Set the Table with Poutine
Written onNovember 15 , 2016
I was not born into poutine. I married into it.
I grew up in California, in a world of dayboat salmon, tofu, and spinach salad. I only became vaguely aware of the odd sounding “poutine” when I moved to Vermont. French fries with gravy and cheese curds? I mean, that all sounds weird enough without including the word “curds” at the end. So I didn’t give it a try until I met my now-husband, who is not only Québecois, but has fry oil in his blood. His extended family owns a fast food snack bar in Bedford, QC, that has been touted (by folks in the know) as having some of the best French fries in the region.
On my 30th birthday I invited a handful of my girlfriends plus my freshly minted boyfriend up to Montreal for a day and night in the big city. We “summited” Mont Royal, ate some spectacular Ethiopian food, perused the Museum of Fine Art, then went back to the “cheap but not too cheap” hotel room we were all sharing. The ladies stocked up on some drinks at a nearby SAQ liquor store while my new man went to procure the poutine. Everyone (minus the Canadian) was dubious about gravy-soaked French fries that you eat with a fork. But to a person, we all decided that the Québecers were onto something and that poutine was, in fact, delicious.
It’s not a refined food. It’s not something you muse about over a fine bottle of wine at a fancy restaurant. It’s something you have at the end of the night. You use it to soak up the booze and you snuggle up into the ridiculous indulgence. No one is exactly sure how poutine came about (there are a few competing stories), but we do know that the calorie-laden goodness was developed in rural Québec roughly 60 years ago and that its name is rooted in the French word for pudding. Now, just a few years shy of collecting a pension, it’s finally having its “moment..
Poutine was a fun late-night food with my besties, but I didn’t become a true poutine convert until my beau told me that, while poutine might indeed be a religious experience, it doesn’t adhere to a strict doctrine. There are whole restaurants dedicated to serving nothing but poutine in its many variations. “Classique” is russet fries, cheddar curds (fresh, unaged cheddar chunks, the squeakier, the better), and BBQ gravy (Canadian BBQ is a far cry from American BBQ —think of it as a light brown gravy that emphasizes the onions and garlic). Italian poutine subs out the gravy for a bolognese. All-dressed poutine varies from restaurant to restaurant, but always has a generous heaping of toppings. And from there, anything is fair game.
The recipe developer in me fell in love. There is little I love more in this world than being allowed to mess with my husband’s cultural foods. So he and I started fantasizing about all the poutine possibilities and our pants were getting tighter with each more fantastical idea. The good foodies we were, we decided to invite some friends over to enjoy the bounty.
And thus was born THE POUTINE PARTY. It has become an annual event in our house that our friends count the days until and don’t count the calories for. The first year we bought the fries from a local pub, but quickly dropped that idea and invested in a fryer. Even though we use it only once a year, it was worth the money. My husband mandolins the potatoes and soaks them in water overnight—a trick handed down by his French fry perfectionist of a grandfather. And before the days of kiddos underfoot, I would make the cheddar curds myself. I love making cheese so much, but some things are best left to those who have a spare two hours to stand next to the stove and stir (or who have the machinery to stir for them). Now we jump the border and pick up a few kilos to bring home. We always buy a few other cheeses as well (feta and smoked blue come back every year), but cheddar curds really are the king. The key to a good poutine is cheese that is melty, not melted. I heard about some poutine being served in San Francisco that was made with shredded cheese. Just no. The cheese should be melted on the outside and firm and squeaky on the inside. Poutine is not a burrito.
As for the gravies, they have always been my job. I love making gravy. It’s so hands-on and something you can really dance to in the kitchen. Unless we’re going with a bolognese, all of my gravies start with a butter and flour roux, but from there I kind of go wild. Country sausage gravy is a much-loved favorite in our house (my husband was so excited when I told him that I needed to make some for this article). Plus, we always make a beer gravy with whatever beer we have on tap in the keg. Pesto was an awesome addition one year and everyone loved this year’s Indian vindaloo gravy. Traditional BBQ gravy we often made from a mix we bought in Québec, and we did that for a few years, but then we moved on to more creative endeavors. Mushroom and onion gravy is delicious, as is a smoked gravy (if you happen to have some smoke juices available). The gravy options are endless.
And then there are the toppings. So many topping choices. Peas are a popular one that surprised me. I don’t think of peas as that popular in the states, but they seem to show up everywhere in Québec. And you can’t forget the bacon. Or smoked meat, if you’re going for the Montreal experience, smoked meat being a Montreal thing. Mushrooms, onions, corn, fresh or sautéed peppers, even corn dogs are an option. There really is no end to what you can top a poutine with. You could even make it a dessert poutine with sweet potato fries, fruit, brie, and chocolate, if the mood suits you.
Poutine is becoming so trendy in Vermont that it’s starting to show up in unusual places. Like southern BBQ and white tablecloth restaurants. Some of them get it right and some… don’t. I got poutine at one fancy restaurant that put the gravy on the bottom so that the fries stayed crispy. I was confused. The gravy is a sauce, not a dip. The fries should be slathered with gravy. And the cheese should not melt all the way. There needs to be chunks of gooey cheese intermingled with the fries. I got another fancy poutine that not only melted the cheese, but burned it a little to make it crispy. I love me some burnt cheese, but unless you’re going to top the melty cheese poutine with it, just go put it on a pizza please.
If you’ve never tried poutine, start easy and traditional, but then go wild. Try fancy poutine. Try crazy poutine. Have fun, indulge, and then perhaps, go to the gym.