Little did I know that Ottolenghi would soon become as ubiquitous in my life--and, to a degree, in the food culture of London--as sliced bread (okay fine, as unsliced, whole grain loaves that I buy from independent markets, slice at home, and keep in my freezer for a month). Yotam Ottolenghi is an Israeli chef and restauranteur whose dishes and recipes dreamily synthesize flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques from across the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Asia. His innovate combinations of ingredients and seasonings are extremely bold and always surprising. I have never come across another chef whose recipes include such copious amounts of fresh herbs. Ottolenghi employs herbs and spices as if they are a main element of the dish rather than a garnish or subtle addition; when cooking from his recipes, you may often re-read and re-measure, wondering: Am I really meant to include over a full cup of chopped mint, cilantro and dill? Yes, you are. This unapologetic and unexpected approach is a large part of what makes his food so enticing, exciting, and downright enjoyable.
Another fact that fuels my insatiable foodie-crush on Ottolenghi is his unabashed embrace of vegetables and 'atypical' whole grains. Yes, he cooks meat and fish. But he gives as much attention and care to dishes where produce and grains are the shining star, rather than an afterthought. When you next have the time, I highly recommended going to your local bookshop or library and perusing through (or taking home!) his cookbook Plenty. It is truly stunning--a feast for the eyes, the mind, and the stomach.
These Ottolenghi sweet potato cakes are among his more straightforward recipes (for as glorious as each of his dishes is, I am not going to pretend that the often epic ingredients lists aren't at times a bit tedious or cost-prohibitive). Also: hello sweet potato! You are the light of my life, the least vegetable-like vegetable. Your sweetness makes me melt. I could eat you for days on end. Wait, what? And you're super nutritious? Why wouldn't you make these immediately?
Sweet Potatoes: Stealthily Nutritious
As you might imagine based on their intensely orange huge, sweet potatoes are incredibly rich in beta-carotene, an anti-oxidant that is converted into vitamin A once it has been absorbed by the small intestines. Vitamin A is important in maintaining normal cell growth and division in our bodies and is particularly linked to eye health and bone development. Beta-carotene has also been linked to the prevention of heart disease and certain cancers and is essential in sustaining a strong immune system. In addition to vitamin A, sweet potatoes contain high amounts of vitamin C, vitamin B6, manganese and fiber. They are also very low in saturated fat and calories and are surprisingly supportive of blood sugar regulation, unlike many other starchy foods.*
The great thing about these sweet potato cakes (other than their sheer nutritious deliciousness) is their versatility. Easy to prepare but with a distinct elegance and surprising flavor about them, I made these for a birthday brunch and topped them off with a poached egg, which was divine. They could easily be served atop a bed of curried lentils or in a bowl among a melange of crisp greens. They're great on their own as an appetizer at a party and work just as well as a side accompanying a main. Ottolenghi's lemony yogurt sauce is also a great template for experimentation. In Sprouted Kitchen's version of these cakes, they added lemongrass to the sauce, which I think is a great idea. Play around with the sauce by adding different herbs, blend in some feta or goat cheese, a bit of spice. Relish the gifts that Ottolenghi has given us with his vibrant recipes, but take his approach to cooking as a gift as well. Adapt. Synthesize unexpected flavors. Go crazy. I can't promise it will taste amazing the first time around, but isn't that what the joy of cooking is all about?
*Nutritional information from WHFoods and the World Carrot Museum.
Ottolenghi's Sweet Potato Cakes
slightly adapted from his recipe in The Guardian
Sweet Potato Cakes
1kg (2-3 medium sized) sweet potatoes, peeled and largely cubed
3 Tbsp. spring onion, chopped
1/4 tsp. red chili flakes or fresh red chili, finely minced (or to taste)
2 tsp. soy sauce or tamari
3/4 cup (95 grams) light whole wheat, spelt, or oat flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. turbinado or muscovado (or another unrefined) sugar
coconut oil or butter, for frying
Lemony Yogurt Sauce
1/4 cup (50 grams) plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup (50 grams) sour cream (or use all yogurt)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. fresh cilantro (aka coriander), finely chopped
(optional herb additions: basil, dill, mint, parsley, marjoram, lemongrass...)
1 egg per person, as fresh as possible
splash of vinegar
For the sweet potato cakes
1. Steam the sweet potatoes until thoroughly tender. Once cooked, set aside in a colander to drain and cool.
2. Once the sweet potatoes have let off all their steam and are fully drained (could take about an hour), mash them in a large bowl and mix in the remaining cake ingredients. The mixture should be tacky but not runny or wet; if it is, add a bit more flour until a sticky but moldable consistency is reached.
3. Lightly oil a baking tray, some foil, or another surface. Wet your hands and scoop out a tablespoon or two of sweet potato mix*, rolling it into a ball and placing on the oiled surface. Do this with all of the fritter mix.**
4. Melt a generous amount of coconut oil or butter in a nonstick pan over a medium-high heat.
5. Carefully place the sweet potato balls in the skillet and flatten them into patties. Cook until golden brown on each side, about 7 minutes.
5. Place between two paper towels to soak up excess butter or oil after they have been cooked. Serve hot.
*I completely neglected this direction (Ottolenghi instructs you to make the balls 'walnut-sized') and over-zealously made each of my patties as large as a burger. Needless to say, they didn't fully cook in the middle. So I'd stick with the smaller size if your self-control allows it.
**It helps to prep all the cakes beforehand, otherwise your hands will be completely covered and sticky as you try to handle a spatula and fry them, then make more balls, then fry them...which is what happened to me.
For the sauce
1. While sweet potatoes are steaming, prepare the sauce. Whisk together all ingredients until smooth or blend in a food processor.
For the poached egg
1. Fill a medium-sized saucepan halfway with water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat until the water is just simmering, with the tiny bubbles barely breaking the surface.
2. Pour in a splash of any light vinegar (I use cider vinegar).
3. Crack the egg into a ceramic or glass cup with a handle. Taking care not to touch your hand to the water, gently tilt and lower the cup into the saucepan until it is flooded with water and you can tip the egg out.
4. Using a large heat-resistant spoon, gently nudge or fold the whites around the yolk immediately after tipping the egg in the water.
5. Let cook for 4 minutes for a runny egg; 5 for a firmer yolk.
6. Remove egg with a slotted spoon. Place on a plate with a paper towel or two to drain.