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Forget candied. Try these simple spears.

Sweet potato strips Sweet potato strips lightly coated with oil and roasted in the oven make crisp, golden fries. (Dina Rudick / Globe staff)
By Michael Saunders
Globe Staff / November 19, 2007
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Pity the poor sweet potato fry.

Too often it's a soggy, limp cousin to its white-potato kin, never reaching the expected crispness we've been conditioned to expect from a fry. In large part, that's because most sweet potato fries commonly available in restaurants are prepared in the same way as regular fries - a brief bath in a deep fryer - which usually dooms them to a short unhappy life, pushed away to the edge of a plate.

Crispy sweet potato fries can actually be made at home, which I tried more than a dozen times recently. At the holidays, some families like their sweet potatoes mashed and buttery, and covered with marshmallows. Others spread them into a pie, or whip them into a souffle with eggs and spices. But cutting the potatoes into strips and roasting in a light film of oil is a healthy approach for the holiday table and helps unleash the potatoes' flavor. The best and least oily were coated with canola oil and spices and roasted in a hot oven, which yields great fries if you exercise some patience and diligence in the last 10 minutes. That final roasting time is when the magic happens, when the soluble sugars of the potato undergo complex physical and chemical changes that give each fry a delicious browned crust.

Of course, roasting isn't the only way to go. With proper oil temperature control, it's possible to deep fry sweet potatoes to an acceptable level of crispness. Adding the strips of potato in small batches will keep them from sticking together in a gloppy mess and result in nicely browned fries with soft centers. But the crispness clock immediately starts ticking the instant the fries are removed from the hot oil because the sweet potato's higher moisture will migrate to the crisp exterior, turning them soggy within minutes.

Blasting the fries with dry heat takes advantage of the complex Maillard reactions that occur during roasting, and helps retain the sweet potato's natural nutritional advantages. Ounce for ounce, sweet potatoes are among the most nutritious vegetables available, but they're most commonly served drowned in butter and sugar - or deep fried. Oven-roasted fries are a guilt-free alternative.

Choosing the right sweet potatoes is important. White sweet potatoes can be used, but they're often long, lean, and fibrous. Stick to jewel or garnet varieties, which are often mistakenly labeled as yams. Gnarled, scrawny ones are sweet but often stringy. Large ones can contain excess moisture and not much flavor. A medium sweet potato is about the size of a large russet potato, and will often be sweeter than the football shaped ones, but not as fibrous as the runts of the bin.

Peeling the sweet potato is optional, but the skins add texture and crunch. Most important is cutting the potato lengthwise into uniform slices, about 1/2-inch thick, which makes the task of timing the exit a bit easier. Wedges are fine, but it's better to square off the extreme angles to prevent them from burning before the rest of the slice is cooked through.

Ignore any advice to use a rack, and banish from your kitchen anyone who suggests it. This method makes acceptably firm fries, but they lack the magic of ones cooked on a heavy baking sheet. In fact, that's one of the secrets: when the potatoes release their juices into the pan, this should be used to glaze the slices. Nothing fancy; just use the implement you're turning the fries with to give them a quick dip, the heat will turn the sugar into a crunchy shell that surrounds the sweet, soft center.

Before roasting, season the fries lightly with salt, pepper, and paprika. Old Bay seasoning can be added instead of salt. In our house, we use dry Indian rogan josh seasoning (penzeys.com) for a deeper, more complex flavor. Many blends are a mixture of spices such as paprika, ginger, cumin, cayenne, cinnamon, and cloves, most of which are featured in other holiday dishes.

My wife's Indian heritage means she has jars upon jars of individual spices and spice blends in the cabinets (and other jars tucked away in pantries for rainy days). While rushing to cook roasted cubed sweet potatoes for the family one night, she mistakenly sprinkled dry rogan josh seasoning on the dish instead of the seasoned salt blend we often use.

We've never turned back.

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