As a child, I was often perplexed by some of my friends’ eating habits. There were those who refused to eat anything that sounded like it came from a foreign land. And there were others who wouldn’t touch foods that weren’t white. This was particularly confusing to me since I had a love of all foods bright, colorful, and rare, even as a child. Pan-fried sweetbreads? I’d greedily shovel them into my tiny mouth. Creamy liver paté? I’d selfishly eat an entire jar all by myself, unwilling to share.
But one dish that I absolutely hated as a child was french fries. (I know, so weird.) I have memories of watching all of my classmates chow down on the fried starchy little tubes at our round, plastic school cafeteria tables and thinking: Ew. Those flavorless, floppy, finger-looking things are not worth my time or my calories. I’ll stick to the salad and sandwich bars, thanks.
Somewhere in my high school years, however, I was reintroduced to french fries through F&M’s, a late-night patio bar in New Orleans where I, for better or worse, spent many early morning hours as a teenager. I know that probably sounds strange, but in Louisiana, the age to get into bars is 18, which pretty much means any 15 year old with a decent looking fake can go out and party like a college kid. Drinking at family dinners and going out to bars with your high school friends is all just considered part of growing up a New Orleanian and it goes hand in hand with the city’s laissez les bons temps rouler attitude. (Beau, back me up on this one!)
But I digress. The important thing here is not the age of the bar goers, so much as the fact that F&Ms can single handedly take credit for converting me into a fry lover. It was there in the corner of their sprawling uptown bar, where the 80-square foot kitchen spewed aromas of sticky hot oil and melted cheese out towards inebriated masses, that I learned to love them. Bleary-eyed and tipsy, my then boyfriend (now husband) and I would eagerly stroll up to the counter and place an order for their late-night munchies with the person behind the bar. We’d polish off our beers before meandering outside, into the hot humid air, where we’d sit by the pickup window waiting for the the late night food saviors (aka, fairly cranky underpaid college kids) to call out our order. “One cheese fries with a side of ranch!” they’d spout with just a hint of annoyance.
I have some vague memories of several different patrons getting into fisticuffs at that window when disoriented customers would filch others’ orders, thinking it was their own. Those fries could be dangerous territory, you know. And while I’m not a proponent of physical violence no matter the problem, I do think that stealing, even inadvertently, these gilded, criss-crossed ovals of late-night munchie heaven is a pretty major offense.
Each bite-sized potato waffle at F&Ms was first fried in hot oil and then dusted in a powdery, southern spice mixture. They were then topped with a heaping pile of shredded cheddar cheese before the whole mess was scorched under a broiler until the cheese slowly began to drip off the pile of fries beneath it like lava creeping from the mouth of a volcano. Finally, the cantankerous chefs (and I really don’t blame them) would garnish each basket with a handful of green onions and a side of cool, creamy ranch dressing.
Yes, those are the fries that changed my perception of all fries, for better or worse. And they’ve (very loosely) inspired the recipe I’m sharing with you today.
But rather than take a southern approach to fries à la F&M’s, today I’ve created homemade Indian-spiced frites, which, unlike regular french fries, are twice-fried for extra crispiness. They’re tossed in a fiery Indian spice mixture and chopped fresh cilantro. Finally, just before devouring, the long, crunchy potatoes are dipped into a cooling cucumber and cilantro raita, which offsets the heat from the spice blend just perfectly.
I can’t say I’m particularly proud of my teenage late-night obsession with F&M’s or their take out window for that matter. But if the best thing to come out of it is an appreciation for crisped golden potatoes and this fun twist on classic frites, then I’ll take it.
- 1 8-ounce container of plain yogurt (about 1 cup)
- 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon of finely chopped mint leaves
- 1 tablespoon of finely chopped cilantro leaves
- ½ cup of English cucumber, peeled and then finely grated using a microplane (or similarly fine grater)
- a pinch or two of salt, to taste
- 1 teaspoon of ground turmeric powder
- ½ teaspoon of cayenne powder
- 1 teaspoon of ground cardamom
- 2-3 teaspoons of salt, to taste
- 1 teaspoon of ground ginger powder
- 3 teaspoons of ground coriander
- 2 teaspoons of cumin
- 1 pinch of ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon of ground mustard seed
- 3 medium sized Russet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into long finger-width strips
- Canola oil (or other neutral-tasting oil such as peanut), I used about 35 ounces
- Cilantro, for garnish (optional)
- Mix together the yogurt, lemon juice, mint, cilantro, grated cucumber, and salt. Cover and refrigerate while you make the frites.
- Combine spices in a small bowl. Lick a finger and taste test for balance. Add more salt or spices as you see fit, but do keep in mind that the flavors will “meld” a bit better once they’ve reached the hot oil on the fries. Set aside.
- Rinse your potatoes in a bowl filled with cold water, changing the water several times. Lay them out on paper towels and pat dry, doing your best to get as much moisture out of them as possible.
- Fill a fryer or a dutch oven with canola oil, at least 2-3 inches high. Heat over medium heat until oil is about 300-325 degrees F. Add the potatoes and cook until you notice them just beginning to turn color and the texture starts to look slightly more puffy on the edges, about 5-7 minutes. If they begin to do this very quickly (as in less than 2 minutes), turn the heat down a bit. The potatoes will bubble and pop roughly in the hot oil, so be careful while handling.
- Remove the first fried potatoes with a slotted spoon and set aside on paper towels to drain. Work in batches while you fry so that the potatoes aren’t over crowded. If you add too many at a time, the temperature of the oil will drop too quickly and your frites will turn out too oily. I find that one heaping handful at a time works well in my dutch oven. (This first fry step can be done an hour or two in advance. Just keep covered at room temperature until you’re almost ready to serve and then move on to the second fry.)
- Once you’ve fried all of the potatoes the first time, increase the heat to medium-high until it reaches approximately 350-375 degrees. Add your first fried potatoes back into the now very hot oil, one handful at a time, and fry until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes. Again, work in batches here and be sure not to overcrowd the pan. When they’ve reached your desired color and crispiness, remove with a slotted spoon and lie either on paper towels or a baking rack to drain.
- While still hot, sprinkle with Indian spice mixture. I used about 2 tablespoons of the spice mixture, but you can use more or less depending on your taste preferences. The rest of it can be stored in an airtight container for later use.
- Garnish with freshly chopped cilantro and serve with homemade raita.