of kūmara that Kiwis know and love go through plenty of change too.
"Red kūmara has always been a traditional favourite in New Zealand, while the orange kūmara — the American sweet potato — is what the rest of the world eat and are more used to," says Locky.
It's something Chris has witnessed personally and professionally too. "Growing up in the late 70s and 80s, we always had red kūmara as part of our weekly Sunday Roast; it was a staple.
"Now the orange kūmara is by far the most popular," he says, noting that amongst the hundreds of kilos of kūmara sold each week by his store alone, sales of the orange variety outpace the red and golden options by several to one.
"Peelability" can be a big factor, and the orange kumara is known for its thinner skin, says Locky, as well as a slightly sweeter taste and smoother texture.
And both agree, there is nothing better than backing a product that is as nutritious, filling, affordable, versatile and delicious as the kūmara.
"I feel so privileged and passionate about it, it's so good for you and has so many uses. You can make soups and stew, beautiful salads and even use it in baking," says Locky.
He's a big fan of making home cooked kūmara chips, while Chris' go-to dishes are salads.
"For light summer eating, I like roasted kūmara and red onion in a couscous salad, and in winter, it's great in a richer potato salad with bacon."
Kūmara has indeed been a hot commodity in the MasterChef NZ pantry this year and now you can debut new dishes in your own kitchen — the New World team has supplied Newshub with a recipe for kūmara gnocchi with garlic cream, so you can impress the judges (friends, family and flatmates) in your own home! Find more Master Chef-inspired recipes with New World here.
Recipe: New World’s kūmara gnocchi with garlic cream
Prep time: 20 mins
Cooking time: 50 mins
500g orange kūmara, cleaned
1 cup plain flour
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ cup finely grated parmesan, plus more to garnish
1 bag (120g) baby spinach
2 cups fresh rocket
¼ cup almonds
¼ cup parmesan, grated
¼ cup olive oil
Place the kūmara in a large pot of salted water and bring to the boil. Cook for 30 minutes or until cooked through and tender when tested. Drain, then leave to cool. Once cool, peel the skins off the kumara and put through a ricer or mash in a large bowl.
Sprinkle the flour and a pinch of salt into the kūmara, then mix gently until a soft dough forms. If the dough is too sticky, add a little more flour. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured benchtop and briefly knead the dough into a smooth ball, adding more flour if necessary. Cut the ball into 8 even-sized pieces and roll each piece into a long rope, around 2cm thick. Cut each rope into even-sized pieces, then lightly dust with flour; placing them onto a floured tray or benchtop.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the gnocchi in two batches and cook until they float to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon and toss in a light drizzle of olive oil in a bowl to prevent the gnocchi from sticking.
Place a large non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat with a drizzle of olive oil. Pan fry the gnocchi in two batches until golden brown, remove from the pan and set aside.
Add the garlic to the same pan and sauté for 2 minutes until fragrant. Add the cream, parmesan and baby spinach and cook while stirring until the sauce has thickened. Return the gnocchi to the pan, then season to taste and serve.
Master Chef-inspired tip from New World
Add a chef's spin to this dish with a delightfully peppery homemade rocket pesto! Blend two packed cups of fresh rocket, ¼ cup almonds and ¼ cup grated parmesan in a food processor, then season with salt and pepper. Slowly stream in ¼ cup of olive oil while the food processor is running, then drizzle over the gnocchi to serve.
This article was created for New World.