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Variation on a theme: Sweet potato cakes

(ran ST edition)

I've long used mashed potatoes to hold fish cakes together, so I didn't think it would be too much of a stretch to make a crunchier, more colorful and more flavorful fish cake using Caribbean spices and sweet potatoes in place of white ones.

I was wrong. Sweet potatoes absorb so much water when boiled that my simple fish cakes became almost an exercise in pastry making, as I added flour and egg to encourage bonding.

Steaming chunks of potato were better, but still the mixture was more watery than I liked; I had to add so much flour that the mixture became doughy.

Baking the sweet potatoes changed everything. The texture of cooled baked sweet potatoes was creamy, dry and smooth. When combined with cooked flaked fish and spices, the cakes held together well and fried nicely.

Using sweet potatoes means planning ahead a bit. The best tactic is to bake them one night, refrigerate them, then make the cakes the following day.

The only other ingredient that could make a difference in texture is the fish. I tried salt cod in one version. I liked the flavor more, but I didn't think it was worth the extra effort to soak the fish overnight.

Other white fish, such as hake, whiting, snapper and grouper, are good choices, too.

When using white potatoes, I bread or flour the outside of the cakes to promote browning. But because of the high sugar content of sweet potatoes, cakes made from them brown so fast that they must be cooked more slowly than usual to prevent burning. A few of mine caramelized at the edges.

The sugar also makes the cakes more prone to sticking to the pan.

To prevent this, use a nonstick skillet coated with an eighth of an inch of oil, keep the heat moderate, be gentle and turn only once.

Sweet Potato Fish Cakes

2 medium sweet potatoes

1 pound cod fillets

Salt to taste

1-inch-long piece ginger root, peeled and cut into chunks

3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

1 large shallot, cut in chunks

{ cup chopped cilantro, more for garnish

{ teaspoon cayenne or chili powder

\ teaspoon ground allspice, or to taste

Olive or vegetable oil as needed

Lime wedges

Preparation time: about 2 hours.

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Pierce sweet potatoes several times with a knife, then place in foil-lined roasting pan. Roast until potatoes are soft, an hour or longer. Cool.

Meanwhile, poach cod in salted water to cover until it begins to flake, about 10 minutes. Drain well and cool.

Combine ginger, garlic, shallot, cilantro, cayenne, allspice and a large pinch of salt in a small food processor and mince, or mince by hand.

Scoop flesh of sweet potatoes into a bowl. Discard skins. Add fish and spices and blend with your hands.

Taste and adjust seasoning. Shape into four hamburger-size patties.

Place oil in a 12-inch skillet, preferably nonstick, and turn heat to medium. Wait until oil is hot, then add one fish cake; it should sizzle. If it does not, wait another minute before adding others.

Cook cakes slowly, so that they brown thoroughly without burning. Turn after 5 minutes and brown on other side. Serve hot, with lime wedges and more cilantro.

Yield: 4 servings.