Improvisation is one of the cool elements that makes jazz a special form of music. The flow of the chords provide some basic structure to the song, but improvisation allows the mind to wander and explore as the musicians lay down a fresh stream of notes on that melodic foundation. The recognizable song is there, while improvisation of the band members adds the color and emotion to make it something really special.
So let’s get cookin’ daddy-o! Improvisation applies to cooking, too; I’m hip to that. Start with a dish I have enjoyed, and then made in a somewhat traditional form with my own explorations and twists on the ingredients and processes. Then I turn my mind loose on it, and think about cutting loose to make a statement with that dish.
So here we are with poutine. I got great chops for poutine! I got to thinking about bringing some cool improvised style to my poutine. New Orleans style this time.
The fries and the cheese curds are the basic underlying tune for poutine. Without these elements, the dish wouldn’t be poutine.
Fries are my bag.
I am slowly, but surely, converting folks to this method of making fries. Peel and cut the potatoes, give them a dusting of potato starch, and seal in a vacuum bag, making the bag as flat and uniform as possible. Cook this pouch in a 152F water bath with a sous vide immersion circulator for an hour. Remove from the water bath, open the pouch, and carefully separate all of the fries. Fry at 280F for a minute or two until they just turn brown on the edges, then finish for another minute at 375F until they are golden and crisp.
Since I came up with this technique, I have made these fries quite a few times, and it never fails to amaze me how easy this is to make perfect fries every time. And these fries are perfect for poutine because they remain crisp even under the moist topping of gravy!
Similarly, the cheese curd process is straight-forward. You may be able to buy decent cheese curds where you live, but on most of the planet curds are an unknown delight.
A gallon of milk makes enough curds to munch as a snack and for a decent batch of poutine. You need fresh, local milk for this. It may work with supermarket milk, but results will vary. Sanitize the cheese making equipment by boiling or flaming with a torch.
I use the sous vide immersion circulator to form a water bath for another container holding the milk. Use this to heat the milk to 94F. Allow the milk to ripen for 30 minutes, then add in 1t calcium carbonate (helps in forming curds) and 1/4t mesophilic cheese culture. Mix well and hold at 94F for an hour.
Add 1t liquid rennet, stirring into the milk very well to make sure the mixture is very even. Stir in all directions. Hold the temperature at 94F for another hour or two until the curds are formed. The milk will look like thick yogurt, and can be cut with a knife. Cut the curd into 1/2″ cubes. They won’t be perfect. It does not matter.
Turn the temperature of the water bath up to 140F and heat until the curds reach 110F. Hold this temperature until the curds feel firmer than custard.
Line a strainer that will fit the milk container with cheese cloth. Strain the curds from the whey, reserving the whey. Put the whey back in the milk container and hold it in the water bath to keep it hot. When the curds are sufficiently drained, cut the curd into even slices about 1/2″ thick. In the cheesecloth lined strainer, stack these slices, 2-4 slices per layer and alternating directions of each layer by 90 degrees, like a cheese curd Jenga game. Place the strainer over the hot whey.
When the strips of cheese curd have melded back into one mass, slice and stack again. Repeat this process several times, it usually takes 4-5 times, until when you taste a bit of the curd and it squeaks between your teeth. That squeak tells you the curds are done!
Cut them in bite sized rectangles and add a bit of salt. At this point, they are at their tastiest, so eat a few now. You only need about half of these curds for a decent portion of poutine.
Now here we go on the improv!
I knew from the start I was going to jazz this thing up with some New Orleans flair. I saw wild Gulf of Mexico head-on shrimp in the local market’s expansive seafood section; they had to go into the mix.
Also some tasso that I made. Tasso is cured pork shoulder, which is heavily coated in a spice mix punctuated by cayenne pepper and then cold smoked. Thin bits of tasso bring the smoky heat. It’s one of those staples you’d like to keep on hand for a jam session like this.
I’m on a roll….garlic, scallions, and parsley are popping in my garden. Creole mustard and that homemade Worcestershire sauce, yeah, and butter. Don’t want the butter to be too much since we have fries here already; this dish needs to be fresh and bright. Lemon, that’s it; I have a big jar of preserved Meyer lemons. I think we’re all set, no jive!
Pull the heads off those shrimp and toss them in a pot. Peel and de-vein the shrimp. Leave the tails on. Put the shells in the pot with the heads. Cover with water and set to simmer. Nothing goes to waste, and this stock will add depth to the shrimp flavor and make the gravy groovy.
Put the cleaned shrimp in a vacuum bag with one of those cured lemons. Seal it and sous vide for 30 minutes at 137F. This, by the way, is the best way to make a shrimp cocktail. If making a cocktail, place the bag in ice when you pull it from the water bath. The shrimp are perfectly cooked and flavorful. For the poutine, no ice this time.
Poutine needs a gravy, Jack. This is no gravy, more of a sauce, but it will rock it. Melt 2T butter in a sauce pan, and sweat 3T chopped garlic and 3T chopped scallion in that butter. Add in some chipped tasso, sliced thin and then cut into a 1/4″ dice. When the tasso gets crisp on the edges and the veg begins to brown, add in 1/4c minced parsley and a tablespoon of that homemade Worcestershire sauce. Stir and then add 2T flour to the pan and stir until the flour coats everything and starts to toast. Now about 2 cups of the shrimp stock you had simmering there.
The gravy will start to thicken, add a tablespoon of Creole mustard. Hot sauce also works here, but I know my tasso is pretty smokin’, so I skipped it this time.
Put the last crisping on the fries by dunking them one last time in the 375F oil. The crisper, the better, but don’t let them get dark. Drain them in a bowl lined with paper towels, and then arrange on your serving dish. Use a ladle and drizzle a good base of gravy over the fries. Arrange the curds and shrimp on top. Garnish with minced parsley and scallions.
You put this wild poutine on the table at your pad, and those cats are going to blow their top! Gone in a flash. Crazy!