I appreciate a good food trend. I'm happy for the one introduced me to quinoa, which is now a staple in our house. I watched the cake batter-flavored everything trend with amusement. I was thrilled when I found coconut oil for a really good price at a local grocery store so I could find out what was so magical about it. But everyone has their food-trend breaking point though and I have reached mine. Food trend lovers everywhere, step away from the poutine.
Back in my early days online--when everyone was on message boards and we had never even heard of a blog--I spent most of my time talking about food. The forum I tended was mostly visited by Americans, and while we got along fabulously, there were a few food items that got lost in translation. One of those was poutine. No one knew what the Canadian dish was, and when I told them it was fries with gravy and cheese curds, the most common reaction was one of disgust.
I can't say that I didn't understand that reaction. Poutine doesn't sound like the most appetizing dish to the uninitiated, and my first experiences with poutine were hardly encouraging. Those first poutines came from fast-food chains trying to hop on the poutine wagon and they did so poorly. Their gravy wasn't right--it was thick and gloppy and not the poutine sauce I've come to know and love. What was worse is that instead of using cheese curds they often substituted grated mozzarella or, horror of horrors, grated cheddar. *Shudders.*
When I moved to Montreal in the late 1990s, I was introduced to true poutine. I learned that the fries needs to be crisp and nicely browned. You get bonus points if they are hand-cut. I learned that cheese curds should not be refrigerated and that they should squeak when you bite into them. Perhaps the biggest revelation was poutine sauce. It's not just any old gravy. Poutine sauce has a chicken or turkey base. It should be thin, velvety and sink all the way down to the bottom of your dish. There should be a touch of spice and just a hint of acid to cut the richness. When you put all of these things together you get a dish that is perfect, whether you want it for lunch or a 3am post-bar snack.
Credit: Joe Photo
Each week I see new poutine recipes pop up around the web. Some use short ribs and others use lobster. I've even seen some with curry sauce. Restaurants have popped up in cities such as New York City and San Francisco that serve several different varieties. It seems people are determined to yank poutine from its humble beginnings, glam it up and make it gourmet. I get it. I understand the joy in discovering a new-to-you food and playing with it to see if you can find a new variation that works or is even better than the original.
That doesn't change that fact that when I see someone trying their first-ever poutine and it's a "gourmet" creation rather than the classic poutine, part of me cringes. I can't help thinking, "That's not real poutine." Real poutine doesn't have green onions or herbs or curried chicken. Real poutine doesn't need anything but fries, poutine sauce and curds to be perfect.
Don't be fooled--I'm not a poutine purist. Bacon poutine? Yes, please. I know people who swear by adding chicken, and when one is in Montreal, I understand the desire to add some smoked meat. I've tried gourmet poutines where the fries have been replaced with spaetzle, others where the curds have been replaced with sheep's milk cheese and even some with a rich wild-game gravy. I've tried poutine topped with pulled pork and seen it topped with a fried egg. Some day I may even try the poutine au fois gras at Au Pied de Cochon.
Some of variations have been good and others have been fabulous, but in the end I'll always return to my classic poutine. So food trend enthusiasts everywhere, play with poutine if you must. I'll be sitting over here yelling at you to get off my lawn, but if you ask nicely I just might share my fabulous poutine with you.
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