Writers love to wax poetic about how food and its aromas “take us back,” make us wistful for grandma baking cookies or mom rolling out pizza dough. But food can prompt emotional pain, too, especially when it triggers memories of an ex. For me, the food that reminds me of my ex is sweet potato fries. And they don’t just remind me of one ex-girlfriend, they remind me of all of them.
I have sat down with every ex-girlfriend at a restaurant and heard them say “Ooh! We should get sweet potato fries!” I’m not just morphing all of my exes into one gigantic Kaiju-style monster, either. I’m talking about them separately, like that part in Mambo No. 5 where Lou Bega just lists a bunch of names. It’s the most consistent through line to every relationship I’ve had, to the point that sweet potato fries might be ruined for me.
Here’s my beef with sweet potato fries, unpleasant relationship memories aside: They don’t really go with burgers. You wouldn’t order a steak and say, “Can I get a side of yams?” They’re often too sweet, tossed in brown sugar (ugh), then served with ketchup for some reason (gross). I hear they’re healthier—the reason I suspect my exes all like them so much—but I think that’s probably a lie once they pass through a deep fryer.
Somebody once suggested, “Get off your high horse, Danny. Sweet potato fries go great with a carved turkey sandwich!” You’re right, Alex from 2014, sweet potato fries do go great with a carved turkey sandwich, and hey while we’re at it, let’s crack open a can of cranberry sauce this July and throw on some reruns of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
It bothers me when a sweet potato, which some people think is a yam, masquerades as a regular potato. Sweet potatoes are vastly different from other potatoes and thus require different care and strategy. Most recipes tell you to bake sweet potato fries and that they will still be crispy. That is a lie. For starters, true sweet potatoes contain much more starch than regular potatoes. That can get in the way of achieving crispiness, so it’s best to soak—and re-soak—your fresh-cut sweet potato fries, and to use cornstarch to help develop texture.
For me, sweet potatoes work best alone (oh god, what a metaphor), not as an appetizer and definitely not something to be paired with beef. I’ve developed a recipe for sweet potato fries that are starkly different than the ones I’ve had in restaurants. Crispy, with a little heat to give them more depth. Not served with ketchup. They’re a totally different experience. I’m just trying to take the memory back.
Palumbo’s Way-Better Sweet Potato Fries
- 4 sweet potatoes
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- Grapeseed or canola oil
- Ground chipotle seasoning
- tahini and lemon juice (optional)
Cut the ends off the sweet potatoes but leave the skin on. Start at one end and cut half-inch long vertical planks. You should get about four or five from each potato. Now cut those planks into about quarter- to half-inch French fries.
Soak these planks in a bowl of water for about an hour, then drain the water, and put fresh water in again. Soaking is important, as it draws out the starches from the sweet potatoes. You can even soak them overnight.
Drain the potatoes and set the damp fries on a kitchen towel. Pat them down to make sure they are pretty dry. Toss the fries in a bowl with some corn starch. Not too much, maybe a few tablespoons for each batch. You want the fries to look like they’ve been dusted with cornstarch, not coated in it. Too much and they can taste like cornstarch, just enough and you get a nice crunch.
Heat oil to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and fry potatoes in it for about four minutes. Once they’re finished, toss them in a bowl with ground chipotle and salt. I dip them in straight-up tahini paste whisked with lemon juice, a nice counterpart to the sweet heat.