by Lauren Nixon, FoodCorps service member in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
To many middle schoolers, the French fry is king. According to them, it’s the most versatile, dippable, craveable food known to humankind. The students that I educate as a FoodCorps service member, K-8th graders at Greater Brunswick Charter School in New Brunswick, New Jersey can be picky. The students like some vegetables, but I can’t get too experimental too fast—a mere photo of romanesco or a white eggplant can elicit a roomful of sighs. We’re still working on discussions regarding seasonality—the fact that The Garden State is a hotbed for tomatoes and not, say, papayas and mangoes, is still a work in progress. That aside, I’m working on meeting them halfway, which is important not only as aFoodCorps service member, but whenever you’re introducing any student of any age to a new concept. So, I set my sights on delivering the crunch and the familiar flavors that they crave, but with a twist.
I had excellent responses from a squash chip that we’d made earlier in the fall–They’re better than Lay’s, one student gushed—so I thought I’d revisit that territory. But it was time to up the ante. The farmers markets are brimming with really lovely sweet potatoes right now. A sweet potato fry, seasoned and baked, seemed like the perfect middle ground. Many of them have experienced sweet potatoes before—studded with marshmallows, little puddles of maple syrup resting in the crevices. I thought I’d strip the beloved sweet potato down—allow it to take off its typical Thanksgiving attire and coax out a cleaner, sleeker, and most importantly healthier image.
For this class, we worked with three varieties of potatoes: Japanese, garnet, and Beauregard. We slicked the fries in a bit of olive oil and generous pinches of cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder—a warming combination with visual and textural interest from the three potato varieties.
Alas, it was time for the taste test. I asked the students for adjectives to describe their experience with the fries—the flavor, the texture, the smell. I looked around the room and saw stuffed cheeks, heard little smacks coming from their mouths, saw a bit of finger licking, too. I asked again for adjectives to describe the fries. They ignored me and pushed on with their chewing. Finally, one student, Jason, coming up for air said, “They’re bangin’.” I laughed. He repeated his sentiment and I laughed once more. That was Jason’s official stamp of approval.
Earlier in the day, I had tested a small batch of fries on my own, just to make sure that they’d be kid approved. I stood by the oven as it churned, the glass warm, the edges of the potatoes curling up, ready. I reached into the oven, grabbed a fry, and slipped it into my mouth. It was one of those moments when your eyes curl back in your head and you sigh to yourself because yes, it’s that good. It was one of those moments when you realize that fall has indeed arrived, and that autumn vegetables are splendid little gifts that Mother Nature presents to us mere mortals on earth.
As I reflect upon that lone moment by the stove, I realize that Jason was right. In fact, he was spot on. There’s no other adjective out there. The fries were bangin’.
Sweet Potato Fries—Remixed
2 large garnet sweet potatoes
2 large Beauregard sweet potatoes
2 large Japanese sweet potatoes
2-½ tbsp. olive oil (coconut oil, softened at room temperature, would work just as well here, too!)
½ tsp. cayenne (less for little palates that aren’t so keen on heat, more for adults who enjoy heat!)
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Give your sweet potatoes a good scrubbing and rinse thoroughly. Cut potatoes into strips that are ¼ inch wide, making sure that all of your sweet potatoes are about the same size to ensure that they all cook evenly. Slick with oil and toss in salt, pepper, and spices. If you’re someone who enjoys a heavily spiced French fry like me, feel free to add more than the kid-friendly measurements above. Spread across a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake 25-30 minutes and let cool for 10 minutes.