This dish comes to you from the Ottawa-Gatineau region, where most street corners in the downtown area are dotted with “chip trucks”, mobile vendors of French fries and hot dogs. And poutine. A melty mix of hot fries, squeaky cheese curds, and oozing thick gravy.
Like most foods we hold dear to the Canadian heart (though if you hold this one too close you are apt to have a heart attack), the origins are contested. The version I like best I heard on CBC a few years back. This particular chip truck also sold cheese curds, a Québec specialty. A customer wanted the vendor to simply chuck his order of cheese curds on top of his fries. The vendor protested, saying “ça va faire une maudite poutine” (it’ll make a damned mess), but the customer insisted.
A new delicacy was created out of “a damned mess”, though the gravy drizzled over the fries and curds to keep them warm came a little later.
My mother grew up in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, so I trusted her judgment as a child when she told me that poutine was absolutely the most disgusting thing in the entire world. Then, when I was a teenager, and we moved to Ottawa, I discovered that my mother had never in fact eaten poutine in her life. I promptly went out and discovered what I had been missing.
My mother did, at the age of 60, eventually eat her first poutine. The dish has a new fan. If you’re in the Ottawa area, the best place in the city for poutine is JP’s Crispy Chips, a high-end chip truck on the corner of Merivale and Baseline Roads. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
That’s not to say you can’t get good poutine at other places in the city. The chip truck near my high school had a decent recipe. If you wanted to get fancy you could head down to the Elgin Street Diner and try their Philly Cheese Steak Poutine, among other variations.
But poutine outside of the Ottawa-Gatineau area tends to fall a little short of my expectations. The Pie and I once ordered a poutine in Parry Sound, Ontario. What arrived was a plate of Tex-Mex seasoned frozen fries, grated marble cheddar, and a gravy that obviously came from a powder packet. Most disappointing. The only decent poutine I’ve had outside of Ottawa-Gatineau has actually been here in St. John’s. Newfoundlanders are good at eating potatoes, so they picked up on poutine right away. Venice Pizzeria has a version served with “dressing,” what I call stuffing — the kind that goes in a bird. And Aqua has a ridiculously rich version with chorizo and LOBSTER.
We’re going to do it the simple way here. I don’t think my arteries could take it any other way.
A note before we begin, however. You can buy your fries pre-cut and frozen from the store. You can use powdered or canned gravy rather than make it from scratch. You can use chicken gravy, turkey gravy, beef gravy, moose gravy, or mushroom gravy. Whatever gravy you want.
But you absolutely MUST use cheese curds. Must. Otherwise it’s just fries with cheese on them. And if you can get the cheese curds from St-Albert, Québec, by all means do so. You can definitely taste the difference. We used these ones from Montréal, Québec, and although they were good, they just weren’t the same.
Because we were serving the poutine as a sort of pseudo-Thanksgiving dinner, we decided to roast a chicken to serve on the side (because everything takes a backseat to poutine). This also gave us a base from which to make our gravy.
First I fried up some onions with butter and herbes de provence, then I stuffed them into the chicken, which I roasted at 400°F until the thickest part of the thigh registered at 180° and the juices ran clear.
I used the juices that came out as the foundation for my gravy. I have more info on making gravy here.
I poured the juices into a saucepan and added a ton of organic chicken broth. Here’s your gravy base, if you’re going for chicken gravy from scratch.
Make a slurry of flour and water and add that as well. Bring the gravy to a boil and then reduce the heat and let it simmer to thicken.
The Pie was also engaged in making a pumpkin pie while this was going on. Gren got to lick the pumpkin spoon. Cooking dogs are so very helpful.
While that is going on, chop up 6 medium potatoes into shapes resembling French fries.
Rinse off the starch and let the potatoes soak for half an hour.
Drain them and dry them with a paper towel when you are ready to cook.
In a large saucepan, bring about 4 cups vegetable oil to a temperature of 350°F. Use a candy or deep-fry thermometer to be accurate.
Ease about half your potatoes into the hot oil. A wire spoon is handy in this situation. A fry basket would be even better.
Leave them in there, sputtering away, for about 2-3 minutes, depending on the thickness of your fries. The sputtering will calm down after a while.
Pull them out and let them sit on a paper towel for about 5 minutes, while you cook the rest of the fries.
After you have cooked each batch once, allow the heat of the oil to rise to 365°F. Now you put the first batch back into the pot and cook for a further 2-3 minutes, until light brown.
Drain on paper towels again, season with sea salt, and get ready to serve immediately.
Pour half the fries into the bottom of a large serving bowl. Sprinkle half a package of cheese curds on top. Add a bit of gravy to get everything melty.
Repeat with the remaining fries, curds, and some more gravy. Serve immediately.
We had ours with our roasted chicken, stuffing onions, and some carrots. And all that extra gravy, of course.