Pleasing Everybody: Persian Potato Cakes – Guest Post by Justin Cascio

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

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

Ingredients 

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 

Equipment Needed 

Very large mixing bowl

Large (14” or greater) skillet with high sides, suitable for shallow frying

Thin spatula

Preparation

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

Persian Potato Cakes

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.

 

Ramadan Series:Baked Cheese and Basil Samosas

Muslims across the world are observing the Holy month of Ramadan with religious fervor, fasting from sunrise to sunset. Throughout the month, the different facets of sacrifice, patience, spirituality, worship and brotherhood are deeply entrenched into the hearts and minds of Muslims. Ramadan’s historical significance lies in the fact that it is known to be the month when the first revelations of the Holy Quran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

Ramadan is meant to be a means of cleansing a person’s inner soul, warding off any temptations. That is not all, it teaches you one of the most important lessons in life; self-discipline and self-control. However, this may not always be the case. There are certain cultures which place a lot of emphasis on binging on food during time of sehri (eating before sunrise) and iftar (time of breaking the fast). Dining tables will be covered in a layer of different food items to satiate your hunger pangs from the whole day. Everything ranging from fatty fried food to desserts heavy on sugar will be present for feasting. Staying away from such practices and opening your fast with healthy yet hearty food will help you detox and wash away all the impurities that you have collected over the whole year. Hence, Ramadan helps you, not only to cleanse your soul but also the inner workings and tools of your body.

Iftar-Breaking fast

Writing the Ramadan series is my way of providing you with healthy recipes bursting with flavors that you will enjoy without expanding your waistline. The first in this series is Baked Cheese and Basil Samosas. Samosas are an essential feature of any South Asian Iftar. They are triangular shaped savory snacks in a pastry shell with various stuffing. More often than not, they are filled with potatoes and a deep fried. My variation is baked, hence low calorie and stuffed with either cottage cheese or crumbly goats cheese for that extra burst of flavor along with the crispy outer shell.

Baked Samosa

Ingredients:

  • 12 samosa shells (Note: if unavailable, use puff pastry. Cut in rectangular shapes 6″x 12″)
  • 1 cup cottage cheese or crumbly goats cheese
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup basil, chopped roughly
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 4 green chillis, sliced thinly
  • 1 egg

Preparation:

  • Preheat oven to 375 f
  • In a bowl, use a fork to break the cheese into small pieces
  • Add the olive oil to make a smooth paste. Make sure not to lose the crumbly texture of the cheese
  • Add the chopped basil, chillis, lemon juice and pepper and mix gently
  • Lay out the samosa shell or puff pastry and spoon a tablespoon of the cheese mixture in the center of the shell
  • Overlap the longer edges over the cheese mixture to form a triangle
  • Cut off the extra pastry that may be leftover, leaving some pastry to help seal the edges
  • Dip you fingers in water and seal the bottom of the samosa, pinching the edges. Lightly press on the surface of the pastry where the overlap meets diagonally
  • Beat an egg and brush the samosa with the egg wash for a crisp outer surface
  • Grease a baking tray and place the samosas leaving some space between them
  • Bake for about 20 minutes or till the surface starts to brown. Keep an eye out to prevent the samosas from burning
  • Garnish with a few basil leaves and serve hot

Basil and Cheese Samosas

With the first crunch you will be able to taste the crisp pastry, the subtle flavors of the cheese infused with the sharp taste of the basil and the final kick will be provided by the green chillis. The sheer mix of strong flavors dispels the need to dip it in any sauce or chutney, however you can opt for a sweet chilli sauce or light mint chutney, if you so desire. Spend your Ramadan eating healthy and light fare and watch this space for more edible delicacies for your iftar table. Happy fasting and feasting.

Basil and Cheese Samosas

Malaysian Hawker Fare: Chicken Mee Sup with Beansprouts and Scallions

At first glance, you may think that I have spelt soup incorrectly. That is exactly what I thought for the first few months that I was in Malaysia. I just couldnt understand why all the hawker stalls and mamaks would spell soup this way. One day, it somehow came up in conversation with a friend while feasting on hawker food, and she said well that is how it is pronounced in Bahasa Malay, hence the phonetic spelling. So the next time I wanted to order soup, I had to make sure I pronounced it properly.

Malaysian Hawker Fare: Chicken Mee Sup with Beansprouts and Scallions

This particular soup has been my Sunday favorite ever since I discovered it. A large bowl of this soup can cure all the woes of Saturday night, hence I find myself at this hawker stall every Sunday afternoon. Situated on the corner of Kuala Lumpur’s famous food street, Jalan Alor and Changkat Bukit Bintang, this small stall is aptly titled “Alor Corner Curry Noodles”. They serve chicken and prawn mee sup, curry laksa, curry noodle soup and dry noodles. Sadly, they close by the evening, so one night I had a severe craving for it, but it was closed. I think that is what gave me the opportunity to try and recreate it myself. I cannot say it was the perfect recreation, but it came close. It is a simple soup adorned with condiments, but the best way to have it is to put it together step by step, rather than dunking all the ingredients into the soup while cooking it. This keeps all the ingredients from getting soggy.

Ingredients:

  • 1 litre chicken stock
  • 2 cups shredded chicken (boiled)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp chili paste (sambal if available)
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 2 cups beansprouts
  • 1 bunch scallions
  • 1/2 cup crispy fried onions
  • Coriander
  • 1 packet mee noodles (or any egg noodles)

Preparation:

  • In a large pot, add the chicken stock, salt, pepper, chili paste, soy sauce and vinegar. Mix well and bring to a boil
  • Lower the heat, add the chicken, coriander and pak choy (optional). Cover and let it simmer for 30 minutes
  • Meanwhile, slice the scallions vertically and mix with the beansprouts
  • Boil the egg noodles and set aside
  • When the soup is ready, prepare the bowl to eat
  • Place the noodles into the bowl, add the scallions and beansprouts and finally pour the soup over the noodles and vegetables
  • Sprinkle generously with the fried onions
  • Serve immediately

Malaysian Hawker Fare: Chicken Mee Sup with Beansprouts and Scallions

This way you can still feel the crunch of the beansprouts and taste the freshness of all the ingredients. It is such a hearty bowl of soup that you will not be hungry for quite a while. The beauty of this soup lies in its simplicity and just a few added touches, like the fried onions, that heighten its taste. A must for a weekday dinner since it is done in a matter of minutes. 

Comfort Food: Mexican Style Chipotle Chicken Tortilla Soup

Mexican food and spices have slowly but surely made their way into my cooking routing. It is the use of fragrant herbs that exude a smoky aroma along with subtle yet flavorful spices that makes each Mexican dish a treat to cook and eat. Unknown to many, who mostly associate Mexican food with tacos and burritos, it is third on the list of the most varied cuisines of the world, after China and India. In fact, in villages across Mexico, rattlesnakes and iguanas are considered quite a delicacy (just an interesting fact about Mexican food, not to kill your appetite in any way). Beans are a staple ingredient in Mexican cooking, made famous by Mexican Chili and Bean Burritos. But for me, no Mexican dish is complete without the inclusion of this staple ingredient.

Mexican Style Chipotle Chicken Tortilla Soup

Leftover rotisserie chicken and tortilla chips in my larder inspired me to expand my knowledge about worldly cuisines across the Atlantic Ocean to Mexico. Having tried it at many restaurants, I set out to create my own version of Chicken Tortilla Soup; one that was heavy on Mexican spices and ingredients. During my research, I realized most people included avocados instead of beans, but that did not excite my palate. In order to make a hearty bowl of soup, beans were a must. In the end, it was the beans that helped the soup turn into a satiating meal rather than a simple appetizer.

Mexican Style Chipotle Chicken Tortilla Soup

Ingredients:

  • 5 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups shredded chicken, cooked
  • 1/2 onion, sliced
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 can red kidney beans
  • 1/2 can chickpeas
  • 2 tsp chipotle pepper (or taco seasoning)
  • 1/2 tsp red chilli powder
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp garlic paste
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • Handful cilantro
  • 5-6 dried red chillies, chopped
  • Tortilla chips
  • Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (optional)

Preparation:

  • Heat olive oil in a deep saucepan and add the onions. Cook for about 3-4 minutes till translucent and soft. Make sure not to brown them
  • Add the spices, garlic paste and 1 tbsp of the chicken stock. Cook thoroughly till fragrant and the stock has dried up, about 2-3 minutes.  Make sure the onions are completely coated with the spices.
  • Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a boil. (If you are using uncooked chicken, add the thinly sliced strips of chicken at this stage so it boils with the stock)
  • Once the stock starts to boil, add the kidney beans and chickpeas. Lower the heat, cover the soup with a lid and simmer for about 5 minutes
  • Squeeze in the juice from the limes and give it a final stir
  • Transfer into serving bowls and garnish with the tortilla chips, cilantro and dried red chillies. Add the shredded cheese if desired
  • Serve hot

Mexican Style Chipotle Chicken Tortilla Soup

As the tortilla chips melt in the soup, the flavors are enhanced even more, hence it is always advisable to use plain chips. It helps to balance the flavors and provides uniformity to the dish rather than confusing it. The spicy aroma as you lift the lid after simmering the soup is sure to open up your senses. It is the kind of soup that children would enjoy due to the presence of the tortilla chips and adults for its strong yet subtle flavors. Comfort food from Mexico; a new avenue, a new recipe and most importantly, a new cuisine in my world of cooking.

Mexican Style Chipotle Chicken Tortilla Soup