Confession 1: I spent most of my life thinking that french fries were invented by McDonald’s.
Confession 2: For most of that time, I also thought that the word pommes was French for apples (yes, plural, because one apple would be a pomme, right?).
An aside: I decided to take German to fulfill my four-semester language requirement in college. The reason being that it started at 9am, and French started at 8. Outside of once having a graduate-school experience with rouladen, this decision has not helped much in my culinary adventures.
I have no idea when I became pompous worldly cookbook-obsessed enough to know the real definition of pommes frites — but I do know that today I used the term in an email to friends, telling them that’s what I’d be contributing to our community group dinner — and while I knew, typing it, that it sounded pretentious, I couldn’t bring myself to type that I was bringing “french fries.” Because that connotes me going through a drive-thru, then walking in the door with a greasy sack of deep-fried previously-frozen potato sticks and a dozen packets of ketchup.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love me some restaurant french fries. The waffle variety, in particular — I have a weakness for the ones from Chic-fil-A (you can take the girl outta the South…) with a side of Polynesian Sauce. Yes, it’s loaded with HFCS (I never said I was a puritan — but I stop short of stashing a drawer-full of the stuff at my house).
But I had never actually made pommes frites — they are quite different from home fries — until just a few weeks ago. We were invited to participate in another lavish dinner at the home of our Wine Benefactor. The theme was All Things French — first-growth Bordeaux wines (wines that I should never have had access to in my entire life), and food. After I whined publicly about my previous fried mozzarella homework, the powers-that-be got sneaky, and decided to assign me with frog legs and pommes frites — two dishes I’ve never before tackled (or eaten, in the case of the amphibious legs, which I was hoping was the case for most guests so no one would know whether I’d blown it). In the heat of the stage-like kitchen, I was pleased with my performance. Frog legs? They taste more like very tender pork than chicken, and have about as much meat as a quarter of a chicken wing. And pommes frittes? When you do them right, they are amazing. Worth the time, like making a three-layer cake with homemade buttercream.
I was forwarded instructions that were taken from a Thomas Keller recipe. I am told that the key to good frites is to cut the potatoes as uniformly as possible (a bit tricky if like me you don’t own a mandoline); rinse and soak the potatoes for a couple hours, then make sure they are completely dry; and finally, double-fry them. If it sounds like a lot of work, I’ll confirm that it is. But the results had people hovering at the stove, the night of our dinner, begging me for the recipe — and for a good grilled-steak-or-burger night, I can see how the effort would pay off. But for regular weeknight fried-potato needs, I’m sticking with the ease of home fries.
One of my favorite places in Indianapolis to get a good beer is a restaurant called Brugge. They serve amazing frites, and offer a myriad of sauces to accompany, everything from aioli to curry to pesto. Next time I make these for a crowd, I plan to offer my own sides, something more exciting than the ketchup we tend to reach for when it comes to fried potatoes.
Try them, if you’re feeling fancy. Or if you’ve always wondered what apples frieds taste like — those wacky French.
(adapted from a recipe by Thomas Keller)
- 8 russet potatoes, well-scrubbed
- 24-32 oz (about one quart) peanut oil
- a few tablespoons duck fat (optional)
- a candy thermometer
- large, heavy-bottomed skillet
- sea salt
You’ll need a good chef’s knife to cut the potatoes (unless you have a mandoline). After scrubbing, cut each potato in half, lengthwise. Then cut each piece in half again, lengthwise. Cut each quarter into long 1/4″ slices (the first joint of your index finger is about an inch — you can eyeball-measure by cutting them about a quarter of that length). Then stack the slices, and cut into 1/4″ sticks. Discard any pieces that are too thin or uneven, as they will over-cook. As you slice, place potato sticks in a large bowl.
Cover potato sticks with water. Change water at least 3 times over a 30-minute time period, and continue soaking for another hour (or overnight? I did this and it worked fine).
Drain potatoes thoroughly, and spread on towels to air-dry.
Once potatoes are quite dry, pour oil (and optional duck fat) into your frying pan. Using a candy-thermometer, heat oil to about 320º. Fry potatoes in batches, for about 4-5 minutes, until they are cooked through but not brown. Remove to a paper-towel-lined plate and repeat until all potatoes are cooked (you can do this a few hours in advance, and leave at room-temperature). Reserve the cooking oil.
For second frying, heat oil to 365-375º. Fry in batches again, for about 4-5 minutes, until golden brown and crispy. Remove to a fresh paper-towel-lined plate, and season immediately with sea salt (coarse or fine). Repeat until all potatoes are fried. Serve with an assortment of dipping sauces.