A pleasant surprise with purple potatoes

As far as flavor is concerned, the purple sweet potato is at the top of the pile.

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    Unusually good: Hawaiian purple sweet potatoes are also known as Okinawan potatoes.
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Maybe you wouldn't eat green eggs with ham, but how about a purple potato? On a recent vacation to Maui, where my cousin lives, I was invited over for dinner, "Maui style." My cousin Mark and his wife Karla live in what is called Upcountry Maui. It is where the paniolos (cowboys) live.

Getting to their house was no ordinary drive through the country. It was more like a quiet, misty ride through a safe and civilized rain forest where every living creature puts a premium on respecting others' privacy. When I got to my cousin's house, the first thing I noticed was its simplicity: It was encircled by natural landscaping in every shade of green that spilled over porches and deck railings. My cousin and his wife needed only to reach as far as the end of their backyard deck to pluck avocados, tangerines, and mangos from the trees that surround their home and which seemed to be flourishing as easily as the weeds in the backyard of my home in Atlanta.

I was told that we'd be dining on Huli Huli chicken with some "unique sides," as Mark put it. When dinner was served, my cousin and his wife explained each dish. "This is fresh Ahi tuna, and these are roasted rosemary potatoes," said Karla.

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She pointed to each of the sides, all of which I was familiar with until she said, "These are purple sweet potatoes; have you ever tried them?" On my plate was a pile of what looked like purple Play-Doh. That certainly won't be tasty, I thought. I figured it would probably be all about their color, and the flavor would be nonexistent. I looked at the potatoes that were as purple as an iris. I could hardly imagine they should be eaten by anyone, except me, the dinner guest.

I spooned a bit into my mouth. Boy, was I surprised. Though the potatoes had the texture of basic sweet potatoes, there was richness in the flavor that went beyond the expected essence delivered by the common yam.

The potatoes were served mashed with the smallest pat of butter. These were not the kind of potatoes, I learned, that you would want to detract from by piling on too many toppings. As far as flavor is concerned, the purple sweet potato is at the top of the pile.

My hosts explained that purple sweet potatoes are a regular staple on the Hawaiian Islands.

After dinner, we sat and talked about everything from organic foods to holistic healing, and I began to realize that part of living in Upcountry Maui requires a mind-set of the pure and simple. My cousin and his wife have a peace about them that's hard to find in city people. Organic foods are readily available in Maui, and the concept of organics is pervasive, not just trendy or "latest and greatest." I learned that consumption, in all of its forms, takes on a simpler meaning in Upcountry Maui. It certainly does offer a "unique side" to a laid-back lifestyle.

I may not have access to rich volcanic soil to start my own purple-sweet-potato garden, but in my effort to bring some of the peace I found in Upcountry Maui to my own home, I found a distributor from Hawaii that delivers the potatoes to your door after they are certified to leave the Hawaiian Islands (go to: www.alembicinternational.org). I got a 30-pound box for less than $100.00. The potatoes are great baked, but one of my favorite concoctions has been a barbecued version topped with grated cheddar cheese. Sometimes I add a splash of A.1. Steak Sauce for some extra zing.

Preparation is basic, in keeping with my newfound ease of living. Poke holes in the potato and wrap it in tin foil. Let it cook on the grill avoiding direct flames for about 40 minutes. When done, split the potato, top with A.1. Steak Sauce first, then add grated cheddar cheese. The combination of sweet, tangy, and salty is the best.

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