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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Poutine - Dressed up

I thought I would have a little fun with this one.

A few weeks ago, we were at a party for a very good friend.  Inspired by the wonderful  food being served and, as it often seems to be the case at any party we attend, the discussion began to revolve around cooking and eating.  A culinary debate soon began about Quebec's famous poutine.  When you venture into a  discussion about this rural Quebec dish created in the 1950's, opinions tend to vary greatly.  Some love it, some hate it.  Me, well, I have to admit, love it.

Now, what may seem to be a very simplistic combination of french fries, brown gravy and cheese curds  and sounds a little over the top (this is definitely not a healthy, low fat dish),  actually has a marriage of flavours and textures that have turned it into a favourite late night snack when you are heading home after an evening of partying and dancing (the dancing justifies the high calorie intake) or when you need a little respite from the cold during a ski day with friends.

As with any dish, the key to a great poutine is the quality of the ingredients used.  You can tell the difference immediately.  The potatoes must be a sweet, waxy variety like Yukon gold, the cheese curds must be very fresh in order to produce their "squeaky" texture and the gravy must be made from a real beef jus and not from a can (you can tell the difference right away).  The cheese must be layered throughout the dish and the ratio of cheese, french fries and sauce is very important.  A poutine is often shared amongst friends and real amateurs will always discuss all these points while eating it (me and my friends do anyway).

A few great Montreal chefs like Martin Picard and Chuck Hughes have taken the basic recipe and added a few more elegant ingredients to dress it up.  I have never tasted but have heard a lot about foie gras poutine served at au pied de cochon (Martin Picard's restaurant) or lobster poutine from Le Garde Manger (Chuck Hughes' restaurant).  It has evolved and you can also find it topped with braised short ribs, bolognese sauce, roasted chicken or pulled pork.  I was recently told that restaurants in New York, Paris, Germany, London, etc. are now also serving our little local dish - who knew!

Anyway, here is where my inspiration took me.   The presentation is very different but the taste was good.  I used the Yukon gold potatoes and cooked them in duck fat (this adds flavour and gives them a wonderful golden colour- but you can use the oil of your choice).  The cheese is grilled Halloumi cheese with herbs and also produces a very pleasant salty, "squeaky" texture and the gravy is a Port and beef jus reduction.  I paired it with some pickled asparagus spears and carrot ribbons (the acidity helps to cut the fat) and topped it with some baby onion shoots  (for presentation).  I think this would make and interesting winter dish served with a side of braised beef or lamb - something to try!

You will need:  For 4 servings

  • 2 large Yukon Gold or yellow potatoes (you will only use the center to cut out even disks), washed, cut in 1/4" (6mm) slices and cut into 2" (5cm) disks with a cookie cutter for the bottom and 1'' (2.5cm) disks for the top - 4 of each ;
  • Duck fat, if you have, or peanut or grape seed oil for frying (most Quebec supermarkets are now selling duck fat and it can be found in the specialty section with the foie gras) - you will need enough to come 1/2 way up the side of the potato disks when they are in the pan;
  • 1 large piece of Halloumi cheese (or any brined cheese that can be grilled) cut in 1/4" (6mm) slices and 2'' (5cm) disks with a cookie cutter.

For the port, beef jus reduction:
  • 1 small shallot, finely diced
  • 1/4 cup (60ml) of port wine
  • 1 1/2 cups of beef stock
  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tbsp of corn starch mixed with 2 tbsp of water to use to thicken
  • salt and pepper
  1. Start with the Port and beef jus reduction by sauteing the diced shallot (1 small) in 1 tbsp (15ml) of oil over medium heat, until it begins to colour;
  2. Deglaze the pan with the Port (1/4 cup - 60ml), stir and simmer until almost completely reduced and beginning to coat the bottom of the pan;
  3. Deglaze again with 1/4 cup (60ml) of beef stock, scrape the bottom well to release all the caramelized flavour and allow it to reduce completely also;
  4. Deglaze again with 1/4 cup (60ml) of beef stock and reduce completely (all these reductions will build depth of flavour to the sauce and make a big difference);
  5. Add the last 1 cup (250ml) of stock and deglaze the pan, scraping the bottom well.  
  6. Add the 2 sprigs of fresh thyme and bay leaf and simmer for 5 minutes;
  7. Dilute the cornstarch (1tbsp) in water (2 tbsp - 15ml) and add to simmering sauce a little at a time to thicken.  Continue to add until you have the right consistency;
  8. Season with salt and pepper and pass through a fine mesh sieve, pressing down to extract as much flavour as possible.  Reserve

For potato, cheese stacks:  
  1. After you have cut the potatoes into disks, rinse them with cold water and pat dry;
  2. Put the duck fat/oil in a deep skillet and heat over medium heat;
  3. Add the potato disks and cook on each side for about 6 minutes (the outside should be crisp and golden and the inside should be tender when pierced with a knife- the smaller disks will cook more quickly so remove when done);
  4. Drain on paper towels and season very lightly (the cheese is very salty);
  5. Preheat the grill to medium and brush the cheese disks with olive oil on both sides;
  6. Grill over medium heat for about 2 minutes per side (you can also use a non stick pan over medium heat to saute the cheese - the outside should begin to color and the inside will be very soft);
  7. Spoon the sauce generously in the centre of the plate and build the stack with a large fried potato disk, grilled cheese disk and small potato disk;  
  8. Top with baby onion sprouts or baby greens of your choice and garnish with pickled asparagus spears and carrot ribbons (blanch the asparagus for one minute in salted boiling water and transfer to an ice water bath, drain.  Cut the carrots with a vegetable peeler into ribbons and place in a bowl with the blanched asparagus.  Drizzle with olive oil, seasoned rice wine vinegar and salt and pepper.  Allow to sit for 1/2 hour.

Thought and smile of the day:

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