Saturday, October 01, 2005

Crunchy Oven Fries

Ben is ten, and he asks many questions that begin this way: "If you had limitless wishes…" What would you wish for first? (Justice.) How many wishes do you think it would be before you wished that poop didn't smell bad? (Never. Poop smells bad so we'll stay away from it, which helps keep us healthy.)Which wish do you think would go the least like you'd meant it to? (No mosquitoes. Then all the bats would die and the world would fall apart and it would turn into one of those King-Midas stories where you feel like a greedy, foolish jerk.) There are many related questions of the if-you-could-have-anything sort. For instance, this is a popular one: If you could change one unhealthy food to being healthy, what would you pick? Beer? That just doesn't seem like the right thing to say to a child. But then again, Most of the foods I like are already healthy feels like a smarmy Polyanna Granola cop-out. Jalapeno Bottle Caps feels short-sightedly specific, even though our local brew-pub's batter-fried pepper rings may be the junk food I crave most often. But then fried foods is deemed too general. ("Even though you and Birdy both said candy?" "Yes.") So I usually pick French fries.

And I'm seeing the way this story should go: this column should be of the wish-fulfillment sort: And look, now French fries can be healthy! But that's not quite how it's going to be. True, you make these with the skins still on, thereby keeping intact much of the potato's nutritional value. And you use healthy oils, thereby making the most of the grease factor. Plus, I'd always rather see oil amounts in tablespoons rather than quarts. Those are all good things. But, though baked in the oven, these are hardly dietetic. What they are, though, is soul-satisfyingly good. Deeply crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Salty and garlicky and addictive and just totally French-fry-like. They are not at all like those false-promise oven fries that are as limply disappointing as fat-free nuts (if there were such a thing as fat-free nuts, believe me--they'd be disappointing). Oh, they are so good, these fries. If they are a component of a healthy meal, you will feel happy about them. If instead you cave to the pressure of your own craving and make them as an after-school snack and serve them with chipotle mayonnaise, your children will still be too full, even hours later, to eat their lentil soup. "Life is short, eat dessert first." That's a slogan we saw over the weekend and Ben said, "Yeah, and then you'll never actually get to the healthy stuff, and life will be really short." Indeed.

A quick recipe note: I hate to run a recipe that requires a microwave, but I haven't tried making these without that step. Which is funny, given that we are still using Michael's late grandmother's microwave, which is like a cross between a slow cooker and a bug zapper--not in a good way. Also, nuking plastic wrap is not my idea of a good time. If you didn't microwave them, I imagine that the potatoes would still cook through, but they'd be less fluffy inside, and if you try it, please let me know. Likewise, please let me know if you make these with sweet potatoes. Sweet potato fries is another favorite around here. They'd be in at least my top 25 for foods I'd wish were healthy.

Crunchy Oven Fries
This recipe is adapted from America's Test Kitchen, from a recipe that uses all vegetable oil, more garlic, and more seasonings overall (including garlic powder, which seems redundant to me). We ate these with chipotle mayonnaise: a third of a cup of Hellman's (or Best Foods) full-fat mayonnaise, whisked up with a spoonful of chipotle puree, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a bit of salt. Heaven.

4 garlic cloves (or 1 garlic clove the size of a baby's fist), smashed, peeled and pressed through a garlic press or finely chopped
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes (about 3 or 4)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Heat oven to 475. Quarter the potatoes lengthwise, then cut each quarter further into 3 or 4 skinny, even wedges.

Combine the garlic and oil in a large bowl and microwave until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Pour off most of the oil onto a rimmed baking sheet, and tilt the sheet to coat it; you will leave behind the garlic with around 1 tablespoon of oil in the bowl, and this is just right.

Add the potatoes to the bowl and use a rubber spatula to toss and coat them with the oil and garlic. Wrap the bowl tightly in plastic wrap and microwave on high power until the potatoes are translucent around the edges, 3 to 6 minutes, shaking the bowl to redistribute the potatoes halfway through cooking.

Combine the cornstarch, salt, pepper, and cayenne in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the hot potatoes and toss well to coat. Arrange the potatoes in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet and bake, turning once, until deep golden brown and crisp, 30 to 40 minutes (I flip them after 15 minutes). Drain briefly on brown paper bags, then serve hot.

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