It´s this time of year again that the clock has been turned back an hour, that it is dark when I am going home from work and that it starts being cold in my apartment without heating. But these are also the days that it is still surprisingly warm in the sun, that the trees look beautiful with their coloured leaves, and that lovely comfort foods like pumpkin, mushrooms, chestnuts, and sweet potatoes are fully available again. On the markets the stalls with mushrooms that come straight from the forest show off the diversity of nature. And in the streets of Barcelona little wooden stands pop up where people sell both roasted chestnuts and roasted sweet potatoes that you can smell from a distance.
The sweet potato is in Catalunya not just sold on the streets. It is also a traditional part of the meal on All Saints´ Day. This festival is called “la Castanyada” here, after the chestnuts. On this day families typically eat roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts, in combination with sweet wine. Whereas the chestnuts have been available in Europe since ancient times, this is not the case for sweet potatoes. The first Europeans to try sweet potatoes were most likely the members of Christopher Columbus´ journey in 1492. Because like the “normal” potatoes, sweet potatoes are native to the Americas. There they have been cultivated for centuries, since long before Christ. Sweet potatoes are supposedly even one of the oldest vegetables known to human beings, based on the evidence from pottery. The discoverers took the sweet potatoes, just like other crops as potatoes and corn, back to Europe. The sweet potato was first introduced in Spain, and from there in Italy and the rest of Europe. Nowadays there are still a lot of them being grown in the south of Spain, which is a suitable place since the crops cannot tolerate frost. Surprisingly, regardless of their name, the sweet potato is actually not closely related to the normal potato. It is a root vegetable that is considered to be very healthy, being rich in fibers and other nutrients. And that is of course always a good thing!
For me, the first time I prepared sweet potatoes was in the USA. Since we decided to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, I did some research on the side dishes that usually go with the stuffed turkey. And sweet potatoes turned out to be one of the quintessential side dishes on “Turkey Day”. Although I really liked them then, I forgot about the sweet potato until I moved to Brussels, where they were sold a lot in my supermarket. So this is where I really came to enjoy them and started cooking a lot with them. Brussels is also the place where I created this recipe, since I was looking for ways of using the sweet potato other than just fried or mashed.
Those sweet potato pancakes are a great side dish. You can combine them for example with a range of mushrooms for a vegetarian lunch or dinner. Or use them as a side dish with any type of meat.
Sweet potato pancakes (for 6 pancakes)
- Sweet potatoes – 500 grams
- 1 red onion
- Pine nuts – a handful (optional)
- Flour – 4 tablespoons
- Baking powder – 2 teaspoons
- 1 egg
- Thyme – a bunch of fresh leaves or 2 heaped teaspoons of dried thyme
- Honey – 2 tablespoons
- Salt and black pepper
Start by finely chopping the red onion. Place a small pot with a good knob of butter over a low fire. Add the onion and the thyme and season with salt and black pepper. Fry the onion for around 10 minutes, until transparent and soft. Add the honey and put the fire as low as possible, so that the mixture is just bubbling. Leave the onion to caramelize for another 10 minutes approximately. Then taste for seasoning. Just be careful not to burn your mouth, since caramelized sugars become very hot.
At the same time, peel the sweet potatoes and chop in rough pieces. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Boil the potatoes for approximately 10 to 15 minutes, until soft.
When you are using the pine nuts, fry them in a dry frying pan until they are golden brown. Be careful here, since it goes quite fast and it´s easy to burn them.
Once the potatoes are boiled and a bit cooled down, mash them with a fork or, even better, a proper mashing device. Stir the caramelized onions and the pine nuts through the potato mash. Then taste to see if you need any additional salt, pepper, or honey. When the flavour is to your liking, add the egg and the baking powder to the mixture and stir well using a fork. After this, start adding the flour by the spoonful. The mixture should become a sticky batter that is easy to shape using two spoons.
Heat a frying pan, or pancake pan if you happen to have one, on a medium fire. Add a small knob of butter. Now use two spoons to add the batter to the pan and form disks in the size of American pancakes. Fry the pancakes for about 3-5 minutes on each side, until they are golden brown on both sides. If you feel the sides of the pancakes, they shouldn´t feel sticky anymore. Repeat this until you have used all the batter.