Fit to be fried

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Ty Kostrinsky, chef at Brew Pub & Kitchen, salts a fresh batch of french fries. He leaves the skin on for extra flavor.

By Pamela Hasterok
Special to the Herald

We buy organic. We read labels. We avoid saturated fat, salt and sugar. We follow celebrity chefs like Thomas Keller and David Chang. We’re foodies and we’re proud.

But in the dark of night, after a hard day at the office or one too many on the benefit circuit, we indulge in our dirty little secret.

It’s a dietary wasteland of carbohydrates, fat and sodium rolled into a perfect golden cylinder. We dare share it only with our nearest and dearest, lest we be outed as foodie frauds.

Our vice? The salty, crispy, savory, absolutely sublime … french fry.

One large potato sliced and fried accosts the nutritional scale at 578 calories, 67 grams of carbohydrate and 31 grams of fat. The salt alone accounts for 20 percent of a suggested daily serving.

Still, we can’t resist.

We order them as appetizers in the best restaurants in town, burning our fingers to grab them from artful presentations in paper cones or pyramid-like piles. We sneak them in at lunch at a local café to bolster a soup or a salad, hiding them discreetly between the wall and the water glasses. And late night we join the folks in the know – local chefs and wait staffs – who finish their shifts with a beer and fresh-from-the-fryer fries. (They go very well with a glass of Burgundy, too.)

The hotter, the crunchier, the saltier they are, the better.

You might wonder how a vegetable that was once considered inedible became the most beloved tuber of all time. And how did the french fry become the favorite of favorites, with a typical American consuming 30 pounds a year?

Discovered growing wild in the South American Andes 750 years before Christ, the lowly brown orb didn’t gain international attention until the Spanish brought the vegetable to the Continent in the 16th Century.

It was not well received. Germans considered it suitable food only for livestock and prisoners. The Spanish and French refused it even for that.

In 1783, Frenchman Legrand d’Aussy in his History of the Private Lives of the French, wrote “the pasty taste, the natural insipidity, the unhealthy quality of this food, which is flatulent and indigestible, has caused it to be rejected from refined households.”

But French peasants, figuring it must be a novelty meant for wealthy aristocrats, ultimately popularized the potato and lauded it for its aphrodisiac qualities. And when they dropped it into a pot of bubbling fat and finished it with salt, well, who’s to say they were wrong?

By the 1830s, the french fry was all the rage in France and Belgium. It took another 100 years for the pomme frite to make it to the U.S., re-created here by soldiers returning from World War I villages where they had encountered it.

So, what makes the perfect fry? They must be searingly hot, abundantly crisp, perfectly salty and possessed of a deep, satisfying potato flavor. You can have every other quality, but without the last, it’s just junk food by any other name.

Take for instance, “Satisfries,” those fat, crinkle-cut concoctions being advertised by Burger King as delicious sticks of potato goodness, with 30 percent fewer calories and 40 percent less fat than their regular version. They fry them in front of you in about three minutes. But though they turn out hot, with excellent texture and just the right amount of salt, they have no flavor at all. A cotton ball would be tastier.

Equally as disappointing are at-home Ore-Ida extra-crispy fries. Baked in a 450 degree oven for 10 minutes, the thin, blonde potatoes were not crisp and produced a musty flavor similar to the smell of worn socks.

If all Ore-Ida potatoes do is remind one why french fries are not to be prepared at home, then they have served their purpose. Making the perfect fry in your own kitchen is a scorching, smelly, greasy mess.

The oil must be hot – at least 250 F for the first round and 355 F for the second – and as noted, the potato must be fried twice to obtain a crisp outside and yielding interior. And that goes without mentioning the miles of paper towels needed to properly drain off the fat.

On the other hand, a less-than-perfect fry can be saved from the round file by a hearty of-the-earth potato flavor. The Palace Restaurant’s version is barely crunchy, under salted and arrived just warm. But the thick-cut fries taste so deeply of the real deal, we ate them all anyway.

In search of the most fabulous french fry in town, this reporter, several friends and a french fry-devotee of a husband sacrificed ourselves and our waistlines, tasting the fried tuber at 10 local establishments. (Forgive us if we missed your favorite, even the most ardent french fry fan must draw the line somewhere.) Herewith, our top three, in reverse order.

Lost Dog Bar & Lounge, that purveyor of lighter-than-usual-bar fare sporting the likes of red-pepper hummus and tzatziki, makes a killer french fry, in killer portions. They hand cut Idaho russets (those dry, flavor-packed spuds favored for baked potatoes), leaving on the skin, and fry them twice in vegetable oil before sending them out hot, slightly crisp and lightly salted. Their customers appreciate the effort, consuming more than 300 pounds a week.

Brew Pub & Kitchen, a relative new kid on the College Avenue block, will wow you with a plate of their own Colorado russets, also hand-cut, skin-on, fried twice in canola oil and nicely salted. If you are Canadian or from the upper Midwest, you might want to venture an order of fries with cheese curd and mushroom gravy for a nostalgic taste of home. While it’s delicious, to a french-fry purist, it’s beside the point.

We do allow for one exception, however, and that’s the addition of black truffle salt, sprinkled liberally on the most scrumptious fries known to man at Seasons Rotisserie & Grill.

Every day, chef-de-cuisine Neal Drysdale creates his own little miracle on Main Avenue, cutting russets from his hometown of Monte Vista, with a mandolin to the exact diameter, frying them in canola oil for about six minutes, cooling and draining them and then frying again at high heat for two minutes and finishing with the aforementioned salt.

Order them before a meal and they’ll disappear in a black-truffle-scented vapor before the drinks even arrive.

The french fry – a foodie’s perfect food. Keep our secret.

phasterok@durangoherald.com

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