Foodie Dreams, Kitchen Nightmares: Sweet Potato Fries

In this column, I look at my often-disastrous attempts to recreate some of my favorite meals. Today, sweet potato fries, which ended up (figuratively, literally) more fried than sweet.

Generally, I like french fries. My intimate relationship with the Queen's Head Pub's fryer notwithstanding, I enjoy a good fry, which I realize is essentially a flavorless potato stick doused in hot oil and salt (mmm...). I try to limit my fries, though, mostly because it depresses me and fattens me to unabashedly eat so much oil. That's what got me interested in a healthier alternative: sweet potato fries, which, rather than being fried (although I am a whiz at whipping up a home fryer, see: cake, funnel), are baked with their skins (but don't call them sweet potato bakes. that would be weird). Salt is optional, as is brown sugar, which I am in favor of adding to most recipes.

I first had sweet potato fries at b.good, a restaurant that purports to be both a health food place and a burger joint. Every once in a while they have one-day-only specials where they offer things not actually on the menu that are often much, much better than anything else on the menu (like pumpkin smoothies... So. Good.). And the only way you find out about them is if you join b.good's "family," which I think just means going online to the mailing list. Anyway, Dave is a part of the fam and last year, when we actually lived in the same zip code, we would periodically meet for lunch at b.good on days when they had specials. And that, dear reader, is when I came in contact with sweet potato fries.

A word: the b.good sweet potato fries were not especially great, but in their slightly mushy form, they held the promise of greatness. They were sweet (natch) without being cloying and warm and filling without being weighty. I thought they needed a little more snap to them, maybe fewer spices, and could be a little bit bigger, but otherwise, I was happy with this new knowledge. I set off, determined to replicate and improve.

And then I realized I was a poor undergraduate with no kitchen and no budget for sweet potato fancies, and I shelved the idea for a year. Until! Several weeks ago, when I thought it would be a good idea to try it out.

I didn't really find a single recipe that I thought matched the kinds of things I wanted, so I looked at a bunch of recipes and found enough common themes to cobble something together (my Frankenstein recipe below).

My problems were early, frequent, and embarrassing, beginning with my lack of awareness that sweet potatoes and yams are the same thing. Yeah. I know. After spending about 15 minutes staring vacantly at the "roots" section of my grocery, I finally asked someone if they sold sweet potatoes. I figured, since they sold something called yucca, plus a variety of other things that looked like they grew in dirt, sweet potatoes would be right out in the open. Turns out, they were. They were right in front of me, the kind grocer gently pointed out, the way you would if someone asked you if humans were, in fact, bipedal.

"Wait, aren't those yams?" I asked? "Wait, are they the same thing?!?"

I came off about as self-aware as a puppy on a beach ball, but I got my comeuppance when the grocer helped me pick out a few choice specimens before adding, "Looks like rats might have been gnawing on the box so make sure you wash them really well."

I guess it was better for her to tell me, since I then ended up peeling off not just the skin, but a good half inch of potato as well, but I figure it's a bad omen to start of cooking with genuine worries of contracting the Black Plague.

So, I got back to my house with my rodent chew toys (ok, I'll stop. They really looked ok, and I'm still alive, so they were probably fine.), and commenced slicing and dicing. A few weeks back, I'd helped my mom make baked sweet potatoes that were out of this world good--soft, syrupy, pulpy and addictive. While I'm aware that boiling and microwaving probably had something to do with it, I was annoyed at how stiff my potatoes were, and how my less-than-sharp knife, awkward cutting angle, and slippery cutting board (courtesy the three vigorous washes I gave the potatoes) combined to create the kind of situation that came before an amputated finger.

When I did cut them, they looked way too big, meaning I slivered and sliced until I was left with probably 60 fries, rather than the 16-24 the recipe called for. My olive oil, too, gave off the kind of odor that I thought wouldn't mix well with fries, and the salt-sugar-pepper mix ended up mostly on my hands and the pan, not the fries. Undaunted, unaware of the calamity to follow, I stuck the fries into the oven and danced off to watch Family Guy, visions of perfectly crispy, salty-sweet fries dancing in my head.

My first sign that things were going bad came about 15 minutes in, when a smell emerged from the oven that shouted more "Danger! Danger!" than "Bust out the forks and knives." Although the recipe called for at least another 15 minutes of baking, like a runner who breaks an ankle at the starting line, I knew it was over. What I pulled from my oven were about 60 shrunken little sticks that looked slightly orange beneath a blackened crust. To be fair, I did eat one or two of them, and what I tasted, besides my own shame in food form, could on some level be misconstrued as sweet-potato-fry-ish. I saved some of them in a Tupperware container that is still sitting in my fridge, poor thing, but the majority were tossed out while I huddled around my oven, rubbing my hands together and saying "Whyyyy???"

I'm planning to try again this week, because no one likes a quitter (unless you smoke, in which case you're a hero). I'll let you know how it goes...

2-3 sweet potatoes
olive oil for coating
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1/2 tablespoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Wash, don't peel, potatoes.
Cut in half lengthwise and divide halves into 4 fries.
Mix sugar, salt, cayenne pepper, and black pepper.
Sprinkle mix on potatoes.
Bake, on one side, for 25 minutes.
Flip with spatula and bake for 5-10 minutes.
Remove and sprinkle with more of the mix while still hot.

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