by Natasha Henderson, Montreal
When I moved across the country from British Columbia’s Vancouver Island to Montreal, Quebec a little over three years ago, I knew that I would experience many changes. Not the least of these changes, I felt, would be to my diet.
The view from Kitty Coleman, in the Comox Valley
I had in mind that I would indulge in new things, new foods, perhaps try French Cuisine… it is true that I experienced some change in my diet and lifestyle, and a lot of that was due to what was available in the supermarkets. Different vegetables, different prices, smaller cuts of meat, and a wider selection of new cheeses greeted me at the first supermarket I visited in the downtown core of Montreal. After a couple of months I learned about the fresh farmer’s markets in the city. I began shopping for goods that were more locally grown, and in season whenever possible. Now, three years into life here, I am signed onto a CSA programme with a local organic farm for weekly veggie and fruit delivery. While enjoying the process of transformations within my new life in a new city and province, I was developing an interest in what I was putting into my mouth… an interest beyond the question of simply flavour.
Festivities and poutine abound in Montreal
After realising how much I liked poutine, but how guilty I always felt whenever I indulged, I figured that I must find a way to make a healthier option of it… something I could do at home, too, and save a little cash in the process. The first thing that I tried was to purchase frozen fries at the grocery store, and whenever I had some leftover gravy (not that often, of course… it’s GRAVY) I would make poutine the next day. While experimenting a little more with cooking, I finally discovered the joyous root that is the sweet potato. One day I had some potatoes, so made some wedgie-fries like my mom used to make out of their delightful Yukon Gold potatoes from the home garden in Comox, BC. Butter in a pan in the oven, bake. Easy. I thought about some fried sweet potato chips a friend had treated me to a year or so before that, this seemingly exotic chip. We had dipped them in home-made mayonnaise. That’s another delightful story… I had found the intense flavour of the sweet potato a little powerful, a little overwhelming. So I made a batch of wedgies with some potato, some sweet potato. Perfect combination (for me, anyhow).
Using sweet potatoes in place of, or as well as, regular potatoes for the fries is a tasty option that makes a poutine “healthy”. Sweet potatoes are full of vitamins. Their flesh is a bright, appetizing orange, and their flavour carries a pleasant sweetness. Try to leave the skin on for your fries, like you would with regular potatoes. Just cut off the ugliest bits, and the “eyes“. Cut the sweet potatoes and potatoes into even-thickness strips, like house-fries in restaurants. One healthy option for baking the fries is to use butter or olive oil and fry them in a pan until soft, then bake until crisp. Another is to simply bake them in the oven until they are crisp, using no fat at all, or you can add a little olive oil or butter on the pan for taste. When the fries go in the oven, try sprinkling some salt, pepper, chilli pepper, garlic, steak spice, rosemary… any spice or flavouring that you like on them. You could even add some grated parmesan cheese, though with the upcoming level of cheese curds it might not be necessary. Bake them at 350 degrees for about an hour, or until done to your liking.
Options for the gravy include using butter or olive oil as a tasty start; you don‘t have to have fat drippings from a roast. To thicken and add flavour, stir into the saucepan a small handful of flour, about 2 tablespoons (depending on quantity of gravy you are making). If you’d prefer to not use flour, try using another starchy substance, such as cooked lentils or beans that have been mashed a little with a fork. Once browned, thin out the roux (browned flour or other starch) with a little veggie, beef or chicken stock. Use wine, beer, or water if you have no stock. Bring to bubbling while stirring, then simmer and reduce, adding more of your chosen liquid (or now switch to plain water) as you go. During this reduction process, I like to add a good generous sprinkle of pepper. Other spices can be added, according to your taste. Rosemary, garlic, paprika… the kitchen ceiling‘s the limit. Or, just leave it plain, and practice gravy-making to find your own favourite combo!
Poutine, the "UN-Healthy" version. Click to read CTV story...
The fries will take about an hour once in the oven, and the gravy can be re-heated once it’s made, so I would start in on making the gravy as soon as your fries are baking. That way the fries will be nice and hot when it is time to eat them, and that is quite important for full enjoyment of poutine. You can find cheese curds readily throughout Quebec, and in some regions across Canada. However if there are none in your supermarket, there are other options. A white, flavourful cheese is all right to use for this poutine (though purists would argue not.) I have used Edam, or Havarti, or Old Cheddar as a cheese curd replacement in poutine, with similarly tasty results. You could add a nice tanginess by adding some feta or parmesan, if you have it. Lately, I’ve switched to non-pasteurized, old cheddar and the results are excellent. I like to put the cheese onto the fries inside the oven, to melt a little, and even turn a light brown. Again, it’s about options and taste. It’s all up to you what you do with your meal. Some would add the curds and gravy to the fries, stir around so it is a melting mess, others like to layer their food neatly. If you are serving to guests, I would recommend placing the fries on each plate, then adding the cheese, then the gravy on top to melt the cheese a little.
Healthy Poutine. Seriously.
Now that I’ve shared a little dash of this story with you, I hope that you have fun experimenting with taking those traditionally unhealthy treats and turning them into sustenance to truly enjoy!