I don't mean to argue that eating a plant-based diet can't have a positive effect on your well-being. Quite the contrary. But talking about food almost exclusively in terms of its healthfulness can also have the unintended effect of making us all feel like we might as well just be drinking a tonic or taking a pill, rather than enjoying the process of planning a meal.
When I think about what I want to make for dinner, it rarely starts with health considerations, although my choice of a vegetarian diet in general has certainly been motivated in part by nutrition. My what-to-cook calculus starts when I take stock of what I already have in the fridge, freezer and pantry, and from there I think about what's in season, what sounds or looks appealing in the market, which spices and other ingredients might go with what. As I've grown more experienced at cooking vegetarian dishes, the quest for healthfulness seems to come more naturally as my own desire for variety, texture and satisfaction tends to lead me in the right direction.
A little planning always helps. I'm a habitual cookbook-bookmarker, with Post-it notes sticking out of any volume that crosses my desk and passes the three-things-I-want-to-make-in-here test. I label the recipes seasonally, just in case what jumps out at me on the first read doesn't line up so neatly with the current month on the calendar. That's what happened with several things in Kathy Patalsky's "Healthy Happy Vegan Kitchen." I spied a recipe for Sweet Potato Pistachio Cakes a few months ago and marked it "fall/winter" - not because sweet potatoes aren't available other times of the year, but because I tend to rely on them more and more as summer produce fades. I also knew that this was one recipe that wouldn't require a shopping trip, as all its ingredients are staples - in my kitchen, anyway.
Patalsky has you cook the sweet potatoes right before you make the cakes: a simple process of forming their flesh into patties and rolling them in a mix of ground pistachios and pumpkin seeds. But it immediately struck me that the cakes would also be a smart way to repurpose leftover cooked sweet potatoes.
This is one of those breezy recipes that seems almost too simple to result in anything impressive, until you make them and taste the crunchy nut crust and the creamy-chunky sweet potato interior. Especially when topped with a tahini-maple sauce, they're interesting and satisfying enough to add to your repertoire. The fact that they're healthful? Consider it a bonus.
SWEET POTATO AND PISTACHIO CAKES
4 SERVINGS (makes 12 little cakes)
These little gems are crunchy and nutty on the outside and sweet and creamy inside.
Serve with a green salad.
Make ahead: The cooked sweet potatoes and the sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. The assembled and coated cakes can be refrigerated for up to 5 days before frying, or frozen for up to 3 months. Defrost and let come to room temperature before frying.
Adapted from "Healthy Happy Vegan Kitchen," by Kathy Patalsky (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).
For the cakes
• 2 medium sweet potatoes (1 1/2 pounds total), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 5 cups)
• 1/4 cup raw, hulled pumpkin seeds
• 1/4 cup raw, shelled pistachios
• 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
• 1 to 2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil
For the sauce
• 2 tablespoons tahini
• 4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
• 2 teaspoons maple syrup (preferably grade B)
• Pinch fine sea salt
• Pinch freshly ground black pepper
For the cakes: Put the cubed sweet potatoes in a wide, deep skillet. Fill it with enough water to barely cover them. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium or medium-low, so the water is gently bubbling all over. Cook, uncovered, until the sweet potatoes are fork-tender but not falling apart, 10 to 12 minutes.
While the sweet potatoes are cooking, combine the pumpkin seeds and pistachios in a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground. Pour into a wide bowl.
For the sauce: Whisk together the tahini, lemon juice, maple syrup, salt and pepper in a small bowl until smooth.
Once the potatoes are tender, drain and return them to the skillet. Stir in the salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until they dry out and start to brown very lightly on the edges, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer them to a large bowl, let cool for a few minutes, then lightly mash about half of them with a fork, and stir to combine. Taste, and add salt and pepper as needed.
Use your hands to scoop up 12 equal portions (about 3 tablespoons each) of the sweet potatoes and gently press them into small, round, plump cakes. Heavily coat them in the nut mixture, lightly pressing the coating into the cakes; try not to handle them too much because they are still soft, and you don't want to smash them.
Set a paper-towel-lined plate next to the stove.
Melt 1 tablespoon of the coconut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add enough of the cakes to fill the skillet without overcrowding. Working in batches as needed, pan-fry the cakes just until lightly browned, about 1 minute per side. Add some or all the remaining coconut oil between batches if the pan becomes dry.
Once they're browned, use a spatula to transfer the cakes to the paper-towel-lined plate. Serve warm, with the tahini-maple sauce spooned on top or alongside.
Nutrition | Per serving: 320 calories, 8 g protein, 42 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 430 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar.