Exploring Poutine: History, Recipes, and Fun Variations
Who's Responsible for This Mess?
In the heart of the province of Quebec is the county of Arthabaska. The name is derived from the Cree word Ayabaskaw, meaning “place waters meet.” It is indeed an idyllic spot with pristine waterways, rich, fertile soil, and massive sugar-maple trees. It is here that Fernand LaChance opened the restaurant Lutin Qui Rit (English translation: “The Laughing Leprechaun”) in Warwick, Arthabaska.
One day in 1957, a truck driver named Eddy Lainesse ordered a “to go” bag of pomme frites. To this day, no one knows for certain his state of mind. Was he ravenously hungry, in need of a hangover cure, or simply mad? He asked to have the fries adorned with cheese curds—certainly a significant moment in food (lore) history. Or was it?
Another restauranteur, Jean-Paul Roy has attested that in 1964 some of his regular customers began adding cheese curds to their orders of fries and gravy. Monkey-see, monkey-do—other customers began to mimic them, and so Mr. Roy added the dish to his menu. Who are we to believe?
Ça va faire une maudite poutine (It’s going to make a damn mess!)— Resautanteur Fernand Lachance, owner/operator of Lutin Qui Rit
According to the National Post, soon after receiving that odd culinary request from Eddy the truck driver, Mr. LaChance (of the Laughing Leprechaun) began serving the dish in his restaurant, not in to-go bags but on plates (to contain the mess?) When told that the fries too quickly got cold, he added gravy to the mix. And the rest, my friends, is history.
Fried potatoes, fatty gravy, and cheese—doesn’t this sound like heart-attack-on-a-plate? I am cautious, and allow myself this indulgence only once (or twice) a year. However, Mr. Lachance’s family says that once the dish became a “thing” he ate it at least once a week. He died at the age of 86. Perhaps I should rethink my self-imposed dietary restrictions.
What about you? Would you like to learn how to make poutine?
In the basic recipe for poutine, French fries are covered with fresh cheese curds and topped with brown gravy.
To replicate the Laughing Leprechaun poutine you will need flawlessly fried potatoes. That perfect fry is cooked twice, and the perfect potato for that fry is the russet, otherwise known as the Idaho potato. Trust me, nothing else will do.
In a pinch, frozen fries, baked in the oven will suffice, but if you want to make your own, my friend Kenji at Serious Eats has deconstructed the perfect French fry. I’m an admitted food nerd and love reading about the science of what we eat. I've provided the recipe for the perfect French fry as well. Note that this is a two-step cooking process that requires an overnight rest in the freezer.
- Vegetable peeler
- Knife and cutting board
- Measuring spoons
- Liquid measuring cups
- Two large rimmed baking sheets
- Paper towels
- Large saucepan
- Clip-on cooking thermometer
- Wire-mesh spider (skimmer)
- Freezer-safe container or freezer-safe zip-lock plastic storage bags
- Large mixing/serving bowl
Once upon a time, there was a Middle East vagabond, a nomad who set out on a journey through the desert. Just before departing, he poured some fresh milk into his bag. After several hours the man was thirsty and so opened the bag to sip some milk. However, he found that the milk was no longer liquid; it had curdled. Do you know why? The bag was fashioned from the stomach of a calf and, therefore, the inside of the bag contained rennin. Rennin is an enzyme which is still used today in the cheese-making process and because of the desert heat the curds formed quickly. According to legend, this was the birth of cheese curds.
To have the proper moisture, texture and “squeak” the curds for poutine must be fresh. As air and moisture dissipate, the proteins in the curds lose their elasticity and the distinctive stretch. If you live near a dairy or cheesemaker, you might be able to score some fresh curds. If not, don’t despair. Fresh mozzarella is not a perfect substitute, but it will suffice. Or, if you are feeling adventurous, you can make your own. This recipe for cheese curds from the New England Cheese Making Supply Company explains exactly what you need.
A word of warning: When you make poutine, don’t use cheese straight from the refrigerator. In order to melt properly, the curds must be at room temperature.
I love luxurious, rich and thick gravy, but for poutine “slim is in.” The gravy should be slightly thinner than what you might desire for a mound of mashed potatoes because the magic of poutine is how the gravy seeps down, warming and slightly melting the curds and then enveloping the fries. Quebec poutine gravy is not based on beef or chicken, but rather a combination of the two.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 shallot, finely minced
- 2 1/2 cups low sodium beef stock
- 1 cup low-sodium chicken stock
- 1/2 cup stout beer (or use more beef stock)
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add flour, and cook, stirring, until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the shallot and cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the beef stock, chicken stock, ketchup, stout beer, balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire, and a pinch of salt and pepper, and bring to a boil; cook, stirring, until thickened, about 6 minutes.
Note: This recipe was adapted from Half Baked Harvest.
Sweet Potato Poutine
I chose this recipe because my older daughter loves sweet potato fries. If you love the yin-yang of sweet and salty and are new to poutine, this might be the perfect place for you to start your poutine journey. "I Say Nomato" provides photographs and step-by-step instructions on how to make perfectly crisp (not floppy) sweet potato fries.
Tater Tot Poutine
My friends in Canada will no doubt decry this as a sacrilege. I'm truly sorry. But for the rest of us, tater tots are a guilty pleasure and a near-perfect vehicle for cheese curds and poutine gravy. Real House Moms provide the recipe for tater tot poutine.
I have already alienated my Canadian friends, so I proceed fearlessly with this next offering—tater tots topped with sausage gravy and a perfectly executed runny-yolk fried egg. This would perhaps best be consumed as one's last meal.
Nutritionally, it is a bit of a risk (20 grams of carbohydrates, 53 grams of fat, 293 milligrams of cholesterol, and 1,309 milligrams sodium), but oh, what a way to go! Allison Miller is the photographer/creator of this breakfast poutine.
I can hear your thoughts—two-thirds of poutine is an animal product, how can there possibly be a vegan version? The creator of the blog "It Doesn't Take Like Chicken" tells us how to make vegan cheese that stretches just like a real cheese curd and gravy that is so rich and savory you won't miss the beef and chicken broths. Thanks to Sam Turnbull for her amazing vegan poutine.
© 2019 Linda Lum