On my recent trip to Canada, I indulged in a platter of fish and chips, nostalgically wrapped in newsprint, and sprinkled liberally with sea salt and malt vinegar. This brought back great childhood memories — before I had to train my brain to translate "chips" into "French fries," and when I could jazz them up with the acidic condiment, rather than smother them in cloying ketchup.
Today, French fries are hotter than ever, whether dredged in truffle oil and served with an aged Porterhouse in a five-star restaurant, or fried in peanut oil and paired with a chilidog at the ballpark.
While we're already a month passed National French Fry Day (July 13), the party continues as the average American scarfs down around 16 pounds of these crisp golden delights a year, equally enjoying them throughout the seasons. Although France is credited with inventing this iconic dish as evidenced by the food naming, the Belgians lay a solid claim to its creation back in the late 1600s, when Flemish cooks were frying strips of potatoes in the Muse Valley as substitutes during winter months when the river froze over and the small fish they traditionally fried were unavailable.
Street vendors were also known to be selling "Belgian fries" from pushcarts long before the French started frying their beloved pommes frites. These trickled to America, making their debut at the White House during a diplomatic dinner hosted by President Thomas Jefferson.
The country's love affair with this fast food is still going strong with many creative iterations in the shape, use of frying fats, toppings, condiments and seasonings to please even the most discriminating palates. There are thick-cut beefsteak fries, slender shoestrings, wispy shreds, waffle-cuts, curly cues, wedges, tots, crinkle-cuts, home fries, smiley faces and standard-cuts. They can be fried in animal fats (beef tallow, duck or chicken fat), or plant-based oils, typically with high smoke points and neutral flavors (peanut, grapeseed, safflower, walnut). While russets make the best potato fries, other roots, fruits and veggies like sweet potatoes, taro, parsnips, zucchini, eggplant, yucca, plantains and apples make tasty and interesting change-ups.
Fries can suit salty, savory, spicy and sour taste buds with a sprinkling of sea, celery or garlic salt, paprika, chili powder, cayenne pepper, ginger or wasabi powder, lemon pepper and parsley, or brown sugar and cinnamon for sweet tooths. They can be topped with chili and beans, carne asada, blue cheese, nacho-style melted pepper jack, or even foie gras or caviar. But in the USA, ketchup is king for dipping, followed by barbecue sauce and ranch dressing.
Countries around the world have concocted their regional spin on fries: the traditional French Canadian dish called poutine combines crispy thick-cut fries with cheese curds and gravy; in Greece fries are added to lamb Gyros plates; from birthplace Belgium long strips of Bintje potatoes are double-fried in beef tallow, accompanied by typical dipping sauces like mayo, aioli or spicy Andalouse; Korean fries are dredged in honey butter; South African "slap" chips are soaked in vinegar before a double-frying process; France's moules frites pair steamed mussels in white wine with a side of crispy fries; while Kenyan Masala chips are blanketed in a garlic and tomato-based sauce.
There's more. The Japanese dust their fries with everything from seaweed to chili chocolate, while Filipinos dip theirs in a banana ketchup that blends plantains, vinegar, sugar and local seasonings.
Frying aside, there are many nutritional perks to the precious potato. While many phytonutrients are contained in the skin depending on the color, the flesh is also a rich store of essential minerals and vitamins. This fat- and gluten-free, high-fiber starch has more immune-boosting Vitamin C than a tomato, more fluid-balancing potassium than a banana, a load of B6 to ratchet up energy, along with resistant starch to amp up colon health.
By baking "fries" instead of deep-frying, you can keep the potato powerhouse healthy, especially for the cholesterol-conscious. No one will feel deprived by these savory stove sticks generously seasoned with herbs, spices and Parmesan.
Recipe: Baked Parmesan & Herb French 'Fries'
• Ingredients: 4 large Russet potatoes, scrubbed, cut in 1/4-inch thick strips; 1/2 cup olive oil; 1/2 teaspoon each smoked paprika, oregano, rosemary; 1 handful fresh flatleaf parsley, chopped; 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese or sheep's Pecorino; sea salt and cayenne pepper, to taste.
• Method: Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In a large mixing bowl, combine oil, salt, cayenne, paprika, oregano, rosemary. Toss potato strips, coating well. Spread on parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake until crispy and golden (about 45 minutes). Remove from oven. Sprinkle with parsley and cheese. Bake until cheese is melted.
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org