Savory French fries at home - a euphoric eclipse for a little fella
I had real opinions about what I would feed my kid: hot meals, with lots of vegetables but also lots of delicious cheese and butter and meat. Not Spartan, but nothing processed.
And then I met him. And he started to talk. And he only spoke of mashed potatoes and French fries. As for the fries, he wants them with such an earnest simplicity, "I need so many!" that his mama - whose daydreams of driving around with a little boy in the backseat also never included going through the dreaded drive-"thru" - sometimes capitulates.
It's the crispness that all kids this age crave. They adore fries, chicken nuggets, tator tots . . . anything that can be fried into handy little fingers. My guess is that they like the mouthfeel of craggy, shattering crusts against a sufficiently bland, pablum inside.
In a way, can you blame them? If I was fed vegetable and fruit purees for an entire year previous I might crave a little crispy something, too.
But last night I thought, enough! If he needs to eat fries, no more processed potatoes. I am making my own.
As I was cutting up potatoes, I was wondering if this was going to be one of those projects that seemed easy but ended in disarray and disappointment.
Not so. In fact, the whole process went rather quickly and without incident.
I had forgotten how good these fresh French fries could be. I faintly remember making them when I worked at a French bistro back in 2003, that they were a pain in my neck, but also decadent, perfectly crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. We dusted them with a little sea salt and some paprika and piled each order into a tall, precipitous cone, like a tumbler of golden brown balsa-wood shards.
They're best when you cut them with a sloppy hand. Perfectly uniform fries are for factories to pump out; homemade fries should look homemade. But the most important reason for unevenness is taste: the skinny ones, the runts and the odd-shaped fellows, come out the crispiest. You know those bits of fries left at the bottom of the basket? The ones that accidentally reached fry perfection by dint of being too small, so that they overcooked and became ridiculously crystalline? Yeah, homemade sloppy fries are a whole basket of those.
And they're pretty forgiving. I used half-russets and half-reds, because that was what I had, and they both came out fine. Maybe the russets were a little crispier, maybe the reds tasted a little better, but you'd have to be nitpicky to notice.
Also, if I'm at home I can sway my kid to my dipping preferences, i.e., away from ketchup. The first time I tried dipping my fries into homemade garlicky mayonnaise, as the French and Belgians do, I was sold. (I'll give the recipe below, though if you do as I often do and stir some mashed garlic, olive oil and a squirt of lemon into store-bought mayo, you'll get something pretty close to the original.)
For the requisite red dip, I roasted a pepper on top of my gas burner until it began to collapse, scraped off the skin and then blended it with garlic, paprika and a few tablespoons of ketchup-proper.
It was kind of spicy, but the boy liked that, too. He sat, picking through his log pile of fries, delicately dipping and eating, in total contentment.
For him, I imagine it was like a total eclipse of the sun: Home and French fries overlapping each other, together at last.
Homemade French Fries
You will need a candy thermometer and a skimmer for this recipe.
3 pounds potatoes of your choice, the fresher the better
1 and a half quarts of canola or peanut oil
salt and pepper to taste
Wash and dry the potatoes and cut them into skinny batons. (Skin-on or skin-off; your preference.) Place in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Drain off water and cover with fresh water. Soak for 20 minutes.
Drain the fries and dry between two clean tea towels. You want to remove most of the moisture.
Place the oil in a two-quart pot. You will need about five inches of oil. Heat the oil to 325 degrees and drop in about one-third of the fries. You don't want to overcrowd them. Stir with a metal skimmer to separate and cook until the fries are pale on the outside and just cooked through on the inside, about 10 minutes. Test by inserting a thin fork or knife into the fry. You want to take them out before they start to brown. Drain on paper toweling and repeat with the remaining fries (making sure to return the oil back to 325 before adding more.) At this point, you can reserve them for the final crisping up to two hours.
Heat the oil to 375 degrees. Fry the fries in three batches until dark golden brown and crisp, about 4 minutes. Drain on paper toweling and toss with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Smoky Red Pepper Ketchup
1 red pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon spicy paprika (or 1 teaspoon sweet paprika and a pinch of cayenne)
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
juice from ½ lemon
3 tablespoons ketchup
Roast the pepper by charring on all sides over a gas stovetop flame. (If you have an electric range, split the pepper in half and place on a baking sheet, cut-side-down, and roast at 450 degrees until the skin has blackened.) Scrape off the black skin and place the flesh in a food processor (or a mortar and pestle). Add the garlic, paprika and rosemary and process until almost smooth. Add the lemon juice and ketchup and pulse until combined.
Aioli (Garlic Mayonnaise)
Makes 1 cup
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup canola oil
Heat a small pan of water to boiling and add the egg. Boil two minutes and then immerse the egg into icy water until cool. Crack and remove just the yolk. Reserve.
Chop the garlic finely, then mash on your cutting board until it becomes a puree. In a large bowl, combine the garlic, salt and just the yolk of the egg. Add the olive oil drop by drop, whisking to keep a smooth emulsified sauce. As it gets thick, add the lemon juice in a drizzle. Keep adding oil until all has been incorporated. It will be thick like mayonnaise. Add a little water if it gets too thick. Use immediately or refrigerate.
Tip: to ensure your mayo doesn't break, add a dollop, about 2 teaspoons, of commercial mayonnaise to the egg yolk in the beginning.