Saturday, June 21, 2008

Belgian Fries

Fries are at the heart of almost every Belgian's love of food and hence you'll see them being served everywhere. They are Belgians' primary street food, where you can get it at so-called "fritkoten" (literally "fries shacks"), but you'll also find them in all kinds of restaurants and taverns, being served as an accompaniment to a wide variety of main dishes. In Belgium there's a true fries culture, which is why Belgians will often try to point out that it's actually Belgian fries and not French fries. A legend which is often told to explain this erroneous callsign, states that during the Second World War US troops were based in the French part of the country. During their arduous battle in the Ardennes, the French-speaking locals introduced them to the deep-fried potato slices. However, it has been noted that the term French-fried potatoes was already in use before WWII. More probable is the linguistic explanation; French may refer to julienning of vegetables.
Regarding the true origins of fries, the discussion still continues. Belgian historian Jo Gérard states that the story of the fries goes back to 1680, when the locals of the cities Namur, Andenne and Dinant often caught little fish in the Meuse river which they then served fried as a side dish. However, when the river was frozen or too turbulent, it is said they turned to potatoes and cut them into the shape of little fish and deep fried those in oil. However, this story has never been confirmed by other sources and consequently, other regions or countries claim to have been the first to create fries.
Regardless of whether or not Belgians were the first people to fry potato slices, they are at the very least their symbolic creator and most definitely the only ones who have built an entire culinary specialty around the delicious golden potato sticks. No other country consumes more fries per capita than Belgium, which isn't too surprising as even the smallest Belgian town has its own frietkot or friterie. The fry is not only the most popular snack, but is featured alongside many national dishes, with some of the most popular being: mosselen met friet (mussels and fries), friet met stoofvlees (fries with Flemish beefstew), friet met biefstuk (steak and fries).

If you step inside a frietkot or friterie, you'll find an amazing range of accompanying meats and condiments, which go very well with your portion of fries. You have several kinds of sausages such as cervela, lookworst (garlic sausages), curryworst, mammoet etc. Also popular are the boulet (a large cold meatball), vogelnestje (bird's nest; a large meatball with a boiled meatball inside and served in tomato sauce), saté, fried pieces of chicken and many many more. In terms of sauces and condiments, a whole new branch of fritsauzen or fries sauces has evolved over the years. While the most popular accompanying sauce is still (egg-based) mayonnaise, there are now so many sauces to put on your fries that I'm not even able to list them all. There's ketchup, curry ketchup, curry sauce, mammoet sauce, samoerai sauce, pickles (one of my favorites, similar to the British picalilly but not as sweet and packs a bit more sour flavor), stoofvleessaus (the sauce of the Flemish beef stew), white beans in tomato sauce, andalouse sauce, etcetera,...I think you're catching my drift.
Another sign that fries have been embedded deeply in the country's food culture is the manner in which the fries are prepared. It starkly differs from the methods followed in other countries and gives Belgian fries their specific taste and golden color (see below).

Regarding ingredients and cooking equipment, certain remarks can be made. First of all, what type of potato should be used for making fries? Well, at home we use a variety called bintje and sometimes also eersterlingen. However, I don't believe this variety is available to fries lovers outside of Belgium and the Netherlands (and perhaps some other surrounding ones), so in general I'd suggest using any type of potato rich in starch. More information regarding potatoes and fries in general can be found at http://www.belgianfries.com/.

As a frying oil, you should use a vegetable-based oil, which is able to handle the high heat for extended periods of time. In the past however, fries were fried in beef or horse lard, however that's rarely still used (I must admit I'm curious as to how fries fried in beef lard would taste). Either way, remember that whatever oil you use, it will have important consequences for the final taste of the fries. Make sure not to use the same oil endlessly! You should limit the number of times the oil is used to 10 times, as the oil breaks down a little every time it's heated up, which then affects the taste.
As far as cooking equipment goes, you'll need a deep fryer on which you can manually adjust the temperature of the oil/fat. Furthermore, an ideal tool for making large quantities of fries in the comfort of your own home is the fry-cutter, seen in action here. This is a wonderful aid when you have to prepare a large batch of fries for family or friends! If you would like more information about this tool or if you would like to purchase one, please contact me at dejosmans@hotmail.com.


What do you need?

To serve two people you'll need the following:
5 to 7 mid-sized potatoes or 5 large potatoes per person
vegetable-based frying oil
salt
Let's get started!

1. Peel the potatoes, removing any eyes or protuding parts which might prevent the fry-cutter from working smoothly. Put the peeled potatoes in cold water to rinse them and let some of the starch leave the potato. This will make the fries less sticky and more crispy.
2. Cut the potatoes into slices using a knife or fry-cutter. I sometimes also put these freshly cut fries into cold water again. This further reduces the amount of starch left in the fry, making the final result more crispy on the outside.

3. Wrap up the uncooked fries in a towel, thoroughly drying them off. Keep them wrapped up in this towel during the entire first round of frying. Turn on the deep-fryer and heat up the oil to 170°C for the first fry.


4. Put a handful of raw fries in the oil and cook them for about 7 to 8 minutes (after having done this for several times, you'll be able to tell when they're ready to come out simply by listening for a specific tone of sizzles coming from the oil). They will be slightly fried on the outside, with a slightly darker yellow exterior. In either case don't fry them till they're golden!!!! Stir the fries wel when they're in the oil. Use a large, flat ladle with large holes in it.


Don't put in too many at once, as you'll cause the oil to cool down considerably, and you'll end up with cooked fries instead of fried ones. Also, the fries will absorb more fat when cooked to a soggy state.

5. This step is crucial in the preparation of Belgian fries, and is what sets the Belgian style apart from the other frying styles. Once you've fried them for 7 to 8 minutes, take the fries out of the oil and leave them to sit in a tray for a while. Continue frying the rest of the fries, until you've fried all of them for a first time. Leave the entire batch of pre-fried fries to rest for about 20 minutes. This will give you time to put the final touch on any of the accompanying dishes or condiments.

6. When all the table guests are ready for the fries, turn up the heat on your deep fryer to 190°C. Again, take only a handful of the pre-fried fries and put them in oil. Fry them for about 2-3 minutes, while giving them a good stir. Once they've reached a light-golden color, take them out of the oil and put them in a bowl with kitchen paper. Toss them around a little bit before serving.


Serve them hot, with a little mayonnaise and salt! Enjoy!!!

2 comments:

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

Sounds amazing! I think I need to come to Belgium just for this! :)

Ruben said...

The fries fried in beef or horse lard taste really good! A pitty is that you really have to search good in Belgium to find them. On the other side it's a good thing because they aren't really healthy...