Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pandering to the Times: Sweet Potato Fries

When and where did the whole sweet potato fries thing come about? I realize that's a very broad, what-the-fuck-ish sort of query, but it all happened so fast. One day I started seeing them at pubs here and there. That was followed in short succession by seeing them everywhere I might sit down to have a burger. It's like this: I can remember not having a cell phone (I should hope so, it was 2007) but I can't imagine going back to that place - nor do I have any idea how I ignored people in elevators in all the years prior to that. That's the way it'll be (hopefully) in 10 years or so when we all have bad ass, affordable jet-packs that are just part of our everyday existence. No big deal/how did we get by before? Such has become the way of the sweet potato fry.

Used to be, it was regular fries or nothing. Your choice, pal. The times, they have a-changed.

Good. I was ready for an option. I love fries, OK? They're my everything. Whatever. But I'm so goddamn sick of them in the worst way. I hate their beautiful golden color. They annoy me with the way they're always leaving salt on my fingers. Etc.
I hate you, bitch. Then again, we've got history...

Fries are America's food spouse, and with the advent of sweet potato fries, we've entered into a super-hot culinary open marriage. High five handshakes all around.

But the question remains: what's their story? I mean, regular fries have a bad ass origin story. We know where they came from: George Washington. Doi. Arriving at Valley Forge in that unforgiving winter of 1777, Washington knew that at any time, the starving troops might start looking at their brothers in arms and imaging them as plates of steaming food. But Washington wasn't about to let the Revolution turn into a Bugs Bunny cartoon. With no supplies, save for gallons and gallons of vegetable oil, sea salt, a bunch of industrial deep fryers and a shitload of potatoes, the ever industrious Washington invented french fries on the spot. A food culture was birthed. The troops staved off cannibalism, won the war, and the rest is delicious, crispy, salty history. * 

That's a back story. Love 'em or hate 'em - you love 'em, you fat bastard, you - we know fries. We get who they are. Fries fought a revolution. Sweet potato fries barely pre-date the iPhone. Hell, sweet potato fries don't even remember grunge**. They just showed up the day the The Strokes became popular and got a seat at the table.

Fuck it though. I'm OK with all of that (especially since the story about the origin of fries was, sadly, fabricated). Like I said, it was time for an option***. Sweet potato fries just breezed in, sure, but they stuck around because they got eaten - quite a few by this guy (points at self). It's pretty democratic, really. We've gone from the oligarchy of fries to today's two party system of fries and sweet potato fries. Perhaps sometime soon we'll have a third party choice, preferably one that's on the zany side. Get weird with it. But until then...

For the home cook, know this: these motherfuckers are challenging. Sweet potatoes don't really like to fry (all that sugar burns easily), so you bake them. They don't really want to get crispy when they're baked, so they need a performance enhancer, a bit of a culinary tit-job. In this case, it's an egg white wash. The wash does the same for sweet potato fries as it would for a pie crust or bread- adds sheen and texture (and color if you use the yolks, which you don't in this recipe). If you read around, there's another popular method for helping crisp sweet potato fries - tossing the cut up sweet potatoes in a starch. I've done it this way, with mixed results. The egg wash method is more reliable, I think.

Don't worry, it all gets explained below. I just needed a photo here to make you keep reading.

Either way you do it, a couple of things are important to keep these puppies from burning. First, you have to keep an eye on them near the end of cooking- you're bound to lose a few, but you want to minimize the overhead. These will go from nearly done to burnt to a crisp in the time it takes to pee, start texting with someone, a little twitter... OH SHIT SOMETHING IS BURNING. Watch them. With your face. They're so much better not ruined. Second, cut your fries as uniformly as possible. A mandolin slicer is good if you've got one. I have one, but the blade is weak enough that it's hard to push sweet potatoes through it without sort of lunging at them, while still sharp enough (which I know from losing a few battles with it) that if I were to lunge too hard and tangle with the thing, it would slice my goddamn torso off. So I use a knife. If the fries aren't all about the same size, the smaller ones will burn. That's not a threat, it's a promise, so be careful. Lastly, don't cut them too thin. They lose lots of moisture while cooking, so there is significant shrinkage. I wish I could offer a great rule of thumb and maybe a graph showing fry starting size compared to finished size- it would really add a much needed air of legitimacy to this whole thing - but no dice. That's what you get for reading this smut, which I'm sure you're "only reading for the recipes". Pervert.

Sweet Potato Fries
(three servings)


2 sweet potatoes
2 egg whites
salt and chili powder (or whatever you like) to taste
cold water


1. Buy sweet potatoes that are relatively straight and roughly the same length. Scrubs and peel sweet potatoes. Lop off the ends and curved portion of the sides, so that you end up with something like a sweet potato brick. Slice longwise and then into 1/2" sticks.

2. Soak sweet potato sticks in cold water for 30 minutes to an hour to draw out some of the starch (helps keep them from getting mushy).

3. Beat the egg whites until frothy, then whisk in the salt and chili powder.

4. Arrange sweet potato sticks on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Pretend you're a chaperone at a middle school dance and DO NOT LET THEM TOUCH or they will steam (not bueno, kids). Brush the top side with egg wash and bake 15 minutes at 425. After 15 minutes, remove, flip, brush the other side with egg wash and place back in the oven for another 15-20 minutes, checking after 15. You're looking for browning along most of the edges. Let them cool a few minutes, then what you do with them is your business.

*The name, french fries, if you're curious, was an inside joke. So inside, in fact, that it existed only inside George Washington's head. Although scholars largely largely agree that the meaning was ironic; Washington's sense of irony was said to be as keen as his sense of smell, which was said to be above the national average.  
**Suck on that Generation X. Especially you, Janeane Garafalo. I don't know why, but you particularly annoy me.
***Now, if you were to ask which one I would pick - fries or sweet potato fries - if I HAD to pick one at the expense of the other... I would scold you for asking such a cliched, irrelevent question. And then if you were like "but seriously, if you HAD to pick one..." I would hike my shirt up and make farting sounds with my armpit until the subject was changed. It's a really dumb question.

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