The United States is famously uneasy about what the ideal diet is: there is no single American native cuisine that is widely eaten, and we’re easily taken in by fad diets. For this reason, I sometimes find myself catering to the intersections of diets that spring from very different wellsprings of thought on what it is we should eat.
Some of our friends eat typical American diets: they rarely cook, or rely on prepared foods to put a meal on the table. For some of their meals, they don’t even eat what I’d call food: they consume energy drinks and bars, instead, or will pop a frozen meal into a microwave oven, or go out for a chain restaurant meal. These people rarely worry about what they’re eating.
Others of our friends are more like us in that they expend a great deal of energy and time, not to mention money, on sourcing and preparing their food with great care. The reasons vary: ethical, environmental, religious, and health are just a few. My husband and I eat locally sourced meat, dairy, and vegetables, and prepare traditional meals at home. We place a high value on pastured meats and animal fats, rounding out our meals with some rice or potatoes, and lots of green vegetables.
A couple we’re friends with are vegan chefs who have cooked for us on a number of occasions, and I was keen to return the favor. Their staples of tempeh and tofu aren’t on our menu, and our meat and butter are off theirs. I’d make us rice and chickpeas with vegetables for dinner, with lots of interesting spices. To this I wanted to add an appetizer that would be satisfyingly rich—read “fatty,” to balance the lean entree—and unusual enough to capture the imaginations of these two culinary all-stars.
Two meat eating Americans, wondering what to serve their cosmopolitan, salad eating friends: depending on your perspective, this is an exotic issue, or a “First World Problem.” At any rate, the solution was a simple one, humble, healthy, and quite American.
It was summertime, and I was researching the history of potatoes for a food magazine. Potatoes originated in Peru, I learned, and like any other filling, nutritious, and delicious foodstuff that is also easily stored, were prized by sailors for their long journeys. Potatoes from the New World were loaded into ship holds in prodigious quantities and varieties, and found their way to ports around the world, becoming an important staple in places thousands of miles from its birthplace in the Andes mountains. Like corn, potatoes were the Americans who invaded back, taking over the farmlands of Europe, Africa, and Asia. And like another of our exports, Hollywood blockbusters, everyone seems to like potatoes.
I invented these little fry cakes that hold together without eggs, dairy, or gluten, and which despite being made of potatoes and then fried, are light on the palate. They were a hit with my husband, for their evidently low glycemic load and high nutrient density: when you get older and your blood sugar spikes from eating highly processed foods, these things matter. Potatoes are high in protein, fiber, and vitamins, making them a nutritious basis for a whole meal, not just a side dish. And the fresh flavors of mint and lemon in these cakes, and the light, popping texture of sweet peas, offer unusual contrasts to the creamy potato.
Persian Potato Cakes
The bright flavors of lemon and mint in these potato cakes put a fresh, Persian twist on a the internationally acclaimed potato. These make a fine appetizer or brunch buffet item
Serves 6 as an appetizer or side dish
2 lbs of red potatoes, boiled
2 cups of fresh, shelled green peas, or a 10 oz bag of frozen peas
1 bunch (7-8 ct) of green onions, chopped
⅓ cup of spearmint, finely minced
⅓ cup of flat leaf (Italian) parsley, finely minced
Zest and juice of one lemon
1/4 cup chickpea flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt, or to taste
½ tsp freshly ground pepper, or to taste
1 cup high-heat oil for frying
Very large mixing bowl
Large (14” or greater) skillet with high sides, suitable for shallow frying
Dice the boiled potatoes into large cubes—this breaks up the skins more evenly—and put into a very large mixing bowl. Add the peas, minced herbs, chopped onions, lemon zest and juice, flour, baking powder, salt, and fresh ground pepper. Use your hands to make smooth, dense patties, one inch thick, and 2-4 inches across.
Pour oil into an iron skillet, covering the bottom with at least a quarter inch of oil. Heat on a high flame until the oil is very hot. Add the patties carefully, using a spatula, and arrange the patties so they do not touch each other or the sides of the skillet. Allow to fry undisturbed until you can see a dark crust forming on the bottom, about four minutes. Flip and fry the other side. Remove cakes to a paper towel to drain briefly before serving
Bio: Justin Cascio blogs about the joys of seasonal comfort food in New England at Justin Wants to Feed You and the dangers of industrial food everywhere at Tin Foil Toque. You can follow him on Twitter @likethewatch.