Screen time was up 32% last week. That was on top of the 30% increase the week before! One thing the pandemic has been bad for is the eyes. Week after week, for more than a year now, our smartphones have alerted us to the alarmingly high time spent on viewing our devices. Are our phones screwing with us, sarcastically alerting us to the fact that we’re wasting more and more of our lives on angry cat videos or the latest meme mocking whatever the flavor of the day is? How did this happen? How did we end up using this time to stare at screens rather than picking up that book that’s been sitting on our reading list for years? And how is it I find myself spending more time watching Cooking Channel than actually cooking?!
The answer is a sad contradiction of isolation in quarantine and a need to connect through something, ANYTHING, even if it’s through an online discussion of Tiger King or politics or anything else that gained online traction this past year.
Watching shows on Cooking Channel or Food Network of Guy Fieri visiting restaurants pre-pandemic that, at the time of airing on television, were no longer open was somehow addictive television that bizarrely filled this need for social engagement. It was a contradiction; a bizarre window into a world that no longer existed and seemed so far from returning.
One such show that seemed almost omnipresent in primetime on Cooking Channel during this period of isolation was Carnival Eats, hosted by Canadian comedian Noah Cappe. A show that describes itself as celebrating “today’s modern gastronomic freak show” by visiting food vendors on the state fair, carnival and festival circuit, every episode features a bevy of bizarre concoctions dreamed up in the minds of carney Chefs hoping to stumble on the next-best-thing on the midway food scene. Imagine deep fried butter, deep fried cheesecake “infused” with Szechuan peppercorn, and a pretzel breakfast burger on a stick. It truly is a food show that seeks to answer the question, “Why not?!” It’s a story of one-upsmanship on the carney fair food circuit; who can create the most unthinkable new concoction that some adventurous foodies might still be willing to drop money on. It’s weird, it’s culinary expertise is absent, and yet it is deliciously fun television viewing. And in a time of pandemic when all fairs and festivals are closed, it is a welcome reminder of the connections we make at large events over the shared experience of eating communally.
If you have found yourself craving some less adventurous foods from the festival scene during this period, why not try your hand at making some at home?! Start simple. Start with the most iconic food on the fair scene. One that is inexpensive and simple to make. One that is universally enjoyed… The classic French Fry!
It’s fried. It’s salty. It’s a potato! It stands on its own as a side item or can be bulked up with toppings to be a complete meal. At its simplest though, it requires only three ingredients and should be on your list of fest foods to try at home.
So let’s start with those three ingredients: Canola Oil, Idaho Potatoes, and your salt of choice. Idaho potatoes can be found at any grocery store and are recognizable as the traditional potato used for baked potatoes. Many times you will see Idaho potatoes referred to at stores as Russets. Your local grocery store may not have the option of different sizes of Idahos but if they do, go with the 100 count size. The count size refers to the number of potatoes found in a 50lb case: thus a 100 count sized potato is smaller than a 60 count size…it takes 100 potatoes to weight 50lbs in a 100 count case and 60 potatoes to weigh 50lbs in a 50 count case. We recommend the 100 count size because they are easier to handle and to cut with a fry cutter. Don’t worry if you don’t have a fry cutter…just use a sharp Chef knife (carefully) and cut your fries into ½” wide lengths.
While a deep fryer isn’t necessary we recommend one if you’re a novice to frying at home. Trying to deep fry on a range is tricky because regulating the temperature of the oil requires constant monitoring with a candy thermometer. Plus, you can find quality countertop fryers for around $40 online. Countertop fryers have a thermostat that easily allows you to set your desired oil temp, which will be very helpful as you cook you’re perfect fries, as they require cooking at more than one temperature.
There are a number of oils and blended oils you can use to fry with; Soybean oil, Peanut Oil, Corn Oil and more. But we recommend using Canola Oil due to it’s low price, neutral flavoring and because there are fewer people with Canola allergies than nuts and soy. You should be able to find Canola Oil at your local grocery store in one-gallon containers. Most deep fryers have a minimum and maximum fill line for the oil; just fill the unit with oil to between those marks.
When you cut your potatoes down to the ½” lengths, it will be necessary to leach out some of the starch. The higher the starch content in the potato the limper the fry will end up. You can remove these starches by either running the cut potatoes under cold water or leaving them in a bowl or bucket of water for up to three hours.
A crucial step to creating the perfect festival fry, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, is the blanching process. This is the first step in a two-step cooking process. Set your fryer to 350 degrees (this is a lower temperature than your final cooking temp of 400). To avoid popping of the oil when you drop the potatoes in the fryer, you will want to drain and pat dry as best you can the rinsed potatoes.
Once you have your oil heated to 350 its time to get the show on the road. Fill your fry basket no more than 2/3rds full; this gives the fries room to be gently shaken without spilling over the top of the basket. Once you “drop” the fries in the oil the time to properly blanch can range from 3-6 minutes. Why the range in cook times? The temp of the potatoes going in, the air temperature where you are cooking, the personality of the fryer, and on and on. This isn’t baking though! Scientific precision isn’t necessary to get this right; just some practice and a keen sense of sight and touch. You will need to use these senses to know when it’s time to pull the fries. After a couple minutes of blanching pull the basket out of the oil and allow to drain for a brief moment. Using tongs or carefully using your hands grab one fry and see if it is soft and for lack of a better word, “rubbery.” If you find this demo fry to be limp in your fingers or tongs it’s time to shake off as much oil as possible from the basket and dump the fries into a large bowl to allow to cool.
Once the blanched potatoes have cooled to room temperature you can place them in the refrigerator, covered loosely with plastic wrap. You can store in the fridge for up to 36 hours.
Once it’s time to bring those potatoes up to their finished, festival-fry deliciousness, you’ll want to set your deep fryer thermostat to 400 degrees. By now your blanched the potatoes to the point that they are cooked entirely through, so the final step is frying them at a higher temperature to heat through and to get that crispy outside texture that defines festival fried foods.
Once the oil has reached 400 degrees, it’s time to fry. Fill the basket no more than ½ full at this point. To prevent the fries from sticking to each other you will need to carefully shake the basket to keep the fries moving; just be careful not to spill oil on the counter.
This final stage of cooking will require you to diligently watch the color and texture of the fries. By frequently lifting the basket just above the oil line you can check the fries to monitor these variables. You’re looking for that golden brown color and crispy exterior. This could take 3-5 minutes, though you should be checking constantly.
When you’ve achieved Golden Brown Goodness, lift the basket out of the oil and allow the excess oil to drain. Empty the basket into a mixing bowl, toss with desired amount of salt and you’ve got yourself festival fries at home!
You can top your fries with anything you like, though purists will go with salt and malt vinegar. Ketchup, Garlic, Truffle Oil, Nacho Toppings, Gravy and Cheese Curds, different fresh chopped herbs….the sky’s the limit! Whatever your topping of choice you can sit back and enjoy this festival staple made in the comfort of your own home. And until we can meet again at our favorite state fairs and music festivals, we can take gastronomic comfort in the fact that we don’t have to rely on Guy Fieri or Carnival Eats to fill (partially) the void left in their absence.