Poutine’s one wickedly good ‘mess’ — in any language

A couple of months ago I wrote a review about the Toronto smokehouse Stack, where I was reacquainted with poutine.

I freely admit I am no expert when it comes to Quebec’s favourite food, but it turns out I’m as susceptible to its allure as are the majority of those who try it.

Heavy, a little greasy and offering virtually a month’s worth of cholesterol at one sitting, this combination of fries topped with cheese curds and gravy is irresistible.

(You know poutine has arrived when it’s added to McDonald’s menu.)

Poutine is a relative newcomer to the culinary world, and its origins are a little vague. It started as “a damn mess” — “une maudite poutine” apparently It’s one wickedly good ‘mess’ — in any language being Fernand Lachance’s verdict on this concoction in 1957, when asked to put a handful of curds on the fries. But it has spread throughout Canada and even parts of the U.S. Lachance was in Warwick, Que., but Drummondville, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Victoriaville all claim to have been the
originators of poutine.

One thing is certain: poutine is truly Canadian. Unlike basketball, the telephone and the WonderBra, the U.S. hasn’t staked a claim on its invention.

At Stack, my poutine was topped with pulled pork. But my initiation to this treat was at the first Great Canadian Cheese Festival, where Jamie Kennedy topped crisp fries with artisan cheese curds and oxtail gravy. One bite and I was converted, despite my early protestations that I would never eat such an unappetizing mess.

I have had to recant. Amazingly, this dish — once, and perhaps even still, a greasy spoon standard — has attained gourmet proportions. Many of Toronto’s best restaurants are now serving upscaled versions of poutine, with toppings like pulled lamb (Gilead Café), foie gras (Harbour Sixty Steakhouse) and lobster (Bymark).

Why not make it yourself?

Making poutine at home is simple.

While you should, by rights, deep fry the potatoes, I use twice-baked oven fries for my version, thereby cutting a good portion of the fat. Pre-soaking the potatoes in cold water for at least an hour helps to crisp them. Baking twice makes them super crisp and able to withstand the onslaught of gravy.

Try using sweet potatoes instead of the usual spuds.

The quality of the toppings is crucial. I get really good fresh curds from the market. If they don’t squeak when you bite them, those curds aren’t really fresh. And texture is an essential part of the poutine experience.

Want to get fancy? Use your favourite artisan cheese, or even crumbled blue cheese.

And then there’s the gravy. Mine is prepared from bones left over from a roast.

Now just put it all together for a traditional poutine.

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Posted: Feb 10 2014 11:42 am
Filed in: Food & Dining
Edition: Toronto