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Sweet Potato Chips and Lessons from an Everlasting Root

Here we go again--another one of those weeks.  We're living really close to the bone right now...so close it feels like I've created my own personal Great Depression.  I'm having to cut out luxuries (like the Kings of Leon concert last Friday...sigh...) and really take inventory of what I can use up in the kitchen without buying more.  This past weekend, of course, was opening day of the Cherry Street Farmers' Market.  I couldn't go to that, either.  That hurt.  That was supposed to be my fresh produce for the week.  But, nope.  Not this week, honey.  Good thing I've still got a few green things tucked back in the freezer, and enough dry beans and rice to get us through.  I'm not starving, that's for sure.  It's not everything I wish I was eating, but the food we preserved last summer has stretched further than I ever thought it would.  

My husband, for example, at a loss for what to throw together for dinner Saturday night, said, "well, we've got that sweet potato."  That sweet potato.  (And, please don't call it a yam.  It's not.  They are entirely different creatures.)  That monstrosity of a root vegetable which we'd bought marked down at the tail end of last year's growing season, since the farmer we'd bought it from was trying to move her bigger specimens.  Apparently, no one wants a sweet potato roughly the size of a baby (no, not a baby's arm.--a baby).  Which this one was.  Me, I'm adventurous (sort of), and I'm always up for a bargain, so I bought it up, brought it home, placed it in a cool, dark place (our cupboard), and forgot about it.  Not because it was out of sight.  No, it was just one of those things that became part of the scenery, something we always nudged to the side to get to the canned tomatoes in the back.  Because, really, what do you do with a sweet potato that big?  Unless you're feeding company the size of a football team or the population of Tuvalu

So yeah, we still had that sweet potato.  How it survived the whole winter and into this spring without withering to a wrinkled husk like any other potato would've done, I can't tell you.  Perhaps sweet potatoes are just that storage-friendly.  But survive it did, able to fulfill its destiny as our last resort side dish and leading to joys and wonders that saved the entire weekend from being a complete bust.  

Saturday, we cut off half the tuber and turned it into oven-baked sweet potato fries, made in my usual manner.  I crank the oven to 400/425 degrees Fahrenheit, cut up the potato into small French fry shapes, coat in olive oil, sprinkle with a little seasoning salt and throw it in the oven for around 20-30 minutes...that time is an estimate.  You want it slightly crisp, done all the way through, but not burnt.  You know.  Like fries.  

See, I mostly play with my food.  I don't do much in the gourmet sense of cooking.  I just try to make stuff I like that isn't a mega pain the butt...and if it is a mega pain the butt, it's something that's well worth it (like making your own homemade Swedish meatballs...heaven).  So that little paragraph up there is my whole sweet potato fry recipe (the instructions for which I'm pretty sure I actually got from Terri at some point, in a frantic "how do you to this again?" phone call, like the ones she gets from me frequently).  Everything's eyeballed.  I hope you're okay with that.  I am.

Now to the wonders.  Because, you see, though baked sweet potato fries are always a joy (I do love them so), they're kind of old hat to me by now.  Not that I've perfected them.  There is little in my world that's perfect.  But I've made them often enough, and they usually turn out pretty good.  The wonders, however, happened when my husband had a stroke of genius on Sunday night, when our dinner options were low and the need for culinary creativity was reaching an all-time high.  He asked again...

"Do we still have that sweet potato?"

There had been some debate the night before, followed by some brief, unsatisfying Googling, of what to do with the remains of a raw, cut sweet potato.  I read that we couldn't just refrigerate it, because for some reason that would make the flesh bitter.  It could be frozen, but only if it was cooked (which it wasn't).  In the end, we left it on the counter and went to bed, me reasoning that it would either go bad or be fine.  It was fine.

So, yeah...we still had that sweet potato.  The second half of it, anyway.  And I tell you, friends, these roots, when left to their own devices (and kept out of the light and damp) do not die.  This one didn't, anyway.  

Now, the stroke of brilliance.  My husband wanted to make chips.  Not a particularly new idea, I understand that.  But we'd never made them before (not with sweet potatoes, anyway...we'd made regular white potato chips, which are wonderful, wonderful things when made in your own skillet).  The next question was, what to fry them in?  I'd given up canola oil a few months ago, after learning that it's not the wonder oil I thought it was (I get resentful when I feel duped), and had been relying primarily on olive oil, butter, and animal fats.  But I didn't have a vat of old-fashioned lard lying around, and olive oil can't take that kind of heat*.  I did, however, have a new container of coconut oil, which I had bought primarily for the purpose of pan frying, (potentially erroneously; I'm still trying to figure this which-oils-are-safe-to-cook-to-what-temperatures thing) but which I'd only used once and was still not quite familiar with.  We decided to try it.  

The chips turned out beautifully.  There are a few kinks we need to work out, of course.  First, the thickness. Ours were pretty irregular (we were hungry and in a hurry and were using the slicing side of cheese grater.  Sue us.), so it was quickly obvious that if they were too thin, they burned, if they were too thick, they never crisped up.  As you can see, some of ours were a little of both.

Second, the temperature of the coconut oil.  It is supposed to withstand heat up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, but we weren't using a thermometer.  We learned that you have to keep it at or just above medium heat, otherwise it starts smoking (an indication of carcinogenic badness that must be avoided at all costs--just sayin').

When they came out of the pan, we sprinkled them with a little salt to bring out their sweetness.   There was just the barest hint of coconut flavor, which pared well with the sweet potatoes,  and if it's any testament to the success of this sweet potato chip experiment, we ate them nearly as fast as we cooked them.  I had to scrounge all the prettiest ones at the end, just to take a picture for you.

There you have it.  The joys and wonders of a native root vegetable that lasted us an entire winter of neglect and presumption, and which managed to create a handsomely portioned side dish for this family of three for two meals.  As always, the bounty puts me to shame.  I learn again--take nothing for granted.

*I may actually be wrong about the fryability (pretty sure that's not a real word) of olive oil.  If you go to the link in that statement, it appears that extra virgin olive oil may be just as suitable as coconut oil.  Hmm... I will have to research this further.

Emily  – (April 12, 2011 at 11:12 AM)  

oh yumm! those look fabulous. i love sweet potato anything. i had a pair of acorn squash that lived in my pantry all autumn and winter just like your sweet potato...they changed from the normal dark green to a solid, bright orange, and they stayed good for months but i couldn't bring myself to eat them, they'd turned into more of a science experiment. just a few weeks ago they started going soft so i chucked them.

Devouring the Seasons  – (April 12, 2011 at 11:33 AM)  

Aw, thanks Terri! I do strive to make you cry happy tears. ;)

Emily - too bad your acorn squash had to be tossed out. :( But, at least they were a learning experience. I had a butternut squash that lasted through a winter like that, which had all the appearances of being still good, but when I cooked it up it was bitter. I have no idea if it was because it was too old, or because it was just a bitter squash to begin with. The mysteries of winter storage vegetables.

Life with my Aspie  – (April 12, 2011 at 11:54 AM)  

Cool story. I especially loved the reference to Tuvalu. LOL Have you seen the size of yams they grow in Oceania?!? They are the size of large children!!!

Those chips looked fabulous. I'm hungry now.

Martha (MM)  – (April 12, 2011 at 1:18 PM)  

Yummy! Sounds like we cook a lot alike :-)

Devouring the Seasons  – (April 12, 2011 at 1:53 PM)  

Life with my Aspie - I have not seen in *person* these ginormous yams (huh... no spell check on ginormous... interesting...), but I've heard tales. And I've sort of seen pictures. I think I read somewhere that they can grow to 8' or something! Crazy.

Martha - Thanks! Glad you stopped by!

cajunlicious  – (April 13, 2011 at 2:05 PM)  

Just came across your wonderful blog and am a new follower!!!
- Jessica

Sarah Franz-Wichlacz  – (April 17, 2011 at 3:49 PM)  

sweet potatoes and coconut oil... fantastic!!!

Sarah Franz-Wichlacz  – (April 18, 2011 at 9:08 AM)  

oh, and in doing a little research it seems that the more refined the oil, the higher the smoke point: extra virgin olive oil~320, virgin~420, extra light~460!

Devouring the Seasons  – (April 18, 2011 at 11:34 AM)  

I knew that the lighter versions of olive oil were supposed to have a higher smoking point but have avoided them since I've read that the processing of the "lesser grades" causes them to be carcinogenic. Here's a link to what I'm talking about, but I first read this in Nina Planck's book "Real Food".

Sarah Franz-Wichlacz  – (April 23, 2011 at 5:11 PM)  

ahhh..... ok, didn't realize that :/

Ottawa Gardener  – (May 6, 2011 at 5:27 AM)  

Yup, they do have storage qualities. I love sweet potatoes, growing them - their pretty plants, harvesting them, eating them but curing them for storage is a bit of a pain. Once cured though, they last for a LONG time. Nice looking chips.

Devouring the Seasons  – (May 9, 2011 at 11:04 AM)  

Thanks, Ottawa Gardener! We're trying to grow our own sweet potato plants for the first time this year, but the lady we bought our plants from said she didn't know how productive the plants were since she just sold them to be decorative. I can't seem to find the plants anywhere else around here, though, so here's hoping. :)

Anonymous –   – (April 24, 2012 at 6:43 PM)  

Hey, thank you for this! I just made a successful batch of sweet potato chips thanks to you :)

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