Golden Brown & Delicious

6 11 2007

Who doesn’t like French Fries?  And if you say you don’t, you’re a liar, a god-damned liar.  (Or crazy.)

When it comes to making fries at home, most of us suffer through those pallid frozen varieties–which aspire to acceptable at best.  Even then, acceptable seems a lofty goal.   Since most of us aren’t Paula Deen, deep frying at home is something of a chore.  To make the best fries, it’s actually a two-fry process and requires some temperature control.  First, you blanch the fries in 260 degree oil for about ten minutes, which cooks the potatoes through.  Next, you fry them in 370 degree oil for about three minutes, which makes them golden and crispy.  You can rest the potatoes in between or not, apparently the subject is under debate.  At any rate, this process is more than I want to undertake at home.  Perhaps it is the difficulty in maintaining a temperature in a pot of oil on an electric stove, perhaps it’s my basic distrust of thermometers.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Jeffrey Steingarten, famous epicurean curmudgeon, and Joel Robuchon, Culinary Genius and Food God.

I recently read Steingarten’s book “The Man Who Ate Everything“, it was a great read–and it has an entire chapter dedicated to the “French” fry, or Pomme Frite.  They are, of course, not French but Belgian–that’s neither here not there.  I owe this debt of gratitude because Steingarten includes a brilliant and simple method for creating fries that produces delicious results.

First peel and cut about two pounds of potatoes into batons.  Robuchon prefers the irregular and rustic quality of a hand-cut fry.  Next, rinse the cut potatoes under cold water to remove starch.  Then blot the potatoes dry–wet potatoes will absorb more oil.  Place the potatoes into a wide pan at least four inches deep and add just enough oil to cover.  I used peanut oil which is well regarded as a fry oil for its high smoke point and neutral flavor.  Put the pot on the stove over your highest heat.  As the oil heats it basically takes the potatoes through the blanch and then the fry in one easy step.  No thermometer necessary, just keep your eye on them and remove the fries when they are golden-brown.  Salt them as soon as they come out of the oil.

I’ve tried the recipe twice.  The first time I used a mandoline to cut the fries.  I used the largest cut available but the batons were smaller than the 3/8″ cut that Steingarten recommends.  The fries were crispy and delicious, but there was a little too much crispy outside and not enough soft inside.  I also salted them only with fine sea salt.  The next time I used a larger hand-cut fry–closer to the 3/8″ cut, but I don’t keep a ruler handy and can’t be sure.  At any rate, this cut produced a much superior fry.  The outside was golden and crispy and there was a pleasing amount of creamy potato inside.  I used a Russet, and your results will vary depending on which potato you use.  Steingarten said the Russet produces the crispiest fry, but the insides were mealy and slightly bitter.  I cannot agree with Steingarten on this call, the insides were creamy and there was no bitterness that I detected.  Robuchon likes to use two salts–a fine salt and then also a coarse salt which he likes for the crunch.  I tried this approach also the second time, using a fine sea salt and then also a coarse Grey Salt.  I can’t say I really noticed the crunch of the grey salt, but then I also noticed much of it still sitting on my plate.  Nevertheless, these were great fries.

So thank you Robuchon for developing this fantastic technique, and thank you Steingarten for sharing it with us in your book.  This will be the technique that I employ for my fries for now on.  I will only deviate–I imagine–if I get a quality deep fryer with a trustworthy thermostat.

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So It Goes…

12 04 2007

Goodbye to one of my great Heroes.  Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” was one of the first books to truly change the way I thought about things.  It has been my favorite book since, and he my favorite writer.  God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut, you will be missed.





Aneurysm Averted

16 02 2007

A long time ago I had a memory, a vague memory. It was just an impression. It was a fleeting remembrance of a book I had as a child. Sometimes I have memories that I’m not entirely sure are real. Did I really stuff a mailbox full of mud-filled paper? (Turns out I did.) Did I really once see a car full of bees? (Still unconfirmed.) But this book, I knew it was real, I just couldn’t recall all the details. That flash of memory started off innocently enough. It was a curiosity. I thought I’d just hop online, enter some relevant details into Google and find out what that book was. But after awhile on Google, I go no answers and a bitch of a finger cramp from clicking too much. Thing about me is, I can’t let things drop. Well, sometimes I can, but the more elusive something is, the more I need to figure it out. Since I didn’t get a single lead for all my effort, a curiosity was about to become something of an obsession. I went to Amazon and did a search. Nothing. The logical response to this of course was for me to browse through EVERY SINGLE CHILDREN’S BOOK ON AMAZON! Whew, that took awhile! But all I got were finger cramps and bleary eyes.

After that I could be frequently found plugging some search terms into Google as I remembered details. I shot off some e-mails to friends and family asking for their assistance. Everyone was willing to help, but had no answers for me.

One night not too long after I wound up in a very large Barnes and Noble in Rochester. I went to the children’s section and started to browse through all of their books. I guess I stood out in the children’s section and a friendly employee came over to help. I described the book and we went over to their computer and did search after search. She asked every other employee of the department. They all started to help me look. Nothing was resolved by the time I had to leave, but I was VERY impressed with the level of customer service I received.

That was the end of the obsessive phase as I realized there was little else I could really do until I remember something more substantial. The question of that book continued to swirl around my brain and occasionally find its way back to the surface. I simply had to suppress the overwhelming desire to find the answer since it seemed unlikely I’d get one.

I think this is where aneurysms come from. It’s these sort of nagging things that tangle the wires in the background of your brain until the whole mechanism just pops. That’s was this book was going to do to me. It brought joy to me as a child, and possible death as an adult.

Maybe this next bit seems irrelevant, but I love the Magazine Mental Floss. When I discovered they had a blog I just had to subscribe to it.

This turns out to have been a fortuitous decision. Today, they had a blog post about a new free website that answers questions about half-remembered books. I immediately thought of that book and clicked over to the webpage. Not more than an hour or two later an answer had been posted. It was either “Monkey Face” by Frank Asch or the similarly plotted “Bread and Honey” by the same author. Hmm. Monkey Face did sound familiar. I needed a picture, the illustrations were my clearest memories of the book.

No problem, just enter it into google…

And clicking on every hit on seven pages of google I finally found my picture. And Lo, it was my book!

Thank freakin’ goodness. What an exquisite mental release. I’m so glad I found my answer.