• ,

Food Porn: Food Porn "Fry-day"

Belgian "frites" at Booty's Street Food feature a quintet of dipping options.

Belgian "frites" at Booty's Street Food feature a quintet of dipping options.

“Come in, son.  Have a seat.  You’re getting older now, almost a young man, able to make your own decisions and tell right from wrong and good from bad.  So it’s time I talked to you honestly and openly about something very important.

“You mean when a man and a woman love each other very much…”

“No, though that’s important, too.  We’ll get to that later.  But today is about something different, though no less vital to the life of a modern human being in Western Civilization.  Okay?”

“Okay.  What is it?”

(DEEP BREATH) “Son … I need to tell you the truth about french fries.”

* * *

I remember my first raw oyster.  I remember my first candy bar.  I remember my first strawberry daiquiri.  But I cannot, for the life of me, remember the first time I tasted french fries.  It’s one of those experiences that occurred in my young life before my brain was halfway decent at forming long-term memories.  The neurological hardware and software just weren’t there yet.  I don’t remember my first fry in the same way that I don’t remember being born, breastfeeding, or terrorizing the babysitter with incessant howling while my parents tried to go see the original “Rocky” at the movie theater and take a break from their caterwauling infant son.  (Sorry about that again, Mom and Dad.)  Which is to say that french fries, in my life, go back further than my capability to even remember them.  That’s saying something.

Like most decent, God-fearing, patriotic Americans, I have a pure and abiding love of potatoes deep fried in the French fashion.  I wouldn’t want to live in a world where I couldn’t pair my burger, club sandwich, hot dog, or milkshake with a beautifully golden pile of hot, salty, crispy fried potatoes.  But sadly, it seems as though fries in this great country of ours are so often saddled with second billing, always a bridesmaid and never a bride.  (Note: There’s a joke in there about “if you love fries so much, why don’t you marry them?” but I’m not taking the bait.)  And to that end, they can be an afterthought, both to the people who eat them and the people who cook them.  This is not the way things should be.  Our french fries -- and, by extension ourselves -- deserve better.

Now, I’m not saying that most people can’t tell a wonderful fry from a terrible one.  That’s pretty simple.  Even a child would be quick to criticize an undercooked, cold, limp potato stick masquerading as an honest-to-goodness french fry, and they’d be right to do so.  Bad fries are inexcusable -- they’ll ruin a meal, and most likely my entire day, to boot.  Few things are more resoundingly disappointing than getting a decent sandwich, steak or other entree with a melancholy side order of greasy, flaccid, under-seasoned fries, or potatoes left in the oil or under a heat lamp so long they’re essentially cremated and deserve to be placed in a ceremonial urn rather than actually consumed.  To hell with that.  Life is too short for bad fries.

This is what’s known as the “double-you-slash fry phenomenon.”  As in, something that appears on a menu “w/ fries.”  Or “slash fries” for short.  Slash fries should be regarded with a healthy amount of  suspicion, since the kind of person writing a menu who can’t be bothered enough to add an additional two characters is probably not overly concerned with getting those fries just right.  It’s a menu, not Twitter -- there’s no character count.  In this case, I usually just go with chips.  It’s a safer bet.

I wasn’t always so persnickety about my fries, mostly because I didn’t fully know what distinguished a passable fry from a truly outstanding one.  Enter Zeph Courtney.  In my personal history of french fried potatoes, the man is the Yoda to my whiny Luke Skywalker.    He also coined the term “Slash fries,” for which I think he should receive a significant food journalism award.  Several years ago, Zeph and his wife, my friend Liz, started their own food truck and catering business called SNAP,  which aimed to provide thoughtfully executed Chicago-style hot dogs, flame grilled burgers, and, of course, fries.  When I first tasted their thick-cut, Belgian-style “frites,” I knew they were something special, but it wasn’t until months later, when I joined their kitchen crew for a spell, that’d I’d understand why these potatoes soared so high above their cowardly, greasy brethren.

Kitchen magic isn’t sorcery as much as it is science, and Jedi Fry Master Zeph would teach me as much in the sweltering corner of a food truck that housed the deep fryers.  “What I’m doing here is no mystery,” he told me.  “People have known how to do this for years...and now I’m going to show you how to do it to, too.”

Here’s the deal: You start with good potatoes.  Burbank Russets are particularly suitable for frying.  Then you slice them, which Zeph did with a heavy-duty, stainless steel pull slicer fitted with a ¼ inch grate.  This size falls somewhere between standard American fries (slightly bigger than shoestring -- think McDonald’s-sized) and “steak fries,” a Goldilocks happy medium of french fry styles.  The slicer would deposit the potatoes into a tankard of clean, fresh water, where they’d soak for at least one hour, or even overnight.  This step is crucial, because it leaches out starch from the potatoes, which helps them crisp up nicely when fried.

After drying thoroughly (you don’t want that water to hit the hot oil and send you screaming to the burn unit), they get a nice bath in peanut oil heated to 325 degrees for ten minutes.  Then, they take a little nap, also known as “resting,” for at least 20 minutes, another crucial step.  This lets the inside of the potato achieve a nice, fluffy texture.  Then, a second fry at 400F for a quick two minutes should get them to that lovely deep golden color and crisp exterior that represents the Platonic “fry-deal” (heh).  Toss them with a generous helping of sea salt, and serve hot with your condiment of choice.  I like hand-made mayonnaise, like the Belgians (and you can find an outstanding mayo recipe in the Plantation Cookbook), but if that grosses you out, good old fashioned ketchup is never a bad idea.

It wasn’t long before I went from french fry Padawan to a bona fide Jedi Knight of fried frites, and after that there was no looking back.  When I moved back home to New Orleans a couple of years ago, I found myself in a quandary: french fries were everywhere -- from oyster houses to po-boy joints, steakhouses, grocery stores and upscale modern bistros -- but so were “slash fries.”  Finding that perfect serving of lovingly cooked fries was something of a challenge at first, but I soon discovered that the french fry scene in New Orleans was keeping pace with the surging restaurant scene.

Two places, in particular, have caught my fry eye in recent days.  The first is Booty’s Street Food in the Bywater, which cooks up a spot-on version of Belgian street frites, served in authentic paper cone and your choice of dipping mayonnaises.  If you’re half the french fry snob I am, you’ll want to check these out forthwith.  Another comes from the food truck Foodie Call, which does a NOLA-inspired version of Canadian poutine, loading up their golden fries with cheese curds and hot roast beef debris gravy.  It’s worth every single calorie, and will make you rethink ever accommodating “slash fries again.”

Or, to paraphrase Judge Reinhold’s character from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”: I will eat no fries before their time.

French fries with cheese curds and hot roast beef gravy?  Hat tip to you, Canada.

French fries with cheese curds and hot roast beef gravy? Hat tip to you, Canada.

* * *

“Now, son, what did we learn today?”

“I learned to never eat bad french fries.”

“That’s right.  And why is that?”

“Because life is short, and I’m better than that.”

“Exactly.  And...what else?”

“Always use a condiment.”

“Now there’s a good lad.  You’re gonna be just fine.”


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.