It's National Fresh-Cut French Fry Day. Perhaps the most convincing proof that popularity has a way of settling on mediocrity is that more than 99 percent of all French fries served in America — in homes as well as restaurants — start as frozen, pre-cut potatoes.
It's understandable. Preparing fresh-cut fried potatoes is not easy. We have learned this in our own kitchen, where our kids clamor for fries whenever they detect a weakness in our hesitancy. For a long time, we blanched the fries in boiling water for a couple of minutes, set them aside to dry, then fried them in rather hot oil. We kept coming up with greasy, limp fries unless we took them out when they'd just begun to brown, let them cool, then drop them into even hotter oil for a few seconds.
One day we tried lowering the temperature of the oil. I started at 325 degrees, with a fistful of fries that had not been blanched, but were just sitting in cold water since they'd been cut. (You must do this, or the starches start turning brown.) The fries took a long time to brown, but ultimately they were absolutely perfect: crisp, not greasy or soggy, soft on the inside. I kept going with the oil at that temperature, disregarding the fact that whenever I added a new batch of potatoes the oil temperature dropped by quite a bit. But then it recovered before the potatoes were even close to being cooked, and that gave the fries a good long frying. I suspect that the effect is the same as frying twice, but in one long step instead of two short ones. I also learned that one must limit the number of fries in the pot at one time to a little less than you might be inclined to put in there.
One other thing: when you buy the big, white, russet potatoes for this, scratch the skin with your fingernail. If you see any hint of green, put that potato down and find some that go from brown right to white under the skin. As for the oil, I generally use canola oil, but corn oil worked perfectly on one batch.
Annals of Food Stores
Despite predictions that this new kind of store would fail, the first Piggly Wiggly opened on this date in 1916 in Memphis. It was unlike any other grocery store of that time in being self-service. Shopping baskets, open shelves, no clerks to shop for the customer — unheard of!
Today in 1899, Carnation Evaporated Milk was introduced by Eldridge Amos Stuart in Kent, Washington. He saw a demand in places where fresh milk was unavailable. He specifically was thinking about prospectors heading for the Yukon. Evaporated milk has more than half the water boiled away from it, which makes it shelf-stable in a vacuum can. The process has the added effect of producing a much richer liquid, imitating some of the qualities of cream, but at a lower price. Many of us in the Baby Boom generation remember evaporated milk as our parents' coffee creamer of choice; that preference has largely faded.
Stuart took the name "Carnation" from a brand of cigar; he thought it was strange for a stogie, but perfect for creamy canned milk. We cannot bring up Carnation Milk without republishing, for the zillionth time, a bit of doggerel allegedly written about it a century ago:
Carnation milk is the best in the land
Here I sit with a can in my hand
No teats to pull, no hay to pitch,
You just punch a hole in the son of a bitch.
Unfortunately, this appears to be just an urban legend.
Gourmets Through History
Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was born today in 1757. Lafayette was a French nobleman who felt it his duty to assist the Americans in their revolution, and did so with such ardor, never accepting recompense, that he is one of only six people ever to have been named an Honorary Citizen of the United States. He is also the man who is honored by all the things named "Lafayette" in New Orleans and Louisiana, where he is particularly admired because of the area's French heritage. He gave up his titles and participated in the French Revolution, a thankless task in those insane times. (He ultimately spent years in prison and lost everything.) He was a man of refinement. I think there ought to be a restaurant in New Orleans named for him, but to my knowledge there never has been.
quenelle [keh-NEL], n. — Fish or shellfish puréed with cream, then formed into a soft, oval-shaped dumpling by poaching. Quenelles can also be made with poultry. The classic fish for quenelles is pike, but almost any fish will work. Quenelles are most often served with a rather rich sauce of cream and reduced stock, or in a bisque. They were much more common when more French chefs were at work cooking classical dishes. The best ever were the redfish quenelles with crawfish sauce Nantua at Christian's, a dish that should be revived.
Deft Dining Rule #306
You're not in a great French restaurant unless a sauce spoon appears in your place setting at some point during the meal.
Annals of Scotch
Joseph Kennedy, the father of President John F. Kennedy and his brothers Bobby and Teddy, was born today in 1888. He led an almost impossibly lucky life in politics and business, always seeming to be in the right place at the right time. His family's fortune came from the liquor business, and even through Prohibition it somehow managed to thrive — by bootlegging, it has been rumored. Kennedy is sometimes credited with making Scotch whisky popular in this country.
Sir Edward Appleton was born today in 1892. He discovered the layer of the atmosphere that reflects radio waves, thereby allowing long-distance transmission of shortwave signals, as well as those of stations on the AM band now... The pop-rock group Bananarama had a Number One hit today with "Venus"... Roger Waters, composer and bass player for Pink Floyd, became another brick in the wall of humanity today in 1943... Country singer Mark Chesnutt was born today in 1963... Bob Lemon was named manager of the Yankees for the second time today in 1981.
Words to Eat By
"Reagan promised everyone a seven-course dinner. Ours turned out to be a possum and a six-pack." — Jim Hightower, populist politician and Texas Agriculture Commissioner.
Words to Drink By
"A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside." — Richard Brinsley Sheridan.