Food: Frying colours

If Annie Bell wants chips she goes to the Ivy, otherwise she fries at home
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's the magical combination of salty brittle bits with other bits that are meltingly soft, not forgetting the liberal addition of chopped garlic and parsley towards the end that makes saute potatoes so good

Despite a profound love of chips, especially those that are thin and so dry and crispy they actually rustle with their dusting of salt when you shake them, I have never attempted to cook them at home. Chips belong in the big outside world beyond my kitchen. The idea of hovering slavishly over a deep-fat fryer fills me with horror. On the rare occasions I deep-fry at home (and they are rare), it's an archaic system of a wok filled with oil whose temperature is gauged by a jam thermometer, which is really no match for the precision skills demanded by the dear little allumette.

Allumettes, as the name suggests, are matchstick-thin, so much so they are nearly all salty crispy bits with just the merest vein of soft potato concealed in the centre. Although, according to my famously inaccurate Larousse Gastronomique, the French name for thin chips is, in fact, "pommes pont neuf" - twice as thick as matches, these are what garnish a tournedos Henri IV. The name, Larousse suggests, may come from the statue of the Vert Galant on the Pont-Neuf in Paris. In Britain, to make life easy, we've done away with any references to French kings and bridges and simply called them French fries.

And then, of course, there are thick chips, which is what arrived when I ordered a grilled Dover sole with tartare sauce last night at Green's Restaurant and Oyster Bar in London - that and a bottle of Rully and I was happy. However, according to the Ivy, who are masters at the art of making chips and cook up many batches every day (they get through 50 gallons of oil a week for chips alone and 30kg of potatoes a night), it is the thick chip that is the "pont neuf" - barrel-shaped and as broad as two fingers. This is what the Ivy serves alongside posh deep-fried fish such as brill, John Dory and halibut. While allumettes, which are a third of the thickness, are the ones that have place of honour next to their rib- eye steaks and burgers.

I don't want to put you off cooking chips at home, but when you realise the precision that goes into making pukka frites it does get a little bit daunting. Taking the Ivy as a benchmark, head chef Des McDonald's words of advice are to "use either Marfona, Maris Piper, Desiree or Maris Bard potatoes, wash them thoroughly once they are cut and blanch them in sunflower oil for five minutes at a low temperature, about 120C, until they are cooked through. Now blast-chill them, and refry at 180C for about one minute." And here's the bit that put me off. The Ivy's deep- fat fryer is cleaned out every day (not asking for a job in that kitchen). If you would like any more information on the Ivy's routine and habits then, perhaps, I can point you in the direction of AA Gill's gripping account of the restaurant, its food and clientele in The Ivy (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 25).

Thankfully, though, there are all sorts of other devices for rendering home-cooked potatoes crisp and golden, best of all being saute potatoes, which are every bit as good, if not preferable. It's the magical combination of salty brittle bits with other bits that are meltingly soft, not forgetting the liberal addition of chopped garlic and parsley towards the end. Really good saute potatoes need to cook for a fairly long time, about 20 minutes in all, over a lowish heat, which gives the sugars in the potato time to caramelise gently and turn golden without burning. Add some sweet fried onions to the pan and drop a poached egg on top on top and it's about as good as egg and chips gets.

Then there is the Swiss masterpiece Rosti, which is an excuse to eat the biggest fried potato man could devise. I like to make quite slim pancakes using raw grated potato to retain the texture. Usually, though, the potatoes are either fully or partially boiled in their skins before being chilled and grated, and then fried in olive oil or clarified butter until the outside is really quite hard and crispy and the inside a bit like mashed potato. There are those who like to fry up potatoes in duck fat or lard, which produces wonderful results if you like seriously rich food, but I don't think fried potatoes really need that kind of encouragement.

Sauteed Potatoes and Onions with Poached Eggs, serves 4

This is the full egg-and-chip monty. The hungry or greedy may prefer two eggs to one. For plain saute potatoes, just leave out the onions and eggs.

700g new or salad potatoes

5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

450g Spanish onions, peeled, halved and sliced

sea salt, black pepper

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

2 handfuls flat-leaf parsley leaves

white wine vinegar

4 large eggs

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, peel the potatoes and boil them until just tender, then drain and slice them once cool. In the meantime, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large frying pan, add the onions and cook over a medium-low heat, turning them frequently until you have a slippery golden mass. Remove to a bowl.

Heat the remaining oil in the frying pan, add the potatoes and cook them, again over a medium to low heat, seasoning them, and turning them every so often to brown them. They shouldn't be turned too often or they'll break up completely. Once the smaller bits have turned golden and crispy and there's enough brown generally, add the garlic and parsley and cook for another minute or two. Then mix in the onions to heat through briefly - do this once the eggs are ready, otherwise the potatoes will soften.

You can either poach the eggs in a poaching pan, or bring a large pan of water to the boil and add a slug of vinegar. Keeping it at a simmer, stir it into a whirlpool, then break the eggs in one at a time. At first, they will sink, and then, once they rise to the surface, allow another couple of minutes before lifting them out with a slotted spoon, trimming the tails of white as you do so. Serve an egg on top of each serving of sauteed potatoes and onion.

Potato and Tomato Gratin with Herbs, serves 4

700g maincrop potatoes

450g beefsteak tomatoes

extra virgin olive oil

200g onions, peeled, halved and sliced

sea salt, black pepper

2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

3 bay leaves

5 sprigs of thyme

50g freshly grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 170C. Peel the potatoes, then slice them finely - you can use a mandolin or the slicing attachment on a food processor if you want. Skin the tomatoes by plunging them into boiling water for 20 seconds and then into cold water, and slice them thinly.

Brush a gratin dish with olive oil. Make a layer each of potatoes, tomatoes and onions. Season and drizzle over some olive oil. Scatter over a few slivers of garlic and tuck some of the herbs in here and there.

Repeat the layers so there are three of potato and two of tomato. Drizzle some olive oil over the surface layer of potatoes and season it. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove the foil, scatter over the Parmesan and drizzle over a little more oil, turn the oven up to 200C and cook the gratin for another 20 minutes, by which time the top layer should be golden and crisp.

Rosti with Creamed Mushrooms and Fennel, serves 4

The Rosti themselves are incredibly quick to make and you can serve them with anything that takes your fancy, such as bacon and eggs.

For the Rosti:

4 medium-sized maincrop potatoes

extra virgin olive oil

sea salt, black pepper

Peel the potatoes and reserve them in cold water. They need to be grated at the last minute as they discolour very quickly. Having grated them, heat one or two frying pans with a little oil. Add some of the potato, as much as you want depending on the size you want, season and press it down firmly so you have a pancake about half-an-inch thick. Cook it over a low heat for 4-7 minutes until nicely golden, then turn and cook it on the other side for another 4-7 minutes. Serve straightaway.

For the mushrooms and fennel:

7 tbsp olive oil

1 fennel bulb, outer sheaves removed and cut into fine segments

sea salt, black pepper

150ml white wine

3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

700g mixed mushrooms, picked over and sliced as necessary

3fl oz double cream

lemon juice

1 heaped tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and sweat the fennel for several minutes until it starts to soften, seasoning it. Add half the wine, cover the pan with a lid and continue to cook for 12 minutes until it is soft, then cook with the lid off to evaporate any remaining liquid. Remove it to a bowl.

Saute the mushrooms in about three lots, it's important not to overcrowd the pan. Heat some of the remaining oil in the frying pan over a medium heat, add the shallots and cook for a minute until they soften. Add the garlic and the mushrooms, turn the heat up and toss constantly until they are soft and starting to colour. If any liquid is given out in the process, keep cooking until it evaporates. Remove the mushrooms to a bowl and cook the remainder as before.

Return the mushrooms to the pan, add the remaining wine and cook until this evaporates. Return the fennel to the pan to heat through, then add the cream, seasoning and a squeeze of lemon juice and cook until the cream is absorbed. Stir in the parsley. Serve with the Rosti.