Homemade chips make them smack their lips

January 19, 2000|By Rob Kasper

IT WAS A dark, boring winter evening, so I made potato chips. I left the office early, went home, sliced some spuds, dropped them in a bubbling mixture of clarified butter and canola oil, then served them with grilled cheese sandwiches to the kids for supper.

By the time my wife got home, the guys were fed, but the whole house smelled like a hash house. I had the back door open, attempting to air out the place, and over by the stove, there was a stack of dirty pots that was beginning to rival the height of the Matterhorn.

"I made potato chips," I crowed as my wife entered the kitchen. She was not impressed. Sniffing the air and looking at the pots, she asked, "Was it worth it?"

I was deflated by her question. Of course, it wasn't worth it. It was recreational frying. Making potato chips was too much work and created too much mess to justify producing a few bowls of crisp, very flavorful chips.

However, according to the way the eater-cook dynamic was supposed to play out, making dismissive remarks about dinner was supposed to be my role. According to the script, eaters are supposed to rave about the cook's efforts. To their credit, the guys, 19 and 14, expressed their approval of my work, employing the style of communication used by many teen-age boys. Namely, they wolfed down every morsel I put in front of them.

During one lull in the wolfing, the 19-year-old favorably compared my chips to the "Grandma Utz" brand and said they came close to the fine flavor of those made by Sascha's, the Baltimore caterer and cafe owner, whose dark, homemade chips he regards as the pinnacle of potato pleasure.

"Making potato chips is a thankless task," Sascha told me later, "rewarded only by the taste of salt and grease."

Instead of using a potato chip recipe from a plain ole everyday cookbook, I used one from a haute-cuisine tome, Thomas Keller's new $50 "The French Laundry Cookbook."

Keller is a high-flying chef, whose Yountville, Calif., restaurant, the French Laundry, is regarded as one of the top restaurants in America. His food is picturesque, full of intense flavors and difficult to prepare.

I met the man once, at a bash for food writers held in a gorgeous Napa Valley winery. Keller was dressed in chef's whites and served pieces of perfect food. He spotted my name tag and said, "I used to deliver The Baltimore Sun," explaining that he had a paper route when he was a boy living in Laurel. Ever since, I have regarded him as a colleague.

When his cookbook arrived on my desk recently, I began leafing through it, looking for something to try. After vetoing recipes that called for black truffles or for cooking slices of garlic three times in milk, I found the potato chip recipe. This, I figured, I could do.

It turned out that I had to make a few "adjustments" to translate the Napa Valley version of potato chips to my Baltimore kitchen.

For starters, I had to change the color of the potatoes. Keller's recipe calls for slicing up either purple Peruvian potatoes or Yukon Gold potatoes. I used the potatoes I had in a bag in the pantry. I call them "grocery store whites."

Following Keller's instructions, I clarified a stick of unsalted butter by melting it, without stirring, in a saucepan; spooning off the top layer of foamy milk solids; and retaining only the clear yellow butter beneath it. It took me three sticks to get a mere 1 cup of clarified butter. The recipe called for 1 1/2 cups, but I got tired of melting butter, and settled for 1 cup.

I mixed the clarified butter with 1 1/2 cups canola oil, brought the oil to 300 degrees and dropped in the potato slices, cooking them until they were crisp, about 5-6 minutes.

The result was a delicious, spirit-lifting dish. It brought a ray of culinary sunshine into a dark winter night, even if my potatoes were the wrong color, and the house still smells like grease.

Potato chips

Makes 2 medium-size bowls of chips

1 1/2 cups clarified butter

1 1/2 cups canola oil

4 potatoes, either 2 purple Peruvian and 2 Yukon Gold, or 4 grocery store whites

kosher salt

Heat the clarified butter and oil in a small deep saucepan to 300 degrees. Cut the unpeeled potatoes into paper-thin slices. Deep-fry them in batches, for 4-5 minutes, or until they are crisp and oil around the chips is no longer bubbling. (Moisture in the potatoes causes the bubbles, and once the bubbles stop, the chips will be crisp.) Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with kosher salt.

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