Ever since I scarfed back the most amazing plate of poutine 13 months ago, I’ve been committed to recreating that dish prepared by the servers of Le St-Estèphe. There seemed no better time than now, especially with the advent of the next installment of The Canadian Food Experience Project and the March challenge to be “local.”
Some might say the famed Beavertail, a pastry integral to the experience of skating on the UNESCO World Heritage Rideau Canal, is the local dish of the region. It’s hard to argue the symbolism of this fried piece of bread slathered in maple, cinnamon sugar, or chocolate, but it is a seasonal treat …. whereas poutine is truly ubiquitous, available everywhere and all the time. It is the fare of late-night diners, fry trucks, and pubs that stretch from Thunder Bay to to New Brunswick and it unites our country’s culinary identity as much as any one food or dish can. Thus, living in Ottawa, a capital Queen Victoria chose to unite two cultures and one country, it was a certainty that before this Canadian Food Experience Project was done that I would I would have to make my first attempt at creating poutine … but, yes, it would have to be special.
As much as poutine is singular and simple in it’s traditional three ingredients of french fries, cheese curds, and gravy, it is a dish that rarely tastes the same, in large part because the gravy, the sauce, is a signature of each person who creates it. However, there can be as much difference in the cheese that is used and, as anyone in the area will tell you, not all cheese curds are created equal.
As I said, I was inspired by Le St-Estèphe’s creation I tried last year. Their dish was covered in a port sauce and topped with brie … ooh-la-la. But, as delicious a combination as that was, my personal challenge was to make this “local.” I knew that whatever else I chose to use in my own poutine, it would have to include St-Albert’s cheese curds, a co-op that has been making cheese just “down the street” for 120 years.
The question of what to do about the “gravy” was the actual challenge. I love port (absolutely adore it) but since I last checked, Portugal isn’t part of Canada; I toyed with using a Canadian (styled) port from Ontario, but I thought I can do better. So I set off to the local LCBO to see what I could find. I went through the whole place, considered fruit beers, liqueurs and all manner of spirits. I thought about dessert wines and even icewine but worried that while they would have the sweetness I wanted they would lack the depth to stand up to the rest of the poutine. As I filed through the shelves of the fortified vintages, I spied my prize: Cranberry Maple Dessert Wine from Muskoka Lakes Winery. I’ll admit, I waffled on this decision in large part because I’ve had some horrible fruit wines over the years that really defined the baseline from whence Canadian wine production had to claw its way past. Even at the checkout, I asked the service agent about my sole purchase: “How disgusting do you think this is going to be?” To her credit, she simply said “It’s actually amazing. Whenever we get it, it sells out very quickly.” “Have you personally tasted it?” I asked. To which she smiled and said “Yes.” So I took a deep breath and bought my $18 bottle and knew I’d get one chance at this sauce with the deadline for this post being the next day.
Still, even with the fruit wine determined and so perfectly capturing fall (cranberries) and spring (maple) of the region, there was the remaining question of what use to build up the rest of the sauce/gravy. Again, traditionally, it would be beef stock but my concern is that the beef flavours would overwhelm the delicateness of the fruit wine … and I wanted the maple and cranberries to be the center of this “local” dish. I was tempted by my homemade chicken stock, but it is very “chickeny” and I didn’t want chicken gravy on my fillet mignon. In the end, I opted for what I hoped would be a more neutral vegetable broth — which worked, and worked very well, but I’m not convinced I picked the best neutral product out there because the broth turned out to have more seasonings in it than I’d have chosen. Beyond that one change, I wouldn’t change a thing because even with that nuanced difference, the sauce was truly orgasmic.
The next key in the production was going to be the fries. Strange as it might sound, this cook has never made deep-fried french fries (though I own a deep fryer). I did a bunch of reading and quickly determined that the secret most people had adopted was the double-fry method: fry them once on low heat to cook the potato then, once they’ve cooled and the starches have been tempered by the oil, raise the temperature and fry again on high for a few minutes to crisp and turn them golden. Easy peasy and I’m proud to say I nailed it first time. My only other requirement was picking the right potatoes. I chose local russet potatoes which are typically associated with “baking.” The skin of a russet is thicker which is why it’s prized for baking. The result is also a more “earthy” flavour which I wanted as a counter-balance to the sweetness of the sauce … and so I also used the potatoes with skins on (not peeled). I cut them thin to ensure my home fryer could manage them and to offer some ‘fineness’ to this dish.
Finally, yes, this poutine contains steak … and oh, my, was that steak good. It’s hard to imagine using fillet mignon as anything other than the centre of a dish, but the steak was indeed a connector here. Its role was to connect the earthiness of the fries to the sauce, to provide some clear protein to make this is a meal, and to carry the seasoning for the poutine (the rosemary, salt, and garlic). If you want a vegetarian poutine, well, omit the steak … but god it was good on this dish.
In a final footnote, this is the dish I chose to create to celebrate my own birthday (which was yesterday). Part of that was out of the pure necessity of getting this dish created in time as part of the project … but a bigger part of this the acceptance that food and the process of creation is fundamental to who I am … so, what better way to celebrate my existence than to do the thing I love most? Well, I’ll admit, the self-created foodgasm didn’t hurt either ….
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 90 minutes
Poutine with Maple-Cranberry Sauce * Fillet Mignon * St-Albert Cheese Curds
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 large (1/4 cup / 65mL) shallot, finely chopped
- 1 cup dessert wine, sherry, or port
- 2¼ cups vegetable stock, divided
- 1/2 tablespoon (7mL) cornstarch
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 lbs (1kg) russet potatoes, well scrubbed and washed, julienned into 1/4-inch (1/2-cm) slices
- Canola oil for deep frying
- 2x 7oz (200g) fillet mignon steaks
- 1 tablespoon (15mL) olive oil
- 1 teaspoon (5mL) fresh rosemary, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- seasoning salt
- Montreal steak spice (or fresh ground pepper)
- 3/4 lb (325g) fresh cheese curds
- 1/4 (65mL) cup dried cranberries (garnish)
- Remove steaks from fridge and rub in olive oil, rosemary, garlic and sprinkle with salt and pepper (or Montreal steak spice). Set aside.
- In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the chopped shallots, and sauté for 3-4 minutes until lightly caramelized.
Add fruit wine and the 2 cups of the vegetable stock …
… and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer for 20-25 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so …
until sauce has reduced by about half.
Now either use an immersion blender to purée the shallots in the sauce or transfer sauce to a food processor and process until smooth. Return to saucepan and return simmer. Mix the 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch with remaining 1/4 cup of stock and quickly whisk this into the sauce until slightly thickened.
Reduce heat to low while you prepare remaining components.
- Preheat your barbecue grill to 450ºF (230ºC). Place canola oil in deep fryer and set temperature to ‘low’ (325ºF / 170ºC).
Wash and well-scrub the potatoes. Slice them into 1/4″ (1-cm) slices and then julienne them again into “shoe strings.”
and set aside …
- Once grill reaches temperature, place the steaks on it and grill for 2½ minutes, then give a quarter turn, and grill for another 2½ minutes. Turn and grill for another 4 minutes.
Remove steaks from grill and cover them with another plate and let stand until ready.
- Meanwhile, when the deep fryer has come to temperature, carefully drop half the potatoes into the oil and deep fry for 6 minutes, stirring the fries a few times to keep them from sticking together.
→ Note on deep frying: You’re going to likely want to do these in two batches unless you have a very very large fryer. They won’t cook evenly otherwise, may overflow your fryer, and a large payload will drop the temperature too quickly and produce a poorer result.
After 6 minutes, remove fries from fryer and let them drain. They will still be mostly white and ‘soft.’
Transfer them to a bowl lined with paper towels and let them cool while you fry the second batch.
… don’t be alarmed, but as the fries cool, they’re going to get “soft” and floppy.
Once the second batch has cooked, similarly transfer them to another bowl to drain and cool. Meanwhile, increase the temperature of the fryer to “high” (375ºF / 190ºC).
- While deep fryer comes up to high temperature, finish your preparation. Slice the steak across the grain on a slight bias. If everything worked out, it should be a perfect medium…
… and bring sauce back to a simmer …
… and set oven to broil (optional).
- Once oil reaches high temperature, drop the first batch of fries back down, and cook for 3 minutes or until a perfect golden crispness.
Toss in a bowl with a sprinkling of kosher salt and drop down the second batch of fries.
- Meanwhile, start to assemble the Poutine. Start with the fries …
… strips of steak …
… cheese curds …
… and spoon over the boiling sauce and top with cranberries. It’s important the sauce be as hot as possible to melt the curds…
… and optionally put it under the broiler for a few minutes to help in the melting and crisp things up.
Close the curtains … and serve immediately.