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Make the best french fries ever

And more tips such as, listen for the whistling

By James P. DeWan, Special to Tribune Newspapers

May 4, 2011

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So, you know how Grape-Nuts aren't really nuts? Well, guess what, french fries aren't really French.

"When the Americans went to Belgium to help us out in World War I, they saw military guys cooking potatoes in oil," says Bart Vandaele, Belgian-born chef-owner of Belga Cafe in Washington, D.C., "and because the official language of the Belgian military was French, they called them 'french fries.'"

And as Vandaele points out, even the French don't call them french fries; in France, they're pommes frites.

Why you need to learn this:

Regardless of their provenance, there's no doubt that this European delicacy is one of America's most popular foods. The problem is, as with so many things, there are more bad examples of french fries than good. And that's why you should know how to make them yourself, because when you're really craving them, you don't want to take any chances.

That's also why we wanted to talk to some experts: Along with Vandaele, we got some tips from Ben Sheagren, executive chef at the Hop Leaf, a Chicago tavern that specializes in Belgian brews and cuisine.

The steps you take:

The first thing you want to do is choose the potato. Starchy potatoes that are lower in water content, such as russet or Idaho, work best. "And older potatoes have a lower moisture content," says Sheagren, "so if you have older potatoes, perfect. If not, not to worry."

Once you've got the spuds, the method, while exacting, is pretty straightforward.

"There are a couple key things that you're looking to accomplish in order to get the best product," Sheagren says, "and the first is to eliminate as much excess starch as you can."

Removing the starch reduces the chances that the fries will stick together, and also, according to Sheagren, gives a crisper fry.

Another important factor is frying the potatoes twice. The first time, called "blanching," involves lower-temperature, longer-duration frying to thoroughly cook the potato. The next step is to brown and crisp the outside at a higher temperature.

Vandaele blanches his fries in 250-degree oil until they are just cooked through. "They whistle to you when they're ready to come out," he says, "because the inside starts to steam, and it whistles like a steam whistle."

After the potatoes come out, they need to rest for an hour or two to come to room temperature before the final frying.

Step-by-step

1. Wash your potatoes, and peel them if you like. Leaving the peels on gives a more rustic look, while taking them off will give you a better chance of having all your pieces looking exactly alike. Your call.

2. For perfectly shaped fries, cut the potato into a box shape by first trimming off both ends, then cutting straight down along one side to create a flat surface. Roll the potato onto that surface, and cut straight down on a second side. Do that two more times, and you'll have a nice little oblong potato box. Cut the box into 1/4-inch thick planks, then lay the planks down and cut them into sticks that are as long as the potato and 1/4-inch square on the ends. These are your fries.

3. Place the fries in a large bowl of cold water. This rinses away some of the surface starch, making it more likely that the fries will not stick together while cooking.

4. Fill a large, heavy pot halfway with vegetable oil and heat it to 250 to 300 degrees. It's important to use a frying thermometer because it's vital that the first frying is done at a lower temperature than the second.

5. Add your fries in batches that will not overcrowd the pot. Fry them gently until they are cooked through but not browned at all, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove them from the oil and drain them on a paper towel-lined sheet tray. Cool them to room temperature before proceeding. (Alternately, you can hold them overnight in the refrigerator; just bring to room temp before the second frying.)

6. Just before serving, heat the oil to 325-350 degrees, and add the blanched fries in batches. Cook them until they are golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes, then remove, season and serve immediately. "And you need to eat them with mayonnaise," says Vandaele. "That's the Belgian way, the real way."

Spice 'em up

Once you've mastered the french fry technique, you may want to branch out, flavorwise. Take inspiration from the cute little book "French Fries," by Zac Williams. You'll find dozens of seasoning ideas from Parmesan to mustard-salt.

Try the garlic fries: Saute 2 minced cloves garlic in a little olive oil. Stir in 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary and 2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley. Sprinkle over hot fries.

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