In honor of St. Patrick's day, even though he was a Roman and there were no snakes in Ireland to begin with, here's a very Irish subject: Potatoes. [A tip from my late Irish mother-in-law: If the potato has green patches, throw it out; the green is poisonous.]
CHIPS, FRIES AND OTHER HOT POTATOES
(c) Colette Copeland
I can still see the scene clearly, even if it was decade ago: a birthday dinner in a French restaurant, laid out in style on a long table covered by a spotless starched white tablecloth, laid out with gleaming flatwear and wine glasses, a bouquet of flowers sitting in a vase in the centre of the table, all of us waiting for the surprise du soir that we’ve arranged for the birthday girl. A sudden hush as the waiter arrives, a large covered dish on his tray, and walks up to the birthday girl seated at the head of the table. He puts the dish in from of her and uncovers it with a flourish.
Voilà! A mouthwatering mound of hot, thin, crispy french fries, more accurately pommes frites, the real thing, down to the peanut oil in which they’ve been cooked. The birthday girl gasps, then she claps her hands with delight. It’s a happy birthday alright.
It took a child wanting to know why french fries were called that for me to go digging for more esoteric information on potatoes. It was a good question, which led to another: Was it possible that this American specialty wasn’t an American invention? Was it possible that it was actually…French?
Well, yes and no. Americans brought the french fry home from France, but according to most food historians, it was a Belgian invention dating from the late 18th century, or at least a food originating in the Maas Valley, later to become known as Belgium, where they’re cut thick and known as frietjes (fries in Flemish). By the following century, frietjes had found their way to France where chefs cut the potatoes into much thinner strips and, being French, experimented with other shapes, giving us matchstick, shoestring, waffle and soufflé chips, to name only a handful.
While the wonderful taste of pommes frites supposedly comes from the peanut oil they’re cooked in, frietjes owe more to the cooking method which undergo cooking twice, once to cook the potato and a second time to give them a crispy finish. Belgian fries are served not with ketchup but with mayonnaise on the side for dipping, the accompanying drink of choice being beer. Fries and mayo may sound unappetizing to some, but in fact potatoes and mayo go together very well (witness potato salad). I’ve tried it with potatoes, scrubbed, cut and cooked in a steamer to keep their shape, so that you can cut them as small as you want and they won’t disintegrate as they do when you boil them, and I prefer the mayo-potatoes taste combination to butter.
Frying is politically incorrect these days, and certainly a large serving of fries has 450 calories and 22 g of fat, but you don’t have to eat them every day and you can use fresh oil every time you fry. Frying, in fact, was replaced years ago by the term “sautée” because it sounded more elegant and more benign, but don’t be fooled. Frying by any other name is still frying.
Probably the mandolin is a must in any potato lover’s kitchen. The mandolin has been around for a very long time, and comes in wood as well as stainless steel, and used for cutting firm vegetables and fruits. This simple, compact, rectangular French invention with adjustable blades cuts mounds of fries in a matter of minutes, cuts very thin slices for potato chips, waffle chips, and my favorite, pommes paille – or shoestring potatoes. The stainless-steel version is expensive, but worth it if potatoes (or slicing, dicing and julienning) are your thing. Unlike the wooden one, it’s easier to keep clean and lasts forever.
Don’t stop with regular potatoes. Yams and sweet potatoes also make really tasty fries and chips, whether you fry them in a skillet or bake them in the oven.
2 lbs/1 kg potatoes (preferably Idaho or russet)
Extra-virgin olive oil
In a large pan, place unpeeled potatoes and cover with water, adding a teaspoon of salt to the water. Cook over medium-high heat about 20 min. until just tender. Drain and let cool.
Cut each potato into 6 wedges or more, depending on the size of the potatoes. Dry wedges well using paper towels.
Over medium heat, in a heavy-bottomed pan, heat 4 inches of oil. When the temperature reaches 350 C (you’ll need a thermometer) cook the wedges in batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan, about 7 minutes, turning them over often. Drain them on paper towels, salt lightly, and serve immediately.