Some people are divided into two factions during the holidays: the sweet potato pie camp and the pumpkin pie camp.

"I like sweet potatoes better than pumpkins any day," said Norma Jean Darden, an owner of Spoonbread Catering in Manhattan."Nobody likes pumpkin pie in my family," said Sadie Bell Herbin of Reidsville, N.C. But then again, pumpkin pies don't stand much of a chance in her state, which is the leading producer of sweet potatoes in this country.

While purists bake a basic but tasty sweet potato pie, others get a little more adventurous. Some throw in a little coconut; some add crushed pineapple. Darden whips up lemon sweet potato tartlets, a favorite of Bill Cosby's, one of her first catering clients, and Herbin sometimes makes a sweet potato cobbler.

"You haven't lived until you've tasted sweet potato cobbler," said her niece, Olivia Penn of Brooklyn. "Talk about slap-your-face good!"

Mike Cannon, a horticultural specialist at the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center in Baton Rouge and a member of the Sweet Potato Council of the United States, says that in the last five years, restaurants have increased their use of sweet potatoes.

Restaurants have served pies and candied yams for years. But as soon as the temperature begins to dip, many add comfort foods, and often sweet potatoes are the base. Michael Romano, the chef at the Union Square Cafe in Manhattan, created a sweet potato-brussels sprouts hash to accompany a spicy, seared salmon dish.

At nearby Chat 'n' Chew, Kris Yettra-Latham, the general manager and chef, offers a hearty sweet potato soup. There is sweet potato cheesecake at Kwanzaa in SoHo and sweet potato muffins at the Shark Bar on the Upper West Side.

Darden comes from a long line of sweet potato lovers. Many of her family's recipes are included in "Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine" (Doubleday), a cookbook that she wrote with her sister, Carole Darden Lloyd, who is also her partner in Spoonbread. It was published in 1978 and reissued this year.

But the record for sweet potato recipes probably belongs to Hollie West of Beaumont, Texas. The 94-year-old retired home economist included 700 recipes in "The Exotic Yam," a cookbook that she published with her nephew in 1983.

Although the terms "yam" and "sweet potato" are used interchangeably, they refer to two different foods. Sweet potatoes, which have yellow or orange-colored flesh, are members of the Ipomoea family, while yams are white-fleshed, hairy members of the Dioscorea family, explained Jessica B. Harris, a food historian and author of "The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking," to be published by Simon & Schuster in February. Yams are not grown in this country but in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America.

What people here eat and often call yams are sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are about 2,000 years old, West says, and were discovered during gold expeditions in Central America. She notes that there are 200 varieties.

Besides being versatile, she says, they are also nutritious. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, ranks them first among vegetables on its nutrition scoreboard, said the center's executive director, Michael F. Jacobson, who often eats baked sweet potatoes for lunch.


5 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered

1 quart orange juice

1 1/2 quarts water

1/4 cup maple syrup

1 stick cinnamon

Pinch of nutmeg

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 pound brussels sprouts, washed, outer leaves removed and thinly sliced

2 ounces butter

2 medium thin-sliced red onions

Place sweet potatoes in large pot; cover with orange juice, water, maple syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer gently until sweet potatoes are easily pierced by a fork. Drain potatoes, reserving liquid.

In 1 quart of boiling water, blanch the sliced brussels sprouts for 1 minute. Drain.

Heat butter in a 10- to 12-inch nonstick skillet; add sliced onions. Cook over medium heat until wilted, about 10 minutes. Add brussels sprouts and cook 5 more minutes.

Add drained sweet potatoes to pan. Use a spatula to break up larger pieces and incorporate them into sprouts and onions. Allow hash to gently brown, turning over pieces with a spatula occasionally. Add a little of the reserved sweet potato cooking liquid if hash becomes too dry. Season with salt and pepper. When hash is thoroughly heated through and evenly browned, serve on a platter or on individual plates.

Yield: 6 servings.

- Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 250 calories, 5 grams fat, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 100 milligrams sodium, 4 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrate.

- Adapted from Union Square Cafe


5 medium sweet potatoes (about 3 pounds)

1 cup white sugar

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

1/2 stick butter (optional)

2 cups water

Boil sweet potatoes until soft when pierced with a fork. Peel and slice into 1/2-inch slices along the length or width.

Mix together sugars and spices.

Line a quart-size casserole dish with a layer of potatoes. Evenly sprinkle some of the sugar mixture and, if desired, dot with butter, and continue to alternate layers.

Pour water over potatoes. Bake for 45 minutes at 300 degrees or until a syrup forms. Yield: 6 servings.

- Approximate nutritional analysis per serving (without optional butter): 365 calories, 0 grams fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 25 milligrams sodium, 2 grams protein, 90 grams carbohydrate.


3 large eggs

1 1/4 cups sugar

Dash of salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Juice of 1 lemon (optional)

1 teaspoon vanilla (optional)

1 cup heavy cream

3 cups cooked, mashed sweet potatoes

2 unbaked 8-or 9-inch pie shells

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat eggs well.

Add sugar, salt, spices and, if desired, lemon juice and vanilla. Mix thoroughly.

Add cream, and stir.

Add mashed sweet potatoes, and mix thoroughly.

Turn into pie shells, and bake for 1 hour or until firm.

Yield: 16 to 18 servings (2 pies).

- Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 285 calories, 15 grams fat, 55 milligrams cholesterol, 160 milligrams sodium, 4 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrate.

- Adapted from "Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine"


4 large sweet potatoes

8 carrots

1 large onion, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons fresh ground pepper

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup milk

1/2 red bell pepper, minced

3 sprigs parsley, chopped

In a large pot, boil sweet potatoes and carrots until very soft. Drain, peel and cube.

Saute onions in oil until soft.

Put sweet potatoes, onion, carrots and spices in food processor, and puree until slightly chunky.

Add cream and milk until desired consistency is reached.

If desired, simmer over low heat for 5 minutes.

Garnish with bell pepper and parsley.

Yield: 6 servings.

- Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 370 calories, 20 grams fat, 60 milligrams cholesterol, 1,150 milligrams sodium, 6 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrate.

- Adapted from Chat 'n' Chew