About 7,000 years ago, purple potatoes were reserved for the Inca kings of Peru. No wonder. Those ancient Andeans might have only suspected the superiority of that violet flesh then, but these richly colored potatoes have more than four times the antioxidant potential of white potatoes, according to researchers at the US Department of Agriculture.
Why? The pigment compound that creates the red, blue, and purple colors found in produce and grains is an anthocyanin, a particularly powerful type of antioxidant.
In addition to the simply stunning amethyst sheen, those disease-fighting antioxidants, plus the nutrient density, may be the reasons purple food will revel in the royal treatment this year, according to a 2017 trendwatch report by Whole Foods Market’s global buyers and experts. The popularity of Peruvian cuisine’s purple potatoes, corn, and quinoa, as well as the focus on health, with smoothie bowls and that Brazilian superfood darling, açaí, point toward more purple in the days to come. It’s all part of the #eattherainbow movement, which celebrates the inherent health of a vibrant plate.
The higher the pH level of the anthocyanin, the more purple the food is, says Chef Beau C. Widener, director of culinary operations for ERL Hospitality, which includes Sweet Grass Grill in Tarrytown, Red Zebra in Sleepy Hollow, and Tomatillo in Dobbs Ferry. (The group also plans to open Grass Roots Kitchen in Tarrytown this spring.)
The research is still young, but Widener says scientists have targeted the pigment in particular as responsible for the powerful kind of anthocyanin that has the potential to prevent cancer, heart disease, obesity, and aging issues such as cognitive deterioration.
“It’s kinda cool to know this one little compound has so much power,” says Widener, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. “Certainly, purple foods are going to be on the up-and-up as people realize what science can do.”
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Sometimes, purple pops up in a piece of produce you’re used to seeing in another color, including carrots, asparagus, bell peppers, potatoes, pole beans, and cauliflower (which, when purple, is actually broccoli). Spoiler alert about the purple pole beans and asparagus, though: They turn green when you cook them. Such a disappointment. And some foods have always been purple, like eggplant, which has less anthocyanin because only the skin is purple. Other foods are called “red” but look purple, such as grapes and cabbage.
Widener has been tooling around with a brunch muffin made with purple corn meal, called masa. “It’ll be really pretty, too, vibrant and dark blue,” Widener says. His Tomatillo restaurant offers purple tortillas whenever that masa is available from his source in Brooklyn. When his spring menus emerge, around the end of March, the chef will grab purple kale if it’s available, and he likes to do a stunning purple-and-white raw, shaved-asparagus salad with olive oil, fennel, and lemon juice. In early summer, Widener pounces on summer plums. Red Zebra gets a shot of purple cabbage in the summer, too. Back in January, Sweet Grass Grill had a beet-chocolate-cake special, and Widener uses purple carrots whenever he can find them at local farms.
In similar fashion, Executive Chef Krista Espinal at Birdsall House in Peekskill creates dishes from whatever is in season. In January, she got ahold of purple, yellow, and orange carrots, which she wove into her Rabbit 2 Ways dish with duck-fat-confit leg and bacon-wrapped loin with roasted rainbow carrots, kale, and grape Dijon purée.
At Exit 4 Food Hall in Mount Kisco, co-owner and chef Isi Albanese placed a color-coded chart at his Dirty Roots salad station, detailing the health benefits of white, yellow, red, purple, and green foods. “One of our goals this year is to make people more aware of what they’re eating, especially since we source from our local farms as much as possible,” Albanese says. “People eat with their eyes, right?”
He uses eggplant, red cabbage, plum-colored fruit, and purple-root vegetables — including an Italian wood-oven-fired smashed-potato delicacy at his small-plates tasting station — whenever local farms have them.
Dried purple corn has to be imported from Peru to make Chef Fabian A. Marquez’s popular chicha morada drink, which customers love to order by the glass or pitcher at Panka Peruvian Bistro in Port Chester. They even get it by the quart, to-go.
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South America’s purple corn is right up there with its purple potatoes as a nutritional powerhouse. To make the traditional drink, Marquez boils the dried corn with pineapple, cinnamon sticks, and cloves before letting it cool, straining it and adding sugar and lemon juice to taste. “It’s like a refreshing juice that’s a rich purple, like a very dark red wine. It’s so good,” says Marquez, who worked for Mario Batali restaurants but learned to cook Peruvian cuisine from his Peruvian grandmother.
Let’s not forget the sweeter side of purple.
Durian, a Thai restaurant in Larchmont, scoops out kao neow dom, a purple rice pudding with naturally purple glutinous rice and coconut cream. It’s a favorite offering at Thai temples.
Açaí adds purple color to the bowls and cups at health-conscious food shops such as Organic Pharmer in Rye Brook and Scarsdale; Brazilian eateries, such as Padaminas Brazilian Bakery in Mount Vernon; and frozen-yogurt spots, such as Frannie’s Goodie Shop in Mount Kisco.
Frannie Albanese, wife of Isi Albanese, offers two recipes with organic, unsweetened açaí purée. Her açaí bowl blends in blueberries, banana, coconut milk, and honey along with açaí. The mouthfeel is smooth, cool, and creamy, like sorbet. Customers add the toppings and eat it with a spoon. Her açaí smoothie packs bananas, blueberries, cacao powder, almond milk, and honey into the drinking glass.
“The açaí purée has berry and chocolate notes [and] is packed with antioxidants and fiber,” she says. “It’s extremely satiating.”