Tuesday, September 15, 2009


They are back, this year wriggling up from beneath the fragrant thyme bushes like a purple and green hydra. I can never predict where they’re going to surface. Last year they emerged from behind the birdbath, the year before that it was smack dab in the center of the bean patch. They are sneaky, perhaps suspecting that if I knew where they had wintered I’d ruthlessly dig up every last scrap before they could weasel up from the soil in the spring.

Years ago a well-meaning friend presented me with a trio of grape-sized, grape-colored potatoes. Purple. What does one do with a purple potato, I wondered. Who had ever even heard of purple potatoes? My Irish ancestors cringed in their crypts. Potatoes were meant to be fat brown lovelies that turned into fluffy white mountains flowing with fresh creamery butter. But purple??!! Purple was for egg plant and the shoulders of turnips, for grapes and red cabbages, lilac flowers and summer shadows.

Unsure I wanted such a monstrosity in my vegetable garden, I buried the tiny nubbins in my compost heap. That was the beginning. Before I knew it they had sprouted out the top of the pile. I should have gone after them right then but I have to admit I was curious. What would they become? What would I do if they produced actual potatoes? So I let them sprawl all over the compost pile. By the end of summer they were covered with rather pretty mauve flowers. As winter neared I lifted the tired vines out of the heap. Hanging from the roots were dozens of gorgeous amethyst globes! Digging around in the compost, I unearthed a treasure trove - a bushel basket full. What had I gotten myself into?

I started experimenting. First disaster was when I boiled them too long and they totally disintegrated into an ugly grey soup. From that I learned that purples are more delicate and cook faster than white, yellow, or red potatoes - they don’t play well with others, needing to be boiled or sautéed separately. Gentry treated they turn an attractive blue - over do it and they lose all color and texture. Another thing, they don’t bake worth a darn so forget it. They also don’t have much in the way of flavor by themselves.

So are they worth it? You bet! I have since learned that these little sweeties pack quite a nutritional wallop - more so than their pallid cousins. They are chock full of super antioxidants, nummy vitamins and minerals. Plus they have the advantage of freaking out your guests - the “blue plate special” for sure! (I make a red, white, and blue potato salad for 4th of July.) My favorite recipe though is to simply sauté sliced purples with onion and garlic, then add them to steamed zucchini or green beans. Gorgeous as well as delicious! (Always nice to have something to do with the boatloads of zukes coming off this time of year too.)

And I might add that it’s a darn good thing I’ve come to love my weird purple potatoes because they, like vampires, are immortal. That first season I was under the mistaken impression that it was possible to dig every last potato from the compost and thus limit the adventure to one season. Did I mention the purples are sneaky? They are nearly impossible to see against dark soil so the moment I innocently spread the compost out over my garden I created a monster. Now, every spring they return. Of course I’m delighted to see them but where oh where will they show up next year??? I’ll let you know when I know.

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