When they write the history of popular food in the Twenny-Tens (if there’s anyone with enough arterial fortitude to survive it and write it), I imagine this moment, glistening with bacon fat and given gravitas by the six-pound cheeseburger, will likely go down—way, way, down—as The Age of Wretched Excess, and looking back through the haze of time and spattered fry grease, future food historians will recognize the imposing figure of Monsieur Poutine as one of our era’s most august ambassadors.
This French-Canadien concoction of french fries topped with gravy and smothered in cheese curds has somehow escaped the ghetto of post-hockey game Québécois bar food to become a poster child for the too-much-is-never-enough philosophy (if you will) of our food truck-obsessed culture (if you stacked up all the pulled pork sandwiches topped with runny mayo-slicked cole slaw served in America’s food trucks in a day, I imagine they’d reach to the moon and back a couple of times, though they p
robably wouldn’t stack very well, on account of all
the grease…). Martin Picard, of the fat-flecked
Au Pied de Cochon, is likely responsible for bringing poutine into the foodie
world, with his beyond decadent foie gras-topped version. Montreal
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As my friend Tom said recently after a home-based poutine foray went deliciously awry: Poutine, always a good idea, always a bad idea. Thing is, for me, poutine had always been just an idea. Prior to constructing my own version as a Bide-A-While bachelor dinner the other night, I had never tasted the stuff. Imagine that. The idea just never held that much appeal to me—all I could imagine of the typical version was starchy, previously frozen french fries, poorly cooked, topped with indifferent gravy and obliterated by too-salty cheese. Now, I’m a guy who grows sweaty-palmed and anxious when I pull my last piece of home-smoked bacon from the freezer, who always has a little pot of pork fat beside the stove—you know, for emergencies—but that image was too much even for me.
Well, I guess it wasn’t so much the grease factor that put me off, but rather the uninspired monolithicness (just made that word up) of it. After two bites, what would there be to taste? Still, perhaps because of my Canadian heritage, or because I used to spend a night or two in bars after hockey games, the idea of poutine has always intrigued me, and I’ve cooked many a mental dish of it in the past few years. This week, I finally put it on the plate.
I’m sure some chapters of the Confrèrie de Poutine would run me out of town on a rail for it, but I wanted vegetables. Specifically, I wanted highly flavored vegetables, both tart and savory. So homemade sauerkraut, rinsed and squeezed, formed a crisp and tangy bed for my poutine. Celery root, one of the most umami-packed forms of produce, has been part of every poutine I’ve imagined, so a fine dice of that went into my gravy.
The base of my gravy: bacon. Duh. And the potatoes were not deep-fried shoestrings, but rather wedges of wonderful, coal-roasted homegrown fingerlings browned well in that bacon fat. This is sounding pretty good, isn’t it? Adding more depth to the gravy were leek, garlic, and sambal.
To add a little wholesome heft—this was my dinner, after all—I fried an egg in the remaining bacon fat, and along with it I cooked a couple slices of under-ripe Green Zebra tomatoes, along with some thinly sliced jalapeno and shallots—nothing monolithic about the flavors of this dish.
La cuisine minceur? Mais mon. But neither was this a regrettable gut-bomb, and I cleaned my plate—well, gratin dish—happily. I’ll make this again, but not for a while. Some winter night when a wolfish wind howls down the valley and the stars overhead are so insanely clear and profligate in their splendor that it stirs something deep in my Canadian soul, I’ll look around the kitchen to see what we have, and remembering Tom’s dictum I’ll think, Poutine, that sounds like a good idea….
1 ½ ounces excellent slab bacon cut in 1/3-inch dice
3 tablespoons chopped white of leek
2 tablespoons finely diced celery root
2 cloves garlic, crushed and coarsely chopped
1 ½ teaspoons sambal
2 teaspoons flour
2/3 cup chicken stock (or another type of stock—mine was actually chicken-duck stock)
2 medium fingerling potatoes, pre-roasted, quartered the long way
1 ½ ounces white cheese curds sliced
A bit of butter
2 slices green tomatoes
Thinly sliced jalapenos and shallots, optional
2/3 to ¾ cup excellent sauerkraut, rinsed in a couple changes of water, squeezed to remove excess liquid
Salt and pepper
Heat oven to 425.
In a medium skillet slowly cook the bacon until it is lightly browned and has rendered most of its fat. Remove and reserve the bacon. Pour off and reserve half the fat. Brown the potatoes evenly in the fat that remains in the pan. Spread the sauerkraut in the bottom of a gratin dish and place the potatoes on top of it.
Return the bacon to the skillet along with the reserved fat. Add the leek and celery root and cook over medium until the leek is wilted. Add the garlic and sambal and cook for a minute or two. Sprinkle the flour into the skillet and stir and scrape with a wooden spatula for about a minute. Add the stock a little at a time, stirring and scraping to deglaze the pan and dissolve the flour. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Sprinkle half the cheese curds over the potatoes and kraut. Top with gravy. Wash the skillet and heat it with a bit of butter. Fry the egg sunny-side-up, along with the tomatoes, jalapeno, and shallot. Place the egg and tomatoes on top of the gratin, and sprinkle on the other half of the curds. Place in the preheated oven until the cheese is melted. Remove, top with the jalapeno, shallot and any fat remaining in the pan. Open a beer, eh? Dig in.