July 19, 2011

I Love Poutine: Celebrating French-Canadian Cuisine

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by Laura Roberts

Having lived for several years in the French-speaking city of Montreal, I get nostalgic for “traditional” Quebecois foods during the summer. With Quebec’s national holiday, St-Jean-Baptiste Day, on June 24 and then Canada Day on July 1, there’s plenty to celebrate. And even after the holidays are over, whenever I get a hankering for a taste of Montreal, I like to eat their most beloved comfort food: poutine.

A little history

According to my sources, there’s some speculation as to how and where the term “poutine” originated. Most agree that a guy by the name of Fernand Lachance invented the dish—consisting of French fries, cheese curds and gravy—back in 1957, remarking “ça va faire une maudite poutine!” (“It will make a damn mess!”).

Poutine is certainly not fancy food, and most of the places you can find it in Quebec are of the late-night diner variety. Fast food joints like Belle Province usually offer two standard types of poutine (regular and “Italian,” which substitutes a meaty spaghetti sauce for the usual brown gravy), while local favorite La Banquise has about 40 variations on the menu, including the popular T-Rex (which comes with ground beef, pepperoni, bacon and hot dogs), Galvaude (with hot turkey and green peas), and Obélix (with smoked meat—another Montreal classic).

Of course, if you’re looking for an upscale take on this French-Canadian comfort food, there’s only one place to go, and that’s Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon. Chef Martin Picard takes no guff from any swine, and has devised what is perhaps the world’s most decadent poutine to date: the fois gras poutine. At $23, it’s certainly not cheap, but everyone who has ever eaten the dish (including Anthony Bourdain) has enjoyed its over-the-top presentation thoroughly.

Canadian food in Austin?

Here in Austin, the closest you can get to an authentic Montreal poutine can be found at Frank’s. Serving up gourmet hot dogs (or “artisan sausage,” as the owners like to put it), it actually makes a lot of sense that you’d find poutine on the menu; it’s often paired with “steamies” (steamed hot dogs) in its native land. Frank’s offers something called Canadian Waffle Poutine, substituting waffle fries for the traditional straight cut of fries, but retains the cheese curds of the original.

Want to try your hand at making some homemade poutine? Some Austinites say it’s impossible to find good quality cheese curds outside of Canada, but ex-pats on Yelp have sighted them at a variety of stores around town, including Whole Foods, Central Market, Spec’s and Antonelli’s Cheese Shop. If you can’t find the curds for an authentic poutine, try substituting grated white Cheddar cheese instead.

DIY Poutine for Ex-Pat Montrealers (And Those That Love ‘Em)

Specialty items required: deep fryer, or very deep pot for deep frying

Ingredients:

  • 1 or 2 potatoes, cut into fries
  • 1 package of fresh cheese curds (or about 1/2 cup shredded white Cheddar cheese)
  • 1 jar of brown gravy (Heinz Home Style Savory Beef is a good one, or you can be extra adventurous and make your own demi-glace)

Directions:

  1. Cut up your potatoes into relatively uniform fry-sized strips. Go for a pretty standard fast-food type of cut here, as the goal is quick cooking, not pretty wedges.
  2. Deep fry your potatoes. As Montreal blog Midnight Poutine recommends, crank your deep-fryer up to level 3 (or medium-high) and use peanut oil, duck fat or canola oil. Use a two-step method for crispier fries, browning for 10-15 minutes during the first round, then 2 minutes at level 4 (high) or until golden brown during the second round of frying.
  3. Pat excess oil from your fries, toss with salt and pepper, then place fries into a large bowl.
  4. Top with cheese curds and gravy.
  5. Break out your fork and knife and enjoy!

For a La Banquise style take on the standard poutine, add any or all of the following:

  • chicken
  • green peas
  • merguez sausage
  • ground beef
  • pepperoni
  • bacon
  • green peppers
  • caramelized onions
  • hot sauce

Cheese curd tip: If your curds squeak, that’s a good thing. The fresher the cheese, the louder the squeak.