French fries are a side dish that Americans keep a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, they are one of the worlds best comfort foods, and they’re simply delicious — arguably one of the best uses of a potato. On the other hand, they are usually deep-fried fatty monsters that is more often than not used as a banner symbol of the unhealthy ways of American eating (they are prominently featured in the notorious S.A.D. — Standard American Diet — as a leading cause of all the world criticizes in our dietary ways).
This reputation is actually somewhat unwarranted, however, for a few reasons and under certain circumstances. First, potatoes are actually a very healthy vegetable, recognized as the second most nutritious veggie available in a whole-nutrition picture, and second, done correctly, French fries actually contain surprisingly little grease. Properly fried, the expanding steam coming from the rapidly cooking potatoes keeps most of the oil from absorbing into the fries, though overdoing them just a little or draining them improperly makes them a health-food nightmare. Sadly, the “proper” frying method requires two vats of oil at different temperatures and a fair amount of expertise to master.
Two improvements can be made to increase the nutritive value of French fries that you make at home, and a deep fryer isn’t even on the list of required equipment. French fries can come out of an oven, baked instead of fried, every bit as good as they can out of a vat of searing-hot oil, and French fries can be made out of the most nutritious vegetable instead: sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes are definitely a great ingredient: they’re starchy like potatoes with a major boost to their overall nutrition due to their high content of several important vitamins and minerals, most notably beta carotene, a Vitamin-A precursor, in the brilliant orange sweet potatoes, though they are also high in Vitamin B-6, Vitamin C, and dietary fiber. In the survey ranking the veggies in overall nutritive value, sweet potatoes earned 184 points while the common potato, in second place, earned only 84 points, meaning sweet potatoes are astronomically more nutritious than the vast majority of vegetables (study conducted by the National Center for Science in the Public Interest in 1992). Of course, no Knoxvillian (or any other Southerner for that matter) needs telling that sweet potatoes are both good to eat and good for you! These gems are a Southern staple.
Sweet potatoes are also available in a variety of fun colors, as are regular potatoes if you’re lucky enough to find them (or grow them yourself!). The recipe featured in this article uses both orange and purple sweet potatoes for a fun complementary-color effect (one that would be great at Halloween, actually).
Purple sweet potatoes, which are shockingly purple inside, taste quite a bit like the usual orange sweet potatoes except that they tend to be a little less sweet and a little more dense and firm in texture, making them ideal for making fantastic fries (although there’s something very interesting and strangely exciting about a heap of purple mashed sweet potatoes — kids love the novelty and the flavor). Their nutritional profile is also quite similar, making them an excellent choice for a healthy table, although they tend to be lower in beta carotene and higher in antioxidants (higher, in fact, than blueberries) in the form of purple anthocyanins.
Recipe: Oven-baked sweet potato French fries in purple and orange — Ingredients
- One large orange sweet potato, peeled and cut into half-inch square fries, 2-3 inches long;
- One large purple sweet potato, peeled and cut similarly;
- Seasoned salt, to taste;
- 1-2 tablespoons canola or olive oil;
- Water for boiling.
- Preheat the oven to 400 F and start a pot of water boiling.
- Prepare the potatoes as indicated and spread a thin layer of oil on a large baking sheet using a paper towel;
- When the water is boiling vigorously, par-boil the sweet potato fries by letting them boil until about halfway cooked, approximately 5-6 minutes, and then drain them. It is very important not to boil the fries for too long because they will not be firm enough to maintain their shape during draining.
- When the fries are drained, dry them a little further on a towel or paper towel before transferring them to the baking sheet. Try to give each fry a little of its own room.
- Season the fries with seasoned salt and drizzle or spray (if you have an oil spritzer) the oil over them — adding the oil is crucial to producing the proper French fried taste, otherwise they will simply taste baked.
- Bake in the oven until they start to get crusty on the outside, approximately 15-20 minutes, shaking the pan gently occasionally. Remove them from the oven when done and taste one. Adjust the seasoning by adding just a bit more seasoned salt or freshly ground black pepper while they are still hot.
More info and serving tips:
- Par-boiling the sweet potatoes first will get some of the moisture out of them before you bake them, allowing them to get fluffy on the inside and a bit crisp on the outside like properly fried potatoes. Skipping the par-boiling stage will result in soggy fries from the oven.
- This process works with regular potatoes as well for homemade oven-baked French fries that the whole family will love.
- These sweet potato fries are delicious on their own and excellent dipped in any of the following sauces: ketchup (of course), mayonnaise (if that’s your style), Russian or Thousand Island dressing (you’ll have to try it!), horseradish sauce, and particularly spicy barbecue sauces that aren’t too sweet (e.g. Joe’s Mo-Hotter XX Hell Sauce, an East Tennessee specialty).
- Sweet potato French fries are delicious in any circumstance that regular French fries are good.
Buy it locally! Sweet potatoes, being a Southern staple, are available essentially everywhere in Knoxville-area grocery stores, but the purple ones take some luck to find. The one featured in this article was picked up at The Fresh Market in Knoxville, so they can occasionally be had there. Keep your eyes open for them and take advantage when you see them; they’re worth it. For the sauce mentioned, Joe’s Mo-Hotter XX Hell Sauce, which isn’t very hot actually and tastes like barbecue sauce, visit the Horn of Plenty Marketplace on West Broadway in Maryville.
Order them instead: If you don’t feel like making your own sweet potato fries, you can order them at some restaurants in and around Knoxville, so keep your eyes open on the menus. Sunspot, on Cumberland Drive near UT, for instance, serves them, as does Hot Rod’s 50’s Style Diner in Maryville (though the regular French fries at Hot Rod’s are so good that they’re hard to turn down, even for their great onion rings or sweet potato French fries).
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