April 20, 2012
Creating a recipe—or even choosing one—requires a considerable amount of negotiation. For most of us, flavor may carry the most leverage, but there are many other concerns to bring to the table (excuse the pun)—health benefits, preparation time, sustainability, environmental impact, cost, etc. As an example, here’s a story about how I came up with this week’s recipe: Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Garlic Yogurt.
Let me begin by explaining my insatiable and uncontrollable fixation with French fries. When I sit down to order lunch at a restaurant, I automatically rule out every dish that does not come with fries. Sometimes, I won’t even bother ordering a sandwich for appearances’ sake—I’ll just get a mound of fries and maybe a side salad to assuage my guilt. I often wish that I could transfer this obsession to a food item that does not lead the list of foods that cause weight gain. Why can’t I crave carrots instead?
Last week I had an urge for French fries that I was unable to ignore. I elected to forgo the deep-fried variety, thus sparing myself the excess calories and expensive quart of oil. Instead, I cut an Idaho potato into long, thin strips (with the skin on because I like the taste and it’s good for me), tossed the strips with a minimal amount of olive oil, and baked them on a foil-covered baking sheet.
Normally I eat fries with ketchup or aioli, but ketchup is processed and high in sugar and aioli is almost entirely fat, so I decided to try them with a yogurt sauce I invented to go with shish tawook, a Lebanese chicken dish I’m very fond of.
My yogurt sauce is one of those happy accidents in the kitchen. Garlic sauce, or toum, in traditional Levantine cuisine is an emulsion of oil, garlic, lemon juice, and sometimes egg whites. It’s very similar to French aioli, but in my experience less stable. Once when I was making a recipe for toum with egg whites, the emulsion collapsed and I didn’t have any more eggs with which to start over, so I decided to make the garlic paste and mix it into yogurt. The result was so good that I haven’t bothered making the real thing since. It’s fantastic on a variety of dishes, including French fries, as I recently discovered.
As I was gorging myself on oven fries with garlic yogurt, I thought about ways to make this new favorite side dish of mine even more healthful and settled on sweet potatoes. Compared to regular potatoes, sweet potatoes have fewer calories, more vitamin A and C, and more fiber. The difference may not be that significant, but I’ll take what I can get. As it turns out, sweet potato fries taste even better with the garlic yogurt than regular potatoes do. The only downside is they don’t crisp up as much, but that’s a flaw I’m more than willing to live with. The alternative would be to deep-fry them, and I’d rather not trade less fat for more crunch.
So as you can see, this one simple recipe required several rounds of negotiation. Deep-frying produces crispier fries but creates more waste and expense and results in a less healthful dish. Lining the baking sheet with aluminum foil is wasteful but practically eliminates cleanup and doubles as a container for the leftovers, if there are any—just leave the extra fries on the foil and fold up the whole thing. Garlic yogurt is lower in fat and higher in protein than ketchup, aioli, or toum, but it requires more effort than ketchup and it contains an animal product, which I try to avoid when possible. Olive oil is more expensive than other types of oil but has more health benefits. Sweet potatoes are slightly more healthful and flavorful than regular potatoes but produce a less crispy fry.
This is perhaps more thought than most people put into what they’re eating, but the more I read about food production and consumption in the U.S., the more I realize how necessary it is to think about what I’m buying and putting into my body. Just in the last week I read about a study that found arsenic, caffeine, and other strange chemicals in chicken and an entirely different study that found E. coli in half the packaged raw chicken it sampled. Arsenic and E. coli? In my dinner? No, thank you.
And that’s just chicken. A study of girls born to pregnant women who ate beef and milk (accidentally) laced with the “estrogen-mimicking chemical” PBB showed a correlation between the mother’s consumption of the chemical and the daughter’s premature menstruation. Red meat is also associated with higher risk of death from heart disease and cancer. ONE extra serving of processed red meat a day raises your risk of premature death by 20%. Twenty!
To ignore all of this new information about health and food consumption would be akin to ignoring new studies linking cigarettes to lung cancer in the 1930s. Which is not to say we should give up red meat or poultry entirely (maybe we should; I don’t know), but just that we need to be more discerning about what we buy and how much of certain things we eat.
Unfortunately, the negotiation of eating is not as intuitive as one would think. Eating grass-fed beef may seem like a more ethical, healthful choice, but as a recent NY Times op-ed pointed out, letting the cows roam free in grassy pastures is not a sustainable or environmentally sound alternative to the current industrial model. Finding a solution to America’s food crisis is going to take a lot more negotiating than my dinner plans, but if we all do our part (starting with reducing our meat consumption) we’ll have a healthier environment with a healthier population.
Sweet potato fries and a tomato sandwich—the perfect lunch!
Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Garlic Yogurt
For the yogurt:
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Scrub the sweet potato and cut out any bad parts. Cut the sweet potato in half lengthwise and then into ¼ inch strips. Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil, transfer the sweet potato strips to the foil, and then toss them with the olive oil on the baking sheet. Arrange in one layer and sprinkle with salt. Bake the fries in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown on the bottom.
While the fries are baking, mince the garlic on a cutting board with a large, heavy blade. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over the garlic and, using the sharp edge of your knife, press and scrape the garlic into the board until it forms a paste. Mix the garlic paste into the yogurt and set aside (this will keep in the fridge for a long time).
Remove the fries from the oven and carefully turn them over one at a time (they stick a little so I find this is easiest to do by peeling them off of the foil using two forks). Return the fries to the oven for another 10 minutes or until golden brown on the other side. Sprinkle with salt and serve with the garlic yogurt.
*Note: I've made these fries with both white and orange sweet potatoes (the orange ones are also called yams) and I find that they're best made with white sweet potatoes.
**Note: You can use any kind of yogurt for this recipe. I’ve made it with thick Greek yogurt (pictured here) and thin organic yogurt. It’s delicious either way!