Yesterday’s cooler weather inspired in me a desire to make stew. However, my inspiration changed as the grey skies cleared in the afternoon. After a spate of domestic-y work & long-overdue gardening, I felt like something less…stewy. Also, starting a stew at 7pm is never a good idea. So I decided on steak frites. The steak part -fine, easy-peasy; I had a nice clean BBQ to grill them on, which made things even easier.
The frites? Not so easy. I’d never made them, if you can believe it. Perhaps it’s because I was never a spud person (though living in Ireland, I became one more out of necessity) and indeed, still am not entirely one -but the crisp, hot, carby goodness felt just right to end an afternoon of laundry, cupboard-cleaning and weed-pulling.
The response to my frites-making exploit on Facebook was so positive, I thought I’d share the recipe. I used one posted online as well as my own good common sense. Try it if you have a chance -easy, and yes, very good. This serves two people (or one very-hungry woman, natch).
Prep Time: 15 minutes Cooking Time: 20-25 minutes
You will need:
4-5 medium-sized organic potatoes (Yukon Gold is best) 4-6 cups of ice water roughly 2.5 to 3 cups canola oil 1 cup olive oil sea salt
+ a whack of paper towels for blotting
Scrub potatoes and julienne. You want the shape to be long and skinny (do cut chunkier, a la pub style, if you like ’em that way, but mind they take longer to cook).
As you chop, place the julienned pieces in a big bowl of waiting ice water; mind the edges of the bowl are filled near the top, with plenty of ice (and keep adding cubes as you add the cut potatoes). I used a metal bowl to keep the temperature nice and cool.
Once you’re done chopping and your taters are in the bowl, leave them to soak for 15 minutes. (Make something else, or pour a glass of wine to enjoy whilst admiring your garden handywork…)
At about the 10-minute mark, heat the canola oil in a large, broad pan on the stove; place on medium heat.
After 15 minutes, drain the potatoes from the ice water in a colander. Discard any ice cubes, leaving potatoes in the colander. Give a gentle shake. Spread paper towels out on a flat surface, then spread the potatoes on them. Cover with another paper towel and gently blot.
Turn the heat of the oil up to medium high.
Place half the potatoes in the hot oil. They should sizzle on contact (test with one if you’re not sure). Mind that the oil covers them entirely.
When they’re semi-done (yellow but not golden), remove with a broad slotted spoon or tongs (carefully) & place on fresh, dry paper towels. Gently blot.
Check to see if there’s enough oil for the second batch of potatoes, and add as necessary. Again, you want the oil to cover the potatoes entirely. Repeat as before, removing the potatoes when they start to yellow and placing them on fresh, dry paper towels. Blot carefully.
Add the olive oil to the pan, and turn the heat down to medium. Wait about a minute (so it heats up), then place the first batch of potatoes in; shake the pan. Follow by placing the second batch in with the first, and shake again. The oil should be bubbling merrily, with the potatoes bouncing around inside.
Cook about ten to fifteen minutes, shaking the pan every few minutes or so.
When the potatoes turn that happy golden colour, your frites are ready. Using tongs or a broad slotted spoon, carefully remove them to a dry colander. Sprinkle liberally with sea salt and gently toss with your fingers.
Now… serve with your favorite accompaniment and enjoy.
I recall parties thrown by Irish friends, where the adults drank whiskey and us kids got milk with mint syrup. I remember more debauched celebrations in university that involved continual tar-and-malt-coloured libations through the day (and into night). In 2003, I met my mother at an Irish pub. She made the black remark that, “we’d better get good and drunk; there’s going to be a pile of dead people tomorrow.” The second Iraq war was on the cusp of starting; that sore festering pimple left the pallor of St. Pat’s particularly scarred, especially since pub patrons were taking sips between quick, nervous glances at the telly, as if CNN was the band-aid one could put on the bruised complexion of the world. Of course, my mother was right: three days later, we awakened to news of bombs, rockets, blood and screaming. And plenty of speeches and chest-thumping. Drinking didn’t make it that much better but the communal experience of being in a pub helped immeasurably.
St. Pat’s also has a personal dimension for me: today marks the day that, in 2007, I moved from a bittersweet, happy/sad life in Stratford, Ontario. I toasted my new circumstances that night, with dirty hands and sore arms, in a newly-painted room with a gleaming hardwood floor. The future was a huge question mark yawning forth with fangs and tongue flicking. Everything was new and old at the same time. “Woe to me,” I thought between bouts of self-pity, “if I wound up nothing but the undigested afterthought of a Beelzebub offering sin and redemption one foul swoop.” I still can’t figure out if I’m cud or steak, but one thing’s clear: that painful St. Pat’s made me stronger.
Before the fortifying challenges of adulthood however, I remember another St. Patrick’s Day. I was living in Dublin (yes, Ireland). I was in my early twenties, and my definitions of love, worth, security, friendship, play -hell, even art -had been turned upside down in the six months I’d been there. After weeks of gloom and wet, the dampness so keen it stained the walls of our ancient flat and made wearing three layers de rigeur, St. Pat’s was bright, sunny, and mild. Joyful crowds lined O’Connell Street: apple-cheeked grannies, sozzled students, North African immigrants, people from the numerous outlying suburbs, all enjoying a day off. Everyone was smiling, even the Gardai, in their uniforms, with buttons eye-searingly shiny casting rings of light along the cracked cement.
I’d stood on the thick concrete rail of the O’Connell Street Bridge weeks before, a friend holding a leg each, imploring me to “hurry up!” as I happily, manically snapped pictures of the buildings and houses cupping the Liffey like a cooing grey dove. Cold winds had whipped me to and fro, as hands gripped my ankles, then pant legs, and then the inevitable comment of “you’re insaaane!” floated through the rain-soaked air, chiming in harmony with the metallic ca-chunks of the camera lens. I’d gone to Dublin because, as a first-time move-out, I thought it would be easier to negotiate than the busy, buzzy shock of Gotham-like London; I was also in love with words, and had been intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually sustained by the likes of Yeats, Heaney, Joyce, Beckett, Behan and O’Casey for years. It’s no accident I wound up living mere blocks from the Dublin Writers Museum, the Gate Theatre -and the GPO.
As I stood that day in Dublin slowly inhaling the joy, the sunshine, and riotous celebration, there flashed a pang of sadness in my chest -that familiar, oh-so-Irish sense of doom, drama, and joy, melded together. I was already making plans to move to London. I didn’t know what the future held. I wasn’t even sure why I was leaving. And then I saw it: a float, featuring players from the popular television series Father Ted. I’d come to adore the show before I’d moved, thanks to PBS airings, and living in Dublin cemented my adoration. It was a ringing success in Ireland for simple reasons: the gentle mocking of the Church, the ironic winks to tradition, the celebration of community and friendship. Pauline McLynn, who played Mrs. Doyle, and Ardal O’Hanlon, who played Father Dougal, were on the float, and were greeted with manic waves and cheers. But their appearance was tinged with sadness: their co-star Dermot Morgan (who played the title role) had died very suddenly the previous year.
I came out of a darkened pub to blinding sunshine later that day, feeling overwhelmingly sad yet happily content, all at once.
“Moving?!” an Irish co-worker and friend had exclaimed, “you’re moving? Why??”
Bittersweet. Good and bad. Yin and yang. Stout and whiskey. That’s Ireland. That was my life there. And Dublin gave me the greatest St. Patrick’s day ever.