Like many people in our country’s good-food movement, I owe a debt of gratitude to author Michael Pollan for helping put sustainable food issues at the center of America’s plate. But one thing I appreciate most about him is something for which he is known the least: He made the world safe again for fry eaters like me. Which is great because, as you'll soon see, I really enjoy Belgian fries!
I’m referring to rule No. 39 of his latest book, Food Rules, which states that it’s OK to eat all the junk food we want as long as we cook it ourselves. The rationale behind the rule is that we’re not likely to eat many Twinkies or Cheetos if we have to make them from scratch. The same logic applies to fries. Considering the work involved in peeling and cutting potatoes, frying them and cleaning up afterward, it’s not the type of project you’re likely to undertake often.
You may have noticed that I have carefully avoided adding the adjective “French” in front of the word “fries.” That’s because my wife is from Belgium, and it would create both a domestic and international incident were I to give another country credit for what the Belgians rightly consider to be one of their greatest culinary achievements. The origin of fries is a subject of debate, but nowadays, even the French concede that the Belgians have them beat. And it was Americans who gave them the name “French fries.”
To understand what I mean, you could travel to Belgium, where my family and I spent the past year immersing ourselves in the country’s food culture. There you will see that fries are not only a pillar of the Belgian national dish, moules frites (steamed mussels and fries), but they are indeed a way of life. If a trip to Belgium isn’t in your immediate future, however, you can get a decent idea of what I’m talking about by making Belgian fries at home.
Wherever you go in Belgium, you will find people of all ages and sizes eating their beloved frites or friet, as they are called in Flemish-speaking Belgium. Along with the Belgian monarchy and beer, frites are one of the few things that binds this multilingual, multicultural hodgepodge of a country together. They are to Belgium what the baguette is to France and pasta is to the Italians: the food of the people and a culinary symbol.
Knowing all of this helps put the potato-dominated layout of the typical Belgian kitchen garden into perspective. For not only do Belgians take pride in making their fries from scratch, many add an extra step to the recipe by growing their own potatoes. The official potato variety for Belgian fries is ‘Bintje,’ which accounts for nearly three-quarters of all the potatoes grown in Belgium. It’s worth growing these yourself (find seed potatoes by searching in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Seed and Plant Finder), but non-Europeans looking for an acceptable substitute can use ‘Yukon Gold,’ ‘Russet’ or another starchy variety.
So, what’s the Belgian secret to making good fries? Well, there are a few. The first is the cut of the potatoes, which is thicker and more irregular than the uniform matchsticks sold in U.S. fast-food joints. The second, which relates to the first, is that Belgians cook their fries twice, once for cooking them through, and a second time at a higher heat to give them a crispy, golden crunch.
Belgian fries’ signature characteristic, though, is not how they’re prepared, but how they’re served: with a sprinkle of salt, a dollop of homemade mayonnaise and a cold beer. If that doesn’t exactly sound like health food, it’s because it’s not, but homemade fries are lip-licking delicious and well worth the occasional splurge. As the Belgians have long known, life is too short to eat anything but real fries.
Homemade Belgian Frites Recipe
Frying oil (Traditionally, Belgians used beef tallow, but any oil with a high smoking point will work, e.g., canola, safflower, grapeseed, sunflower and peanut oils.)
Salt, to taste
1. Peel potatoes and hand-cut them into sticks at least 1/2-inch thick.
2. Rinse potatoes to remove excess starch, then pat dry.
3. Begin heating enough oil in a deep fryer or skillet deep enough to submerge a couple of handfuls of fries. When the temperature reaches 320 degrees Fahrenheit, put in a couple of handfuls — but no more — so as not to cool the oil too much.
4. Fry for 5 to 8 minutes, depending on the thickness and the kind of potatoes, gently shaking the pan or deep fryer cage to prevent sticking.
5. Empty the fries into a large bowl lined with paper towels and let them cool down for half an hour.
6. Increase the oil heat to 375 degrees, and refry the fries for 2 to 3 minutes, until they’re crispy and golden brown.
7. Serve with salt, mayonnaise and a beer ... the Belgian way!
Need a dipping sauce? For a tasty condiment for your homemade Belgian fries, try Homemade Mayo: Healthier, Tastier, Easier Than You Think.