Were I a poet, I would write odes in celebration of cardamom.
Actually, now that I give my bold statement a little thought, were I a poet, I would probably have much more profound and brooding things to write about. For example, what a sparrow isn’t.
(This is an actual discussion that Joel and I once had, after hearing a pair of essays by a husband and wife one of whom is a poet and the other a novelist. What a sparrow isn’t comes up as a poetic theme. Later on a walk, I asked Joel what he thought of when he imagined what a sparrow isn’t, and he launched into a long musing exploration of the fluttering energy each little life on this earth has and the vacuum that could be left were it not there and how this might change the overall universe. Then he asked what came to my mind when I thought of what a sparrow isn’t. “An elephant and a beach ball,” I replied. Joel writes poetry. I don’t.)
But, whether poetic or not, cardamom is, to me, the queen of spices, so demure yet complexly spicy, so subtle yet commanding. I would put her on a pedestal, if that wouldn’t interfere with my cooking.
But, I think I am still only scratching the surface of cardamom’s potential role in savory dishes. In my mind, I have trouble shaking the association of cardamom with sweets. Historically, if you looked at my baking repertoire and randomly selected any dish, I’d say there would be about a 87.44% chance that cardamom would be in it (just a rough calculation, there). Cardamom was for sweet buns, pancakes, and waffles.
So, I remember well my total bemusement the first time I had Indian food. It tasted oddly like Norwegian baking. It took me the entire meal to put my finger on the elusive flavor that danced around at the edge of my palate, taunting me to give it a name. But finally, I realized it was cardamom. Suddenly, a whole new world of possibility dawned on me. Cardamom + savory = mmmmmmmm. An equation so elegant in its simplicity, it had to be true (perhaps it is even one of those equations that describe the fundamentals of how the world works, perhaps I am not a poet but I am actually a world class physicist. This may be something worth considering…).
Slowly, I have explored this new truth. But, I have taken my time becoming wholly comfortable with it. I still see things like cardamom chicken or cardamom on salmon, and I am overcome with grave doubts. But, each time that I shake off those doubts and give it a try, my intrepidity (if you can even really call it intrepidity, it’s not something that really takes a whole lot of daring do) is richly rewarded. They have been universally satisfying.
So when I happened upon a New York Times recipe for cardamom and leek fritters by Ottolenghi, I tucked it away for safe keeping, knowing I would make them at some point. Last week, I fished it out because I decided I would make them to serve alongside a curried tomato coconut soup. I thought the toasty blend of cardamom, coriander, and cinnamon would go nicely with the curry.
But, looking at the recipe, I decided I didn’t want to use cheese in them. Then, having a gluten free impulse, I decided I wanted to make a flour-less version, so I cast about in the pantry for an alternative. The first thing I saw was the pile of sweet potatoes that is nearly always there waiting patiently in the corner to be called out to save supper. I’ve been meaning to make the sweet potato pancakes in Plenty for quite some time – complete happenstance that that also happens to be an Ottolenghi recipe, or is it happenstance?! – and so I decided to merge the two ideas to create spiced sweet potato and leek pancakes.
For these little cakes, you first boil chunks of sweet potato until they are tender and ready to be pounded to a mush, and then you go ahead and pound them, spiking them with ground cardamom, coriander, and a little cumin at the same time. Be sure to add plenty of salt or the golden sweetness of the potatoes will actually make them taste like a dessert.
While the sweet potatoes are in their hot bath, you can slowly caramelize the leeks until they collapse into a delectably soft, slumping pile. Leeks, even when caramelized, retain a fresh, savory quality, unlike the mahogany-sticky sweetness that onions take on. So they make a nice partner to the spiced potatoes and help remind everything to stay just over to that side and don’t cross the line out of the dinner category, please and thank you.
When you mix everything together with a couple of eggs, you’ll wind up with a batter that is thick but bordering on the consistency of pancakey. This is batter that should be dropped by the spoonful into a sizzling hot pan, rather than shaped into patties to fry. Be generous with the oil and patient with the cooking to allow the cakes to get brown and crusty on each side.
Without any flour they’re a bit fragile to flip, but this makes for a wonderfully smooth, soft interior to bite into once they’re done. They’re a bit like a Middle Eastern version of bubble and squeak (Which has one of the best names ever. I may need to consider rebranding these as something that quirky sounding. Ideas?).
These types of cakes often welcome a yogurt sauce, and these are no exception. But, unlike many potato cakes, because such a combination of flavors is tucked inside each cake, you don’t need to add anything complex to your yogurt sauce. In fact, if you do, it might just create confusion. Too many spices can be like too many cooks. I used plain goat’s milk yogurt with a squirt of lemon juice. And, then I proceeded to eat nearly the entire batch myself.
What comes to mind when you think of a stack of sweet potato and leek cakes that was there, but now isn’t?…
Spiced Sweet Potato and Leek Cakes (serves about 4 as a side dish or appetizer)
- 1 large sweet potato (About 1 1/2 lbs.), peeled and cut into small cubes (I left the peel on, but I think this wasn’t the best idea)
- 3-4 medium leeks, white and light green portions only, washed well and thinly sliced
- 1/2 tsp. each ground cardamom, coriander, and cumin (throw in a pinch of cinnamon too, if you’d like)
- about 1 tsp. salt
- 2 large eggs
- 2 Tbs. ghee, butter, or coconut oil plus more for frying
- 1 cup plain yogurt (goat’s milk yogurt was great with these but regular yogurt would be nice too)
- 2 tsp. of lemon juice
- salt and pepper
- Put the sweet potato cubes into a pot and add just enough water to cover them. Cover the pot, bring it to a boil, then turn it down to simmer and cook until the sweet potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a fork, around 20 minutes (depending on the size of the cubes). Drain and transfer to a bowl.
- In the meantime, heat the 2 Tbs. ghee/butter/oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. When it is hot, add the leeks. Sprinkle with salt and cook for about 5 minutes. Then, turn the heat down to low and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until extremely soft, about 15 more minutes.
- Mash the cooked sweet potato together with the spices and 1 tsp. salt. Stir in the leeks. Then, lightly beat the eggs, and stir them into the sweet potato mixture until fully mixed together.
- Heat more ghee/butter/oil in a large frying pan over medium high heat (be fairly generous with the fat to avoid sticking). Drop large spoonfuls of the batter into the hot frying pan. Fry the cakes until brown and crispy on the bottom (4 minutes or so), then flip and fry until brown and crispy on the other side. Transfer cooked cakes to a plate lined with a paper towel. Repeat with the remaining batter adding more fat as needed.
- Stir the yogurt together with the lemon juice and a pinch of salt and pepper (if you have regular yogurt but want to simulate goat’s milk yogurt, whisk a Tbs. or so of crumbled goat cheese into your yogurt). Serve the sweet potato leek cakes hot with spoonfuls of yogurt over them.