When I was in my mid-twenties and living in South Caicos, I grew to love the simple life. Most of the houses, including ours, collected rainwater to use for drinking, cooking, and washing. We had a gravity-feed water system that used a pump powered by elbow grease to get the water up to roof-level. The only stores on the island were small, family-run shops that supplied the basic staples of life. Most of our foodstuffs were either flown or shipped in from off island, or hunted from the sea. We prepared almost all our meals from scratch.
On Christmas and special holidays we got creative. Missing the Christmas cookies my family baked when I was a kid—butter cookies shaped like Christmas trees iced with colorful glazes—I determined to make my own cookie cutters and continue the tradition. Using tin snips, I cut empty cans into circular strips and used pliers to bend the strips into shapes of fish, snails, sea stars, and turtles. For a number of years thereafter, I made Christmas cookies this way. I mixed the standard dough of butter, vanilla, eggs, white flour and sugar, then I chilled it and rolled it flat. I stamped out the various shapes, baked them, allowed them to cool, and finally painted them with colorful icings made from powdered sugar, milk, and bottled food dyes. I mixed a wide range of colors and used art brushes to apply the icings, like thick paints, to the cookies. It was quite a production, but fun. For a time I gave the cookies away as holiday gifts. Then I moved on.
At this stage of my life, knowing what I now know about nutrition, health, addictions and habits, I wouldn’t dream of making such unhealthy treats for myself or my loved ones. After all, why nurture and perpetuate culinary creativity in unhealthy directions when whole plant foods offer such colorful, tasty, and comparatively more healthful fields to play in! Even so, I sometimes wish I could encounter an easy, healthy, whole-food substitute for those powdered sugar icings richly tinted with dyes.
These days, yellow, orange and purple sweet potatoes are among my favorite foods. I boil them in a pot, skin on, and keep them in the fridge to grab for quick snacks. Their combination of bright colors, sweet flavors, “comfort food” value, and superior nutrition — not to mention their relatively low price— rank sweet potatoes high on my list of super foods. Evidently the World Health Organization agrees; sweet potatoes sit at the top of their list of foods that carry the most nutritional bang for the buck. Sweet potatoes are packed with antioxidants (such as orange carotenoids and purple anthocyanins), fiber, and eighty percent of the protein in sweet potatoes is a type of protease inhibitor that’s been shown to have cancer-fighting properties.
To play up the natural colors of the three most common varieties we find in our markets— yellow, orange, and purple — I sometimes peel sweet potatoes after boiling, then mash them by hand and roll them into bite-size balls for a colorful snack platter. This afternoon I had colors on my mind, so I decided to kick it up a notch. I rummaged in the fridge and came up with several additional items to play with: fresh parsley, raw lemon, steamed beets, frozen blueberries, and turmeric.
This platter of colors was the result:
From top to bottom, each row of SP (sweet potato) balls contains the following:
- green: yellow SP with fresh parsley
- yellow: yellow SP, plain
- orange: orange SP, plain
- pink: purple SP with fresh lemon juice (chemical reaction changes purple to magenta)
- red: orange SP with cooked beet juice
- purple: purple SP with a touch of mashed blueberries
- gold: yellow SP with turmeric
Of course I tasted as I went along. The flavor combinations all tasted great, at least to my habituated, vegucated palate. The balls weren’t dessert-sweet, as their brilliant colors might suggest. Nevertheless, the cheery platter jogged my memories of Christmas cookies, so next I decided to make some simple shapes. I chose hearts and stars:
At this point it was time for me to clean up my experiment and save my creations for future snacks. My next ‘sweet potato playtime’ will pick up were this one left off. Meanwhile, I hope I’ve inspired you food artists out there to give it a go for yourselves. Enlist the younger members of your family to explore the colors and flavors with you. What might happen if you mixed orange SP with grated orange zest? Purple SP with a touch of mashed raspberry? Yellow SP with crushed fresh mint leaves, or maybe a combo of crushed garlic and green onion? I don’t know the answers to these questions either—and I can’t wait to find out! I feel I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of sensational sweet potato possibilities!
I doubt I will ever come across a perfect whole-food substitute for those gloriously dyed sugar icings of my long-ago Christmas cookies. But today I feel I’ve opened the door to a simple food medium that’s altogether different… and yet somehow pretty close.