There are two ways of thinking about foods we used to hate. First, regret — for missing so many years of oysters or chunky peanut butter or what have you. Second, gratitude that there is still something new to be discovered at the table, foods that were waiting in the wings to come on stage and take us by surprise. I take the second path with sweet potatoes, the tragic victim of marshmallow-topped sludge in my impressionable childhood, but now one of my chief food loves.
There's nothing of childhood casseroles in this colorful and satisfying sweet potato platter of simple roasted rounds topped with a chutney-inspired pesto of cilantro, coconut, and garlic.
This is a version of a dish I've been making regularly for several years. It was inspired originally by the cilantro pesto in Heidi Swanson's Supernatural Every Day (you can see the recipe here). I had made pesto out of basil, arugula, sage, kale, and nearly every other green that had come my way, but somehow I had missed cilantro. Its sour, savory freshness was a revelation in pesto, both heightened and mellowed. I make it more frequently than basil pesto now, changing it up every time — sometimes with almonds, then with walnut oil, now with Gruyere.
But this time I took a different tack. I often crave that cilantro chutney you find in little dishes at Indian restaurants — the one with coconut and a dash of heat. I melded the two in this pesto, adding coconut and a handful of pistachios instead of cheese or pine nuts. It's a fully vegan pesto, and one with extra richness — on top of the sweet potatoes it's unexpectedly filling.
I only learned to love sweet potatoes a few years ago — I've lived most of my adult life without them. And while I'm sorry for the years I missed, I'm not too sorry, because when we see foods fresh, when our palate suddenly wakes up to them, there's both inspiration and excitement in that discovery. Like cilantro, and coconut, and sweet potatoes, and garlic — all together. If that's not exciting, please tell me what is.
Roasted Sweet Potato Slices with Cilantro Pesto
Serves 6; makes 2 cups pesto
For the sweet potatoes:
2 pounds sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
Chunky kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the pesto:
2 bunches cilantro
3/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
3/4 cup shelled pistachios
4 cloves garlic
1 hot pepper, such as jalapeño or Thai, optional
1 lemon, juiced
1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil
Salt to taste
Heat the oven to 450°F. Slice the sweet potatoes in rounds about 1/2-inch thick. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and brush with the olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, or until tender and slightly browned.
While the sweet potatoes are roasting, make the pesto. Roughly chop the cilantro and blend both leaves and stems with the coconut, pistachios, garlic, hot pepper (if using), and lemon juice. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and blend until smooth. Add the rest, if desired. Taste and add salt (or more garlic, or more acid) until satisfied. If desired, thin the pesto with water to make it spreadable.
When sweet potatoes are cooked through, spread on a platter and top with pesto. Serve immediately.
On the pesto: I am of the rather severe opinion that if a cook doesn't like the way a pesto turns out, it's no one's fault but the cook's! Pesto is by its nature a this-and-that recipe; your results will vary by a mile from mine depending on your herbs, your taste for salt, and your opinion on acid. This is an unusual pesto, so I strongly suggest adding only a little salt and lemon juice, or a quarter of a pepper, and tasting, before adding the rest. Keep tweaking until you love it!
Nut-free adaptation: The pistachios can be left out. They make this a little nuttier and more interesting in texture, but the pesto is still very good without them. You can also substitute another nut, or seeds such as pumpkin (pepitas) or sunflower.
(Image credits: Faith Durand)