Dipped in ketchup or mayo, stacked high and smothered with chili, even doused in gravy and topped with cheese curds, there are endless ways to embellish the humble fry. Much like pasta or rice, the potato is a blank canvas, and whether you deep-fry it in peanut oil or crisp it in the oven, it pairs perfectly with a range of unusual and exotic flavors.
Far and wide, from fast-food joints offering artisan-style fries topped with sea salt to five-star establishments pairing elegant plates with sweet-potato fries, smashed potato wedges with rosemary or duck-fat fries, the lowly potato is making a big comeback.
"A lot of people call 2012 the 'Year of the Potato,' so fries have had a real resurgence, especially now that fine restaurants have added them and homemade potato chips to their menus," says Stephanie Dickison, food writer, restaurant critic and author of "The 30-Second Commute: A Non-Fiction Comedy About Writing and Working from Home," which includes a behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant industry.
"Poutines are also making their way onto restaurant menus. This French-Canadian snack of fries topped with thick gravy and cheese curds has even gone fine dining, with toppings ranging from duck confit to butter chicken to pulled pork," Dickison says.
*Prep With Patience
"It requires a lot of patience and trial and error in order to make tasty fries at home," Dickison says. "A lot of foodies recommend that you fry them twice -- once on low, then finish them on high -- and some say that boiling them first in vinegar water makes all the difference.
"I prefer to bake mine because you can control how much oil you use, and it's just so much faster with similar results."
For perfectly gourmet fries at home, soak the cut potatoes in cold saltwater prior to frying. Saltwater prevents raw potatoes from turning brown prior to frying and removes excess starch from the potatoes for a crispier fry. It also cuts down on splatter when dipping them into the oil. Soak 10 to 30 minutes, and then pat dry on a clean towel.
For great color and a lighter, more complex flavor, use peanut oil in lieu of traditional vegetable oil. It has a higher smoke point, so you can cook the potatoes at a higher temperature (375 F is recommended), which means crispier fries.
Be sure to cook in small batches. Overcrowding potatoes in the oil leads to uneven cooking and breakage.
*Spice It Up
"Potatoes are a great canvas for building flavors, so you can do something as simple as fresh rosemary and sea salt or something bolder like combining spicy and sweet, such as red chili peppers and brown sugar," Dickison says. "And just by adding a spice such as curry powder or cinnamon to sweet-potato fries, you can take your everyday fries to extraordinary."
Whether you're making your own fries from scratch or cooking up a batch of frozen fries from the grocery, try these flavor combinations for a fresh spin on the classic:
--Forget the table salt. Instead, look for kosher salt or Fleur de Sel sea salt. The coarser granules and subtle flavor variations really bring out the flavor of fries. Add fresh cracked black pepper to the mix for an even bolder taste.
--Look to pre-made seasoning blends to perk up your palate. Greek, Cajun and Creole seasonings add a unique flavor to fries, as does standard seasoning salt. Or get creative and craft your own unique blend. Paprika, celery salt, onion powder, garlic powder, crushed red peppers and thyme make great additions to french fries.
--Try batter-dipped fries. Combine 1/2 cup flour with garlic salt, onion salt and table salt, seasoned to taste. Gradually stir in 1/4 cup water. Slice the potatoes, heat up the deep fryer, and dip the potato sticks in the batter one at a time. Place in fryer one at a time so they don't clump together. Fry until crispy and golden.
--Get the taste of boardwalk fries at home. Soak thick-cut fries in cold water and vinegar for at least an hour, overnight is preferable. Pat dry and fry until tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Drain on paper towels and refrigerate for one hour; you can even store the blanched fries in the freezer. Just prior to serving, fry again for 4 minutes or until golden brown. Top with Old Bay seasoning and apple cider vinegar or malt vinegar.