No doubt you will have meatier topics to contend with over holiday dinners this year, but a perennial favourite of mine tends to be the ongoing yam-vs-sweet-potato debate. Culinary histories (and their provenance) being what they are, it’s no surprise we often end up with names and stories that can be a bit confusing.

sweet potatoesFor a bit of clarity, we don’t eat yams as a rule, although they can be found in some specialty grocers. Yams are tropical and can be very large (there are more than 600 varieties varying widely in size). They are not very sweet, are drier in texture and have a much thicker skin. Originating in Africa and Asia, their size, hardiness, long shelf life and abundance of starch and other necessary nutrients made them indispensable in many local diets. When Africans were brought to the Americas as enslaved people, it is likely they used the Fulani word nyami, meaning “to eat” to describe the sweet potatoes they found here.

Originating in Central or South America, the sweet potato, all on its own, is an odd duck. It’s a tuber, true, and grows underground like a potato, but it hails from an entirely different family. Convolvulaceae includes both the gardeners’ nemesis, bindweed, and the more welcoming morning glory. Further, it’s the only member of that family that has any real culinary interest. The flesh can vary wildly in colour, but the dark rich orange varieties are the stars.

An exception is the ube or Okinawan sweet potato. They seem to be another creature entirely: small and slender with purplish skins, they’re really, really purple! The variety we see here is likely called Stokes and was developed in the US. The flavour is not as sweet and a little drier, but it can be used in place of sweet potatoes in any recipe. Fun with food.

Sweet potatoes are a super food; they are high in antioxidants, boost brain function, enhance immunity, contain no saturated fats or cholesterol and are extremely high in beta-carotene and vitamin A.

In markets, buy fresh tubers that are heavy in the hand, with intact smooth skin and firm consistency. Avoid soft, flabby or wilted roots. Eschew roots that are sprouting. Sweet potatoes keep well enough in a cool, dark and well-ventilated place, but the skins are quite thin and should be refrigerated if kept for any length of time.

They can be used in making soups, curries, stews and chilis; turned into snacks like chips and fries; baked whole or broken open served with butter like a classic baked potato. And that’s just the savoury applications.Sweet potato pie, in my opinion, is superior to pumpkin in every way. In my ramblings, I discovered Patti LaBelle’s recipe and couldn’t resist, with a tweak or two. Give it a try this season. Maybe with purple sweet potatoes for a bit of fun.purple sweet potatoes

Start with your favourite short-crust recipe. Form it into a ball, wrap in cling film and put it in the fridge for 10-15 minutes. Roll out the pastry to overhang your 23-centimeter (9-inch) pie plate. Tuck the excess under and flute the edges. Cover and put back in the fridge.

Onward… Preheat your oven to 200 C (400 F). Scrub 3 large, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and place in lightly salted boiling water until tender (about 30-45 minutes). Drain and set in ice water to cool enough to handle. Peel and mash with an electric mixer until smooth. You’ll need 750 ml (3 cups) for the recipe – keep any excess mash for future use. It freezes well.

Remove the pie shell from the fridge, brush the bottom with a little melted butter and sprinkle about 75 ml (¼ cup) brown sugar over the bottom. Bake for about 15 minutes, just as the pastry is beginning to turn colour. Set aside to cool. This helps avoid the dreaded soggy bottom.

Add 100 ml (3 oz) melted butter, 125 ml (½ cup) packed light brown sugar, 125 ml (½ cup) white sugar, 2 large beaten eggs, 60 ml (¼ cup) heavy cream, 5 ml (1 tsp) ground cinnamon, 2.5 ml (½ tsp) ground ginger, 5 ml (1 tsp) freshly ground nutmeg and 5 ml (1 tsp) orange zest. Pour the mixture into the cooled shell. Reduce the oven to 175 C (350 F). Bake on the middle rack for up to 90 minutes or until a paring knife comes out clean, but the mixture still has a bit of a jiggle. It’s a custard, after all. Let it cool completely and then cover and put into the fridge. Let pie sit at room temperature for 15 minutes or so, pile on whipped cream spiked with a little dark rum and serve.