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A new hue

November/December 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Purple sweet potatoes deliver vivid pop of color




Alex Berkley says she enjoys experimenting with Stokes Purple sweet potatoes at home and in the test kitchen of Frieda's Specialty Produce, where she works. Photo: © 2018 Lori Fusaro

You can get sweet potatoes in many colors now: orange, white, purple … Wait, purple?

Yes, that's no mistake. Though they're not as famous as their orange cousins, purple sweet potatoes are making a name and a niche for themselves in the marketplace.

Alex Berkley, assistant sales manager at Frieda's Specialty Produce in Los Alamitos, said the Stokes Purple sweet potato was slow to take off, but has found a following.

"Consumers love it because it's a more savory sweet potato," she said. "It's not cloyingly sweet, so it's easier to use in savory preparations."


Farmer Nathan Mininger displays the just-harvested potatoes. Photo: © 2018 Tomas Ovalle

How we got here

The Stokes Purple sweet potato hails from Stokes County, North Carolina, where it once was sold by Stokes Foods. A.V. Thomas Produce of Merced County—the center of California sweet potato production—is the only farm licensed to grow the Stokes in the western U.S.

Jeremy Fookes, a retail sales specialist at A.V. Thomas, said the Livingston-based company was initially drawn to the Stokes variety because it sports a bright purple color without tasting too bitter. The purple pigment naturally has a bitter flavor, and too much makes foods unpalatable, he explained. The Stokes turned out to have the right balance.

"The pigment color was strong enough that it had the 'wow' factor on the plate, but it wasn't so strong that it was overly bitter," Fookes said. "You can eat it, and it looks good, and it's good for you."

The potato's purple color represents a natural concentration of anthocyanins, plant pigments that are powerful antioxidants with disease-preventing capabilities. In addition, all sweet potatoes are rich in potassium, fiber and vitamins A, B-6 and C.

A.V. Thomas approached Frieda's about selling the Stokes, and Frieda's is now the sole U.S. distributor. The potatoes are available nearly year-round through Frieda's website and at a number of grocery stores across the nation.

About three years ago, Fookes said, A.V. Thomas bought the Stokes patent and mother plant, now maintained at the University of California, Davis. In that time, business has only grown—A.V. Thomas planted about 500 acres of purple sweet potatoes this year, up from fewer than 10 at the outset.

"That short span of growth is fun, to see it through from start to finish on my side," Fookes said.


Purple sweet potatoes lend their distinctive color and flavor to a variety of sweet and savory dishes. The natural pigment that gives them their color also contains disease-fighting antioxidants. Photos: © 2018 Lori Fusaro

Creativity in the kitchen

Since Frieda's took on the Stokes sweet potato in 2011, employees working in the company test kitchen, as well as bloggers and chefs, have cooked up a multitude of ways to use it—including mashed and in bisque, muffins, pancakes, smoothies, oven fries and gnocchi.

"There's definitely been an evolution of the way it's prepared and how people have discovered how to use it," Berkley said.

With Thanksgiving and Christmas fast approaching, Frieda's focus has shifted from savory to sweet.

"The holiday table is a great opportunity to incorporate something familiar in a different way, so we've really been exploring the sweet applications and the holiday-themed applications," Berkley said.

One new recipe is a purple sweet potato pie with maple syrup cream.

"You may be used to cooking your grandmother's recipe that has a lot of sugar. This one doesn't need it," Berkley said. "The purple sweet potato has the right amount of sweetness, so it'll be the perfect amount for nice desserts for the holidays."

Frieda's has also developed a crostini recipe using thin slices of the sweet potato in place of bread, and is experimenting with using purple sweet potatoes in salads.

"Everyone's trying to spice up their salad and make it more exciting," Berkley said.

Berkley, an enthusiastic home cook, recommends batch-cooking Stokes Purple sweet potatoes at the beginning of the week or during the weekend to use throughout the week. Her favorite method is to simply brush them with olive oil, wrap in foil and bake.

"If you do want to mash it, or put it in a soup, or have it be a smoother consistency, it's super easy to use," she said. "What makes it so versatile is you can use it in so many ways with different textures."


A mechanical harvester, left, pulls potatoes from the ground, while a crew aboard the harvester, including Laura Lopez, right, sorts them according to size. Photos: © 2018 Tomas Ovalle

More purples in the works?

While the Stokes is king of the purple-potato hill right now, work is underway to find another kind that can grow in California.

C. Scott Stoddard, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Merced County, is running trials with different purple varieties, working in concert with a sweet potato breeder at Louisiana State University.

One recent test variety, he noted, started off well from a color and yield standpoint a couple of years ago, but the interior color wasn't quite purple enough—he was getting more of a lavender potato.

"We are still very experimental," Stoddard said. "There's nothing that looks like it's going to have something there any time soon."

A new variety takes from three to seven years to introduce, he said, and any failure of a test variety resets the clock to Year 0. So why go to all this trouble?

"It has a certain eye appeal," Stoddard said. "You want something that has a nice pop on the plate."

Kevin Hecteman

Recipes

Stokes Purple sweet potato crostini with goat cheese

Stokes Purple sweet potato pie with maple whipped cream


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