Now that I have two daughters who speak French most of the time with each other and their mother, but English with me and then American when they watch Disney cartoons there’s plenty of possibilities for misunderstandings.
As in, “Would you like some chips for tea?”
In French, this would be thinly-sliced discs of potato fried in hot oil. In American, too. But in English, which is what I speak, it means small fingers of potato. Fried in hot oil. French fries. Pommes frites. Pommes alumettes almost, in fact.
Almost but not quite – pommes alumettes, matchstick fries, are a little beyond the capabilities of my Bron Couke mandoline, like this one here. If you’ve ever set foot in a professional restaurant kitchen in France, you’ll have seen one of these beasts, sitting on the same shelf it’s been kept on for the last 10, 20, 30 or more years. Some ‘modern’ chefs (you need to hawk and spit after pronouncing it for the full effect) insist on using new-fangled Japanese mandolines which can cut your potatoes, carrots, radishes and cauliflowers into instant Geraniums or Giraffes instead of slices or, well, chips. Real chefs snigger at them.
Also, note that my Professional mandoline doesn’t have the widget that sits on top to hold your vegetables and automatically save you from cutting off the tips of your fingers. Real chefs don’t need the tips of their fingers and have lost them years ago anyway.
The secret to not losing your fingertips, as any real chef will tell you (but only after you’ve lost one or two for his amusement), is to start mandolining holding your vegetable with your fingers. Then when you’ve got it going and it has a flat surface to press against the mandoline, you change to using the flat of your outspread hand pressed against the vegetable’s upper surface to move it up and down. This way the whole side of your hand, if anything, impacts the edge of the mandoline blade and – usually – doesn’t cut it.
So, you turn the little widget under the wide-open cutting hole to large chips or small chips, as is your fancy, and mandoline away. Several spuds per person later you’re done. Incidentally, note that the official portioning for potatoes is as follows: Steamed – 1 per person. Mashed: 1-1.5 per person. Chips or crisps: 4-5 per person.
Next, put your cut chips into a bowl and put it under the running cold tap, with the aim of removing the starch from the cut surfaces. Starch on the surfaces will encourage the chips to stick together as they cook – this is particularly problematical when you’re making crisps. So, run them under the cold tap, swishing them round a bit. Change the water a couple of times until you see no more clouding from the starch, then drain them as thoroughly as possible in a colander. You can even, if you’re my mum, roll them about in a tea-towel.
While you’re doing all the above you should have put your oil on to heat. Beef dripping is nicest, unless you’re a cow, and peanut oil used to be a favourite but, with so many people now pretending to be massively allergic to everything no restaurant uses it any more. Cheap restaurants will use giant drums of ‘vegetable oil’, which is mostly palm oil. Personally I use sunflower oil as it’s fairly neutral, can be heated to high temperatures and can also be used to make mayonnaise. It’s what we call a cooking and seasoning oil.
Personally I use a wok to fry chips and crisps, with a litre of fresh oil in it. I don’t understand why people like to keep oil for weeks and weeks, using and re-using it many times over. I might re-use oil once, perhaps twice, but it’s not that expensive an ingredient to use fresh each time you fry. And I use a wok because it’s the biggest suitable pan I have. Well, that’s not completely true but it’ll do. Its disadvantage is that it gives a giant surface area to the oil to cool, but I do have a large domed wok lid which I keep on it most of the time to keep the heat in.
My usual technique is to heat the oil on full gas for 10 minutes and then fry the first batch of chips for 10 minutes. If I’m cooking more chips than will fit in one batch I pop the next lot straight into the oil for another 10 minutes and so on until all the chips I’m cooking have had their first fry.
This is the fry which actually cooks the potato; the chips should be malleable to the touch, squashable but not squishy. Put them aside (‘reserve’ them we say in restaurants – keep this word handy to impress your impressionable friends) and cover your oil, allowing it to heat up for another 10 minutes. Incidentally, if you’re entertaining you can do the first-stage cooking well in advance and keep your first-cooked chips in the fridge, spread out on a covered tray, for a day if need be.
When you’re ready to eat, you cook half the first batch for less than a minute, by which time they should be nice and browned. If they take longer than a minute the oil’s too cold, so hoick them out and heat the oil up for a while longer. When judging this by eye, instead of being bothered to get out the digital thermometer (or buy a proper fryer), I wait until the oil just starts smoking then whack in the chips all in one go. This can be spectacular (in a burning-down-the-house sort of way) and probably shouldn’t be attempted if you’re a nervous, throw-some-water-on-it sort of person. If you are nervous perhaps you should buy one of those hermetically sealed deep fat fryers and leave the real cooking to real cooks.
Now, here’s a secret. Don’t tell anyone else this. The secret to good-tasting chips is in exposing the maximum amount of surface area as possible to the boiling oil. This is why deep-fried chips taste nicer than deep-fried whole potatoes. If you’re the sort of person who likes the crunchy bits of chips, before you pop them into the oil for their second cooking, smash them up a little with the edge of your slotted spoon (the one you use for hoicking them out of the oil – you didn’t think I did this with my fingers did you? Boiling water I can tolerate, boiling oil it just too hot even for asbestos fingers). This will give you more surface area and more crunchy bits. More yummy, in fact.
And serve with a light dusting of salt. Miam-miam, as the French say. Delicious with mayonnaise.
Oh, and here’s another secret. I don’t bother peeling potatoes I’m turning into chips – I’m much to lazy for that and, frankly, no one notices. In the restaurant we’d call them Country Fries, Pommes Frites de campagne, and charge extra for doing less work. Also, you don’t lose the vitamin content by peeling them – you destroy it in the fryer instead.