Despite the fact that their labels are loosely swapped, yams and sweet potatoes are technically not the same. It is typically the sweet potato that is incorrectly labeled as a “yam” and not the other way around.
Yams possess a rough dark brown skin that looks like tree bark. Once sliced, their flesh is notably dry and very starchy. Yams grow on a vigorous herbaceous vine that produces the edible tubers. Native to Africa, Asia and parts of South America, they are not commonly encountered at the grocery store and farmers’ markets.
What is readily available throughout the fall at our local farmers’ markets, however, is a nice selection of sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes have a much smoother skin than that of a yam and are produced under the earth’s soil, similar to that of regular potatoes. While the orange fleshed varieties are the most common, our local farmers have a diversity of options that include those that are cream-colored, pink, yellow and deep purple specimens.
This week I honed in on the stunning purple Japanese sweet potatoes from Her Family Farm at our Saturday Santa Barbara farmers’ markets. Possessing a dark purple skin and purple flesh, these sweet potatoes tend to be texturally more dense than most of its counterparts.
Purple sweet potatoes can indeed be prepared as you would all other sweet potato varieties, but one of my favorite techniques is to simmer them in a coconut milk base, which enables the flesh to become quite moist and smooth as it absorbs the coconut flavor.
This week I prepared a tasty purple sweet potato coconut curry side or main dish, which I infused with some curry paste, seasonal vegetables and Thai basil. If you like, you can add some chicken or tofu for a boost of protein.
Purple Sweet Potato Coconut Curry
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 medium purple sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
1 yellow onion, quartered and sliced
1 bell pepper, seeds and membrane discarded, sliced (I like to use 1/2 red and 1/2 green)
1/2 cup sugar snap peas, stems pulled off, whole or sliced
2 tablespoons curry paste (can add more later to taste if desired)
14 ounce can coconut milk
2 cups chicken broth (or vegetable)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup Thai basil leaves
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
Salt to taste
In a deep sauté pan, add sesame oil and turn to medium-high heat. Add sweet potato, carrot, onions and peppers. Sauté for just a few minutes. Then add peas, curry paste, coconut milk, broth and brown sugar. Mix well until all ingredients are incorporated.
Simmer for about 15-20 minutes, or until sweet potatoes are fork tender. Season with salt to taste, then add basil. Stir and turn off heat. Serve over steamed rice or in a bowl as it comes, garnished with fresh cilantro leaves.
Yield: Serves 4.