A few years ago I swore off fast food in an effort to regain control of my budget and my waistline. Part of the bargain I made with myself was that I can eat whatever I want, as long as I learn how to make it myself. This mantra has made me much more adroit in the kitchen and much more comfortable in my pants.
I’ve been eating out a little more recently - Ann Arbor has too many great restaurants to ignore completely - but try to keep those cravings in check by falling back on my old DIY rule. On a recent evening after work I had a mean hankering for a staple of the Ann Arbor gastronomic universe, Ashley’s Stilton Fries. These golden brown mounds of waffle-cut heaven have often found their way into my belly, but it had been a long time and once I got to thinking about them again a trek over to Ashley’s for a return affair threatened to push everything else off my calendar for that evening. Instead I paused and decided to try my hand at blindly trying to at least imitate if not outright duplicate their magical blend of tangy, salty, crispy ephemera in my own little cocina.
I took a mental inventory and made a quick stop at the store for a little cheese and a bottle of malt vinegar. And a few special, red-marbled guests for later. And some fresh mint...hint hint.
Oh, and potatoes.
Here’s the thing, I don’t often cook potatoes anymore. They are one of nature’s most delicious, versatile foods, but I try to stay away from them in favor of sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, bulgur...stuff that’s way better for you. When you really want fries, though, accept no substitutes. When I do buy them, even at the supermarket I resist the temptation for the bargain bag and only buy one or two from the bulk bin so I can pick out beauties like these and not deal with smooshed, deformed guys.
You’re looking at a pair of Michigan Russets, about 1/2 lb each, all scrubbed up and ready for action.
I don’t have a mandoline, so waffle-cutting the spuds is out of the question. After examining them with a piercing gaze like Michaelangelo peering deep into a block of granite that would eventually become the Pietá, I decided on a long, thick steak-cut. Skin on, please. It tastes better.
First, off with their heads! And feet!
It doesn’t get any more hand-cut than this.
For a little flair, I slashed each little fellow a couple times across the guttiwuts, to make him look a bit like Mel Gibson at the end of Braveheart. I figured this would also help them cook/brown a little faster. (Though I have no scientific evidence to back this up.) Either way, it looks stylish.
Here's to swimmin' with bow-legged women.
I made a sort of brine for them (I don’t use measuring utensils, so this isn't exact):
1/4 c malt vinegar
1 tbs dijon mustard
1 tbs brown sugar
1/2 tsp worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp kosher salt
fresh cracked black pepper and some dried basil, thyme, oregano and dill, maybe 1/4 tsp each
whisked this all together in a bowl and tossed in the spuds
Started heating up the peanut oil in my cast-iron dutch oven. Let them take a swim for about an hour, tossing to coat every 10 minutes or so while I got the rest of dinner ready.
Potatoes are probably enough by themselves but I wanted a little steak to go with them. I picked out some nice little loin lambchops
Wipe that smirk off your face,
Hush Puppy...you're next.
Step 1. Take woman’s hand out of your meal’s rear end.
Step 2. Kill and flay puppet.
Step 3. Realize puppet is not entirely edible and smells like a sock. Would defeat the purpose of using Stilton.
Step 4. Bury evidence.
Step 5. Go to store and buy pre-cut lambchops.
Step 6. ????
Step 7. Profit.
Mmmm, that's better!
I prepared them simply - seasoned with salt & pepper, seared them for a few minutes per side on a blasting-hot cast-iron skillet (always my weapon of choice) then transferred them to a low-temp oven (250-ish), and kept an eye on them.
I had a a spur-of-the-moment thought scanning the pantry. Considered caramelized onions and mushrooms, but the lamb didn’t need much to go with it. The cast iron was given a quick clean and allowed to cool for a few moments, then a thin coating of unsalted butter and spread out some shiitake mushroom caps. Give them space to brown and crisp on medium-low heat.
1/2 c sugar
1/4 c water
2 Tbs white wine vinegar
Then add a handful of fresh mint leaves. Simmer a few more minutes, then transfer to a small metal bowl and stick in the fridge to let it cool and steep the mint some more. Once you’re about ready to go you can strain the syrup back onto the heat to remove the leaves and whisk together with a little bit of corn starch to thicken it. You can do this with prepared mint jelly or something, if you insist it be green you can add food coloring. But why? Yeesh. This is simple and subtle with a bit of pucker, but does not overpower the meat.
Meanwhile, in Tater Junction:
Snidely Whiplash has apparently stolen or broken all of my thermometers, so I’m winging it, but I’ve done this a few times. Ideally you want the oil temp to be in the 375F range, adjusting your heat up as needed because the temp will drop when you add things in. In the absence of a thermometer I threw in a small sliver of test potato. First attempt sinks, sputters and sogs: not hot enough. When the temp’s good you will get immediate bubbling as the the coating on the potato will steam out and the oil will really pop. Oil and water = not the bestest of friends.
Work in small batches to give them some space to swim, and the steaming will die down - after a few minutes you’ll get a beautiful golden color around the edges. Take ‘em as far as you want ‘em to the land of crispiness, then transfer to a wire rack &/or paper towel to dry. (A wire rack is better; since they aren’t sitting in the oil they’ll be crispier when you’re finished.) If you have the means, transfer them to a warming oven (at 180F) while you finish the remaining batches of potatoes.
Lamb is better on the rare side, so ideally you only want it about 145F. (Again, I was poking and eyeballing more than is ideal). Removed and foil-tented the chops for 5-10 minutes before plating. They came out closer to medium-rare.
Once the taytoes are all finished you can begin plating, topping with the Stilton and melting either in the oven or the Radar Range.
Blue cheeses are among my favorite things, they range in saltiness and pungency and compliment so many different foods, from entrees and salads to fresh fruit and desserts. This was a nice, mild, modestly-priced English Stilton. Only a little of that footy odor that turns some people off. No need to break the bank for this since it’s banging against some fries and a dynamite little sauce.
Garnish with fresh chives, dill, or scallions. Or jalapeños. Or some crunchy red pepper spears on the side. Mmmm. Crunchy.
Extra-Special Bonus Sauce #2:
Take whatever vinegar bath remains after soaking the spuds, strain out any solids (dried herbs, etc) and put in a small saucepan over med-high heat, add some of that ubiquitous red sauce that comes from the bottle with the neon-green cap and the vicious, eyeball-gouging rooster on the side. Allow to reduce and the brown sugar will caramelize into a potent glaze. Dip fries into this. Slap yo’ mama.