The name boniato (a Cuban sweet potato) comes from the Spanish word for “good” or “harmless.” The early explorers of the Caribbean encountered a bewildering array of new plants—many of them poisonous. In a world of strange and sometimes toxic foods, the nourishing boniato must have made a welcome addition to the settlers’ diet. The coffee liqueur brings out the sweetness of the boniato.
Say the word sweet potato and most Americans think of a sweet, bright orange-fleshed root vegetable. In Hispanic and West Indian communities in Florida, not to mention throughout the Caribbean, sweet potato means a turnip-shaped tuber with patchy purplish skin and cream-colored flesh: the boniato.
A beauty it’s not, which may explain the boniato’s slow acceptance in North America. This is a shame, for the tuber has a far more interesting flavor and texture than our sweet potato. It’s less sweet than the latter, tasting like freshly roasted chestnuts. It’s also harder and drier than an American sweet potato, with a starchy consistency similar to that of a baked potato.
When buying boniatos, look for hard, firm tubers free of mold, tiny worm holes, or soft spots. It’s normal for the skin to look patchy, but it shouldn’t be shriveled or wet. Boniatos range from the size of a lemon to that of a coconut, but the size doesn’t alter the flavor. Store them in a loosely sealed paper bag at room temperature and try to use within 2 or 3 days of purchase.
Boniatos can be cooked any way you would a potato or sweet potato, including baking, boiling, steaming, frying, sautéing, or puréeing. I find that a paring knife works better than a vegetable peeler for peeling them. Keep the peeled boniato in water to cover until cooking time: the pale flesh discolors when exposed to air. Baked or boiled boniato should be served immediately, as it becomes a little starchy if it sits for too long.
Total Timeunder 1 hour
Make Ahead RecipeYes
OccasionBuffet, Family Get-together
Recipe Courseside dish
Dietary Considerationside dish
Taste and Texturebuttery, crisp, savory, spiced, sweet
Type of Dishgratin
- 2 pounds boniatos (see Notes), peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
- ½ cup heavy (or whipping) cream
- ½ cup Chicken Stock or canned broth
- 1 tablespoon coffee liqueur
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch of grated nutmeg
- ¼ cup coarse fresh bread crumbs
- 2 tablespoons butter
Boil the boniato in salted water to cover (at least 2 quarts) until very tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain the boniato and return to the pan.
Mash the boniato to a coarse purée with a potato masher or fork. Work in the cream, stock, coffee liqueur, salt pepper, and nutmeg. The mixture should be highly seasoned and moist. If necessary, add a little more stock.
Spoon the boniato mixture into a lightly buttered 8-inch gratin dish. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs and dot with the butter. (The recipe can be prepared several hours ahead to this stage.)
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Just before serving, bake the gratin until crusty and golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
1993 Steven Raichlen