From Too Many Chefs -

February 26, 2006
IMBB23 - Vive La France (or actually French Canada, eh?)

Ever have one of those friends who is just plain a contrarian? Yep, that's me. So when Cucina Testa Rossa announced the theme of IMBB 23 would be to make a regional French dish with a glass of wine, I got busy figuring out how to subvert the theme just a little without ignoring it. I found my answer on the Eastern Shore of Canada.

The French and the British have been rivals since before 1066. In the 1600's and 1700's, the French and English were in competition for resources in Northern North America. In the mid-1600's a group of 100 French families settled along the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia (which was then called the Baie Francaise). These "Acadians" lived prosperously on the rich fishing resources of the Bay and farmed the rough rocky soil of Eastern Canada.

Many were expelled from the area in 1755 by the Brits, who forced them south and back to Europe. The Acadians were allowed back ten years later, but their lands and posessions had been forfeited to British settlers, and they were forced to take inferior claims.

Eventually, Nova Scotia was absorbed into the nation of Canada, and French Acadian traditions became a part of Canada's cultural heritage.

Among the Acadian dishes was a mashed potato ball filled with pork called poutine. The recipe I'm preparing for this IMBB is not THAT poutine, but another potato based dish created later in Quebec, by French Canadians.

Modern day poutine is a three layered dish consisting of french fries, fresh cheese curds, and gravy. It may or may not derive from the orignal Acadian poutine, but it certainly originated in Quebec, the heart of French Canada.

According to Wikipedia, the most popular story of the origin of modern poutine is a story of Fernand Lachance, from Warwick, Quebec, which claims that "poutine was invented in 1957, when a customer ordered fries while waiting for his cheese curds from the Kingsey cheese factory in Kingsey Falls . Lachance is said to have exclaimed ša va faire une maudite poutine ('it will make a hell of a mess'), hence the name. The sauce was allegedly added later, to keep the fries warm longer. Linguists have found no occurrence of the word poutine with this meaning earlier than 1978."

Whatever the origin, poutine is authentically French-Canadian in origin and is great for a bite while watching a Montreal Canadiens game. It's not as sophisticated as coq au vin or duck a l'orange, but when you drop your relatives off in the wilderness, you have to expect their descendents to be a little more roughneck than you.

If you can stand to slum for a bit in the midst of all the fine French cuisine that will be presented for this event try out a batch of lowbrow poutine and I hope you'll enjoy "one hell of a mess."

Optionally Vegetarian Poutine
Fries -
4 large Idaho-style (starchy) potatoes
4 inches of vegetable oil in a pot with smoke point over 400 F (corn, peanut, etc...) A serious poutiner (?) would use beef fat or lard.

16 oz. Fresh White Cheddar Cheese curds (or softish white cheese like provolone or mozarella, but curds are strongly preferred)

Use you own favorite meat gravy or use my
Mushroom Gravy (based on this recipe)
2 1/4 cups vegetable stock (plus see below)
1 medium onion diced
8 large button mushrooms, diced fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons Tamari soy sauce
5 teaspoons cornstarch dissoved in 1/4 cup vegetable stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste
black pepper to taste (it should taste peppery)

Take you cheese curds out of the refrigerator and leave them at room temperature so they can soften up a little while you prepare this recipe.

Cheese curds are hard to find most places, but if you live near a cheese center (like Vermont or Wisconsin) you should be able to find someplace that has these squeaky little marvels. I drove to Mars to get mine - the Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha, Wisonsin.

If you don't live near a center of cheese production - move. Or use a similar white cheese cut into 1" chunks. No seriously, move.

Potato prep and first fry:
You will want a basket skimmer, or a pot with a fry basket along with an oil/candy thermometer. I got a kit from Lodge at Edward Don's that included a cast iron pot with fry basket and thermometer for Just over $30.

Cut the potatoes into french fry sized and shaped pieces, about 1/4" wide. I used a kitchen mandoline with a fry blade for this task. Use the guard. I also did not peel the potatoes as I like the skins, I just made sure they were well washed.

In a large pot, wash the fries with water. Let the fries sit in cold water for ten mintues. The water should turn cloudy from starch on the cut surfaces of the potatoes. Change the water and repeat until the water stays clear after ten minutes. What you're doing is removing surface starches and sugars exposed by the cutting that might carmelize then burn in the frier. This will lead to a better tasting fry.

Drain and pat dry the potatoes with paper towels. You don't want water mixing with that oil later.

Heat four inches of oil in your pot. There should be at least four more inches above it. There will be expansion and bubbling up when you lower the fries into the oil. If there's not enough space, you could have the oil overflow the pot, contact the flame or element of your stove, and WHOOSH! Now you have a grease fire to deal with.

You do have a fully charged and regularly inspected fire extingusiher appropriate for killing grease fires handy and know how to use it don't you? Go ahead and get one and learn how to use it. We'll wait...

Use the oil thermometer to verify the oil is at 325 F. Drop a small batch of french fries into the oil and fry them for four to five minutes. When you see the barest hint of color appearing on the fries, remove them from the oil, and drain. If you try one now, it's going to suck. They aren't done yet.

Use the thermometer to verify the moment when the oil temperature (which will have dropped since you added colder food to hotter oil) reaches 325 F again. Drop a second batch and repeat the process until you've run through all the fries. It's OK if the first batches cool. We're going to fry them one more time.

The first fry "breaks the back" of the starches in the fry and does most of the cooking. You'll notice the fries are limp, pale, and not very good if eaten just after the first fry. The second fry, at a higher temperature later, will give us the crispness and crunch you should expect in a good french fry.

Of course we're going to smother the things in gravy and kill any crispness the fries might have had, but if you're going to make fries, you might as well do it right.

Put the fries aside, keep the oil warm, but no hotter than 350 F and let's do the gravy.

Gravy -
Chop your onions and mushrooms to a 1/4" or smaller dice.

Heat the 2 1/4 cups of vegetable stock in a saucepan. Add the onions, mushrooms, and garlic and stir well. Cook for about five minutes until the mushroom are startign to color and flavor the stock.

Add the tamari, dissolved cornstarch in stock, and stir well. Raise the heat just to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Stir in the tomato paste and add pepper to taste.

Simmer for at least five minutes, stirring frequently. Take an immersion blender and blend the gravy smooth. Continue to simmer. The gravy should thicken up. Continue cooking until the gravy is the consistency you prefer.

Second Fry -
Preheat the oven to 200 F and have a big oven-safe bowl ready.
Raise the oil temperature to 375 F. Refy the fries for about 75 seconds until golden brown. Remove from oil, drain, and salt immediately. Salt sticks best when the oil is hot.

Place the drained and salted fries in the oven safe bowl in teh 200 F oven. Repeat frying method with all fries until done. This is the frying that makes the fries crunchy and attractive.

Assembly -
The traditional plating for this fine French-heritage-via-the-Great-White-North dish is a styrofoam fast food container, but we had to make do with plates. Start with about 1/4 of the fries.

Add about 1/4 of the cheese curds.

Add about 1/4 of the gravy.

Mix it together to make a "hell of a mess" and enjoy with a fine Canadian um, wine. Like Labatt's Blue. We substituted a Goose Island 312 for the Labatt's, but you really do want beer with this dish, not wine.

Think of the beer as a "yellow wine", and in the words of the OTHER great French settlement in North America - Laissez le bons temps rouler!

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Posted by Barrett in Maryland at February 26, 2006 8:27 PM

That looks oddly appealing. In a kind of sick way...

Posted by Meg in Paris on February 27, 2006 at 2:40 AM

You drove to the Cheese Castle? Every time we pass that place in the car, it cracks me up.

Posted by Justin on February 27, 2006 at 6:14 AM

Justin, the Cheese Castle is a destination. Inside are the most amazing examples of heart-clogging encased smoked meats and curdled milk products.

You should never drive PAST the Cheese Castle.

You should only drive TO, and then FROM the Mars Cheese Castle

Posted by barrett on February 27, 2006 at 6:58 AM

Barrett, interestingly enough my Larousse Gastronomique has the following to say about Poutine:

"A dish from the south of France, consisting of a mixture of tiny young fish, particularly sardines and anchovies which are fried like whitebait. The name comes from the dialect of Nice, from the word poutina (porridge). Poutine can also be made with poached fish sprinkled with lemon and oil, and can be used to garnish a soup or fill an omelette."

Bizarre, no? I have never heard the word "poutine" to mean "mess" though the porridge one sounds logical to me.

Anyway, thought you'd be interested in what it means on this side of the pond!

Posted by Meg in Paris on February 27, 2006 at 8:26 AM

Well, I'll have to make the family stop there next time we're in Kenosha to visit the Grandma. There's been a lot of hype about the place (not only from you), but up until now it has only been an unattained dream of mine. Do they have cheese-related rides and games as well, or is that just fanciful hopefulness? I suppose if they don't, the Dells do.

Posted by Justin on February 27, 2006 at 8:32 AM

Justin, there aren't any now, but cheese related rides would be marvelous! They could have them all along a Mid-Whey.

Meg, that's interesting. I'm taking my French language knowledge from the Wikipedia, so I can't vouch or decry their definition.

Maybe it's Franco-Canadian slang?

Posted by barrett on February 27, 2006 at 9:14 AM

I just had to wade in- I never thought I'd see homegrown fast food worming its way onto a food blog. You are brave, brave soul Barrett. I've always been too scared to try poutine since the day a friend decided to eat a batch before an exam. I'll leave the results to your imaginations; suffice to say it was noisy for us and painful for her.

Thanks for all the historic tidbits- it's usually just taken as a Quebec thing across the country, with little thought to origins.

Posted by Raspberry Sour on February 27, 2006 at 8:36 PM