by Prof. Steve Holzinger
Again! I guess that I am the guy who they meant when they said, "Everything I like is illegal, immoral or fattening." I am confessing to a life long love affair with potatoes....fried or baked, I just adore spuds! "Yes, my child, Grandpa loves his French Fries, almost as much as he loves you. He remembers way back when... when hamburgers at McDonalds were fifteen cents, and they made their own French Fries from fresh, right there under the Golden Arches." They never peeled them quite well, and the fries had some skin on them. I still make my fries unpeeled. It was the high point of fast food burger joints from my point of view of great tasting food. Freshly made French Fries, not frozen, but from mealy Idaho potatoes, barely peeled, and cooked to order. Crispy brown outsides, and fluffy inside, with just a shake of salt, they were the almost perfect treat. I say almost, as a matter of style and taste. They were too thin to be perfect for me. (Close race between it and Nathans Coney Island Fries and Hot Dogs.)
I like my fries to be thicker, and longer, with a denser, crispier, outer rind, so that the mealy, steaming contents are revealed with a crunch, ala' Pont-Neuf, as we used to make them in the Jager Haus. Half inch sticks, almost six inches long, they were made from what were called, "Oversized Idaho's." The potatoes were giants of their kind, mature, heavy rough skinned dark beauties, that came in a burlap sack containing 100 lbs. At the Jager Haus, we made our own friture (frying fat) down in the basement. There was a 10 gallon stock pot that had a spigot on the bottom, that the kitchen man would fill with freshly ground fat. Noel, the Chef did his butchering in the afternoons, after lunch. Six bottom rounds a day, every day, for sauerbraten, had to be made. That in addition to all the other steaks and chops. What steaks, what double chops of lamb and pork!
Wienerstwiebelroastbraten (I don't know if I spelled it right, but if you say it fast it will sound right) was a 1 inch thick steak, broiled to what ever degree of doneness you like, and then smothered in sweet fried onions in rich beefy brown gravy. Oh my, that gravy pot was the home of my lunch! The second cook would broil a 2 inch thick veal chop, cut from the top of the leg (too bony on one side, so we couldn't sell it) and dump it in the gravy pot to enrichen the gravy during lunch. Then when it had served its purpose, I would have it for my lunch, far better than the richest kalbsnierbraten—osso bucco, which comes from the bottom of the leg. The Germans make it in brown sauce, with potato dumplings or spatezle, the Italians make it in red sauce with pasta, equally good because veal gives incredible richness to gravies. Sorry...the mind wanders, rich with associations of smells and tastes from the past that I enjoy sharing with you.
The friture...yes, Oscar the kitchen man would grind the fat into the pot, chop in some onions and add a small pot of water, get two porters to help him lift the pot onto a candy stove, cover it and turn the flame on high. The water would boil, turn into steam and begin the rendering of the fat, crackling and hissing as it went. When the water boiled off, there would be enough fat to carry out the rendering, and so when the pot got quiet, he would turn the fire down to the smallest ring, and let it cook by itself, until the pot was full of clear fat, and the renderings began the first touch of brown color. Then he would drain the clear fat off, and continue rendering the fat for a short while. This second fat, he would use to make an eingebrant, or brown roux for the gravy. He would use this fresh fat to blanch the newly cut potatoes, by cooking them in a GI pan on the candy stove, again set on low. They would cook at low temp until they were soft and limp, and then he would transfer them to sheet pans, using a tool that looked like a wire tennis racquet.
The clear fat would be sent upstairs via dumbwaiter, and used the kitchen fryers, and was changed every day. The fryers in the kitchen were run at 350 degrees F, that is as hot as they could go without smoking. The old fat went into barrels that were picked up by the renderer, to be made into soap. The chef got the money for the fat as a chef's prerogative, and I got boxes of fine hard milled soap, gift wrapped, to give as presents. A strange transformation, stinky into clean!
Beef fat, as frying fat, is not the strongest medium, vegetable oils are. Beef fat when heated beyond the 325-350 degrees F range breaks down and begins to smoke and turn acid, which is why we changed it every day. Wesson Oil, for example, which is cottonseed oil, can be used at 425 degrees F which is considerably hotter, and is more representative of modern commercial deep fat mediums. This accounts for the difference in the taste, texture and the ways fries were made, then and now. The slower a potato is cooked in oil, and the lower the temperature it is cooked at, the more fat it will absorb. Modern cooking oils are tasteless, by design, freshly made beef friture gives a certain flavor to the foods fried in it, one that I find very pleasant, perhaps because I am used to it. As a result, potatoes fried the old slow way absorb more fat (saturated fat at that) and develop a thicker rind that is dense and crisp. When the fry is cut thick, this means that the interior will steam and become fluffy, the way I like it, nutritionally incorrect. Modern fries are minimally blanched at the factory, and individually frozen, and then fried in hot oil as quickly as possible, with as little fat absorption as possible. They are lighter, but loose crispness quickly, and there is not much interior to them. They are just the shell of what a French Fry can be.
On the other hand, it must be said that they are much more scientifically controlled for sugar content and density. A potato is a living thing. It respires, and when chilled, some of the starch turns to sugar, causing the potato to get too brown when it fries. This process is reversible, so how you store potatoes has a definite effect on how well they fry. The density, or more accurately, the specific gravity of a potato is important to how it will cook. Specific gravity, or the comparison of the weights of equal volumes of potato to water tells you a lot about a potato. Dissolve 1 lb of salt in a gallon of water, (2 oz to a pint) wash your potato, and put them in the salt water. Some will float, some will sink, some will even hover in the middle! Those that sink have more potato solids in them, and are your bakers, mashers and fryers! Those that float make good boiled potatoes and potato salad and the like.
When I was a senior in college, I used this fact to write a paper on how to make good Pommes Souffle'es, which is like a blister on a potato chip, very fancy, and Chatouillard, long thin ribbons souffle'e, which was the first article I ever had commercially published on food. The French invented potato chips, I think...Pommes de terre "Chip", also known as Saratoga potatoes, which makes me think that maybe we Americans did! Food historians, please flame me in either direction! Anyway, like the Eskimos have many words for snow, the French have many words for potatoes, fried, baked, boiled, hashed, mashed! You tell me. Does this mean that the Irish must give place of pride to the French? What about the English Fish and Chips? Well, its an international delight, this humble South American tuber that changed the course of European history forever. Food historians, please use the comments section!
©1996, Steve K. Holzinger. All rights reserved.
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