Montreal Poutine - ©

Poutine – An all-Canadian Mess!

Poutine is one of a very few foods that can claim to be truly and totally Canadian in origin. Like Butter Tarts, Tourtiére and Beaver Tails (the pastry, from Ottawa; but more on that in a future post!). Today, we’ll delve into the origin of this heart-attack-in-a-bowl and show you how to make it right!

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In the beginning…

There are many stories about the birth of Poutine. All agree that the province of Quebec was the general locale, but several different towns lay claim to its discovery. The story I find most pleasing (and the one that rings truest, in my ears) is the tale of Warwick, PQ, diner operator Fernand Lachance. Seems he was minding his own business, literally, one day in 1957 when a customer noticed a display of Cheddar Cheese Curds from the local cheese factory on the counter and said, basically, “How about putting some of them on my Fries and Gravy?”

Lachance thought about it a minute and replied, “Ça va faire une maudite poutine!” (“That’s gonna make one damned mess!”)

It may be a mess, but it’s an all-Canadian mess! And it tastes great. I think, given my culinary training and a more modern point of view on food combinations, that Poutine provides the perfect combination of the tastes and textures people crave in a dish: Salt, Savoury (the Gravy), Creamy (the Cheese) and Crunchy (the Fries). So it’s no surprise that it took off like a rocket. Some say it’s the unofficial ‘official dish’ of Quebec!

Make it right…

First, you need decent French Fries. The traditional way to make them is to start with fresh Russet potatoes, washed and peeled and cut lengthwise into 1 cm (3/8 in.) square sticks. Dry the sticks off with a towel. Blanch (i.e.- par-cook) them in the deep fryer at a low temperature (350 F) for about three minutes. Remove them from the fat and let them drain and cool. After 15 or 20 minutes, return them to the deep fryer which has been turned up to 360 F – 370 F. Cook another five minutes or so, until the surface of the chips is crispy and deep golden brown. Remove from the fryer and let drain. Sprinkle with Salt immediately.

Next you need real, Cheddar Cheese Curds. Not cubes of Cheese, or blobs of Queso Fresco, or chunks of Feta. Certainly not crumbles of Bleu! (Unless you are bound and determined to somehow legitimize poutine!)

Cheddar Cheese is made by curdling whole milk using Rennet and bacterial culture. The specific culture used by each cheese factory gives its cheese a unique flavour and texture. Once the milk is curdled, the whey is drained off, leaving the curds, or solids. For Cheddar Cheese, the curds are cut, stacked against the side of the vat and drained again, until the curd is relatively dry and firm. Then, the chunks of curd are passed through a curd mill, which produces the little-finger-sized ‘noodles’ of Curd that you get in the little bag with the big price in the dairy case. The rest of the Cheddar Cheese story can wait for another post. But the Gravy can’t!

The traditonal Gravy for Poutine, you may be surprised to know, is standard ‘Brown Gravy Mix’, used by generations of diner operators as a convenience. Just add water and boil. It’s commonly found on ‘Hot Chicken Sandwiches’ and diner ‘Mashed Potatoes’ as well as on Fries. The stuff, though very salty, really gets your Umami sense would up tight! Probably the MSG… Anyway, any gravy will do, but you should really try the ‘original formula’ at least once, so you can say you did!

Place a healthy serving of fries into a wide-lipped soup bowl, sprinkle a good handful of Curds over top and then douse it all with a liberal dose of hot Gravy. The fries should be fresh and hot, the Curds should be at room temperature to start and the Gravy should be steaming, from the pot. The Curds will melt a bit, giving you a Pizza-like Cheese pull… Perfect!

Some caveats…

All good things have their drawbacks… And Poutine is no exception. First, there’s the Fat – in the Fries, the Cheese and the Gravy! Then, there’s the Salt – in the Fries, the Cheese and the Gravy! And then, there’s the carbs – in the Fries, the Cheese and the Gravy! And then, there’s the inescapable fact that nothing goes better with a bowl of Poutine than a quart of good, hearty, 6% Canadian beer. Or a 24 oz. sugary soda.

So, as they say in Vodka ads – ‘Enjoy Responsibly!’

~ Maggie J.