Milena’s Cooking Adventures
Recently a friend and I were complaining with great vehemence about food blogs where you have to scroll down for 7 minutes to find the recipe because the author is busy talking about the mist in the trees and their trip to Turkey and getting kefir from mysterious strangers and their life story and…
From now on, unless it adds to the drama and suspense, I’m putting the recipes first, y’all. I’ll pontificate at the end for anyone who wants to read my (obviously brilliant and utterly genius) philosophising.
a.k.a. Cheating at Poutine in a Country that Doesn’t Have Any Ingredients to Make Poutine
A recreation by taste and experimentation of vegetarian poutine I had at La Banquise in Montréal
N.B. This recipe is a long one. It takes forever. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I think it’s worth it, but I also enjoy taking literally 2 days to make bread, so. I may not be the one to ask.
- as many potatoes or sweet potatoes as you want to eat, cut into fries (or, store-bought frozen fries)
- hard mozzarella (ideal) OR normal mozzarella (if you can find actual quebecois squeaky cheese, holy shit you lucky person BUY IT)
- parmesan, grated or as powder (only if you don’t have the actual squeaky cheese)
- 2 TBS olive oil
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 yellow onions, chopped fine
- 1 green bell pepper, cut into strips then each strip cut in half
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
- 1 TBS tomato paste
- lemon juice to taste (~1 tsp)
- 4 TBS soy sauce (plus more to adjust to taste)
- weak vegetable broth (using bouillon cube) or 3-4 cups water (more to adjust if more reduction needed) – I find that if you use too strong of vegetable broth it masks the other flavours. I like to use half the vegetable bouillon cube recommended to make my broth
- 1 TBS flour
- black pepper to taste
- Cut mozzarella into small chunks, about the width of your finger and about half the length of your pointer finger. If it is soft mozzarella in water, place on a plate with paper towels underneath and over and put a heavy frying pan over it. Leave to dry out.
- Drizzle olive oil into a large frying pan and let warm up over medium heat. I recommend using a wooden spoon for all of this. When the oil is hot, put in onions and salt and stir. Cook the onions carefully and slowly; reduce heat if necessary. It is REALLY important that nothing in this recipe burns. Since the recipe reduces for a long time, any bitter flavours from any burning will come out strongly.
- After onions are golden but not completely caramelised, add in the bell pepper and turn up heat a little. Allow bell pepper to brown on all sides but never burn or get black. You want the bell peppers to brown, not just cook. The onions should continue to caramelise. This can take up to an hour to make sure everything is browned and caramelised.
- When all is beautifully browned and falling apart, make a space in the middle, add a little olive oil, and add the garlic. Leave without stirring till browned slightly. Add the tomato paste and lemon juice and stir everything until incorporated.
- Leave over heat until fond (browning) starts forming underneath, then turn up heat and immediately add soy sauce, then water/weak vegetable broth. It should sizzle. Stir vigorously, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring for about a minute, making sure to scrape everything off the bottom, then reduce heat.
- This is the longest part: leave pan to reduce over low heat for at least 2 hours. At this point everything in the pan should be melting and falling apart, and you should see no chunks of anything. Keep stirring and squishing to squoosh things apart.
- When everything is fallen apart, taste and adjust soy sauce to taste. If not salty enough, you also may just need to reduce more. If not acidic enough, you may need to add more tomato paste or lemon juice. This sauce should be SALTY and very umami, with a very slightly bitter aftertaste. It all balances out with the mozzarella (or squeaky cheese).
- When sauce tastes how you want it to taste, get out a mesh strainer and put it over a saucepan. Pour the sauce over and squish it through the mesh to get out the liquid. Put the saucepan back on the stove over low heat.
- Take a ladelful of the hot liquid and put it in a bowl. Whisking constantly, sprinkle or sift the flour over, making sure there are no lumps. When incorporated, add back into the saucepan and whisk vigorously.
- Over low heat, stir until the flour starts thickening the sauce. It should be fairly liquid still but a little bit thick in order to cling to your fries. When ready, turn off the heat. Add pepper to taste.
- Make the fries (either homemade or store-bought), and put onto plates directly from cooking so they’re hot. Put a hefty dose of mozzarella on top, then sprinkle parmsesan directly over mozzarella. Pour over a fantastic amount of sauce. Eat while hot. Marvel that you managed to do this without the basic ingredients for poutine. Pretend you live in Montréal. Sigh in happiness.
STORYTIME WITH MILEE
Back in the Time Before the Virus, I once visited Montréal. I stayed with a very lovely person who showed me around and taught me how to count in quebecois (eunh, deurh, troiy) and we had a wonderful time watching the Moomin cartoons.
He also, and most importantly, told me to go to La Banquise, a restaurant that serves poutine, poutine, poutine. Also poutine. With poutine. I don’t know who invented poutine, but it’s pretty much the best dish on earth. You take fried things and then you add special cheese that squeaks when you chew it and then you add gravy and then you die of happiness. And La Banquise does a vegetarian version!
I never forgot the taste of their vegetarian gravy, which was unctuous, full of umami flavour, and had this slightly bitter aftertaste that went absolutely beautifully with the crispy fries and the cheese. It brought everything together.
I spent months back in Chicago (where I was living at the time) trying to recreate the flavour, but something was always missing. I tried mushrooms but it was too earthy, I tried apple cidar vinegar but it was too sweet. I tried tomato paste and I tried soy sauce and it was closer but it was not right. Then, one day, I had some soup stock left that I had happened to make with green bell pepper and onion skins (generally a mistake for stock since it adds bitterness). On a whim I used the stock instead of water. It worked. Suddenly everything came together and the right umami flavour was there. The slight bitter aftertaste brought out the fried flavour of the fries but was smoothed out by the cheese.
After some more experimentation, I found my sauce. I used flour to thicken it instead of cornstarch because I found the cornstarch too gluey. This sauce takes eons to make but I don’t care. It is the closest I could have gotten to the La Banquise sauce and now I can have fake poutine in a country without the right ingredients whenever I want. Hope you enjoy.