Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On French Fries as Comfort Food

An early spring, my ass, Punxsatawney Phil. We were down to 8 degrees this morning with wind chill, which makes the looming 115-degree summer that much more worthy of dread. And the wind? This morning finds me Googling “wind damage covered by insurance?” while I wait for our agent to call. Specifically, are we covered if the maniac winds grabbed our developer-installed fence and ripped it right the hell out of the ground.

Our lovely fence, lying on its side was such an unwelcome sight last night that I bagged my plans for chicken curry with roasted broccoli and basmati rice and started peeling the longest potatoes I could find. This sort of expensive disaster demands French fries. Not the frozen, soggy junk you buy at fast food joints as a depressing excuse for dinner. Carved from a real potato, fried gently, lovingly sprinkled with salt. Healthy, no. Good for your soul after a miserable day? Yes.

French Fries

Russet potatoes
Vegetable, canola, or peanut oil
Kosher salt

1. Peel the potatoes. For Matty and I on Disaster Day, I chose two big Idaho potatoes and said to hell with it. Hopefully our doctor is not a reader.

2. Slice into long, skinny strips. This is easiest if you invested that $8 I told you to invest on a Progressive mandolin and use the French fry attachment. If not, slice a piece off of the side of the spud so that you have a flat spot for the potato to sit on. Slice into ¼” slices, then stack the slices and slice into ¼” strips.

3. As you’re slicing, place the pieces into a salad spinner full of cold water. When you've finished slicing, take out the strainer, pour off the water and accumulated starch, then put the strainer back in and spin, spin, spin.

4. Cover two sheet pans with a few layers of paper towels, then turn a cooling rack upside down and place on top. Place one pan in a 200 degree oven to keep the cooked fries warm. Place the other next to your cooking station. If you don’t have two sheet pans and racks, just layer paper towels onto a plate or cutting board and use that for the initial hot-out-of-the-oil fries.

5. Fill a dutch oven at least ¼ full with oil. You want enough space for the fries to move around in, but filling the entire pot with oil presents a practicality issue: if you aren’t deep frying things all the time, why use all that oil? Once it’s been used for frying, it’s only really good for frying other things. (Believe me. I made brownies with used fry oil once and it scarred Matty for life.)

6. Heat the oil to 350 degrees. Gently lay the fries in the hot oil with tongs or on a metal spatula. As the moisture interacts with the hot oil the oil will bubble up and steam, so the farther away you are the better. Using a utensil also eliminates the possibility of splashing. Cook until golden brown.

If you do not have a thermometer for this purpose you can glean the temperature from how the fries are cooking up. Heat your oil on medium to medium high. Start by dipping a fry into the oil. If the oil bubbles up around it right away, you're fine to start cooking. Repeat this step as you go from batch to batch. If you put a whole batch of fries into oil that isn't hot enough, the potatoes will bring the oil temperature down even further and your batch will end up oily and soggy.

7. Using tongs, gently pull a bunch of fries out, tipping slightly to let some of the oil drip back into the pan. Spread out on your first pan to drain. Once you have all the fries out, season with salt, then move the fries to the warm oven.

8. When the oil is back to temperature, put your next batch in and repeat steps 6-7 until all the fries are cooked.

Serve with fry sauce, which for you Easterlies is ketchup, mayonnaise, and in my house, a tiny squeeze of Sriracha (any hot sauce will do). If you want to get fancy with your plating, roll the fries up in a square of parchment paper and put the whole tube in an old-fashioned glass. Fold down the paper, and enjoy.

Some nights, last night being one of them, all we need to appreciate the fried goodness was a plate.

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