Poutine is a dish from Quebec consisting of French fries and cheese curds topped with gravy. Not very Eastern European, you may say. I could argue that there’s nothing more Russian than a recipe containing both potatoes and cheese, but that’s not the point. Poutine is also the French spelling of Vladimir Putin‘s last name, and I intend to use this uh-hum pun on words as the inspiration for my recipe.
The former Russian President turned Prime Minister is known as Russia’s Man of Action. His more recent feats include crossing Siberia in a Lada, co-piloting a fire-fighting plane, riding a Harley-Davidson trike in Ukraine, singing patriotic songs with deported spies and even checking sausage prices in a supermarket. He’s every woman’s dream.
Can such a man eat an ordinary plate of fries? Of course not! I needed an ingredient unusual and extreme enough for this fearless living legend: bear meat — medvezhatina in Russian. Bear, Russia’s national personification and symbol of Putin’s own political party, United Russia.
Preparing a really tasty version of this simple dish is much harder than it seems, because each ingredient is better suited for factory production than in-house preparation. Good fries take time: peeling, cutting and blanching the potatoes can easily occupy one person full time in a restaurant. Of course you can buy frozen, peeled, cut and pre-blanched fries instead. Cheese curds are even more time-consuming. Home cheese-making remains a marginal hobby, and it’s extremely rare for a restaurant to make its own cheese — except maybe mozzarella, and even then the curds are sometimes bought elsewhere. To make things worse, in a good poutine, the cheese must make squeaky noises when you eat it, a property that requires homemade curds only a few hours old! Again, factory-made curds are an appealing solution. As for gravy, how the hell are you supposed to get all those meat juices for a dish that doesn’t even include meat in its original recipe?! Too often, if not always, the answer consists of a can or a powdered mix — check out the scary ingredients of this one — producing a sticky, gluey mess that almost makes you feel sorry poutine contains gravy in the first place.
So block your whole weekend and make your own Vladimir Poutine from scratch! The French fries recipe is adapted from Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection. These are guaranteed to be the best fries you’ve ever eaten. To make the cheese curds, I used the beginning of the cheddar recipe from Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making. The resulting curds are tasty without being acidic and do make squeaky noises, though maybe not enough to my taste. I purchase my bear meat from Czimer’s Game & Seafood. Since this is farmed meat, it doesn’t really need to be marinated. If you happen to have killed your own bear, marinate it in red wine overnight first (and send me a couple pieces of that bear!). The ribs are an excellent choice for braising. The braise also provides the perfect basis for an all-natural gravy: all we have to do is reduce the cooking liquid and thicken it with a liaison of egg yolk and heavy cream.
Braised bear ribs
Yields 4 servings
8 oz onion, large dice
4 oz carrot, large dice
4 oz celery, large dice
1 garlic clove, sliced
2 lb bear ribs
6 oz red wine
4 thyme sprigs
2 juniper berries
16 oz smoked pork stock
- In a pot, sauté the onion, carrot, celery and garlic in olive oil until golden brown, then reserve. Season the bear with salt and pepper, and sauté in the same pot until brown on all sides. Add the red wine, and simmer for a couple minutes. Return the vegetables to the pot, add the thyme, cloves and juniper berries, and stir well. Add the pork stock and enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid, and cook in 180 F oven for about 4 hours, until very tender. Let cool for 30 minutes.
- Take the meat out of the cooking liquid. Pass the liquid through a chinois and reserve. Discard the bones and any excess fat. Shred the meat into finger-sized pieces, transfer to a plastic container, top with cooking liquid and reserve.
Yields 4 servings
5 oz mushrooms
1/2 oz olive oil
42 oz bear cooking liquid (this should be almost everything you have)
- In a saucepan, sauté the mushrooms in olive oil until soft. Add the bear cooking liquid, bring to a boil, and reduce to 1/4.
- Pass through a chinois and reserve.
Yields slightly over 12 oz (4 servings)
3 qt whole milk
3/4 packet direct-set mesophilic starter
3/8 tsp liquid rennet, diluted in 1 oz water
1 tsp salt
- Heat the milk to 86 F, then stir in the starter. Cover and keep at 86 F for 45 minutes.
- Add the diluted rennet and mix for 1 minute. Let rest for another 45 minutes.
- Cut the curds in 1/2″ cubes and let set for 15 minutes. Slowly heat to 100 F and keep at 100 F for 1 hour, stirring gently every 10 minutes. Let rest for 30 minutes.
- Pour the curds into a sieve and let drain for 5 minutes, shaking occasionally. Do not drain for too long, or the curds will mat. Mix in the salt, then keep at 100 F for 1 hour, stirring every 10 minutes to prevent matting. Drain again and reserve.
Yields 4 servings
4 lb Idaho potatoes, peeled
canola oil for deep-frying
- Fill a pot large enough to contain the potatoes with water mixed with 1% salt, and bring to a boil. Cut the potatoes into 1/2″ thick fries. Add to the pot, return to a simmer, and cook over medium heat until the potatoes are just starting to break when you pick them out (you should start watching for this after about 15 minutes of simmering). Using a skimmer, transfer the fries to a cooling rack, let cool, then refrigerate until cold.
- Fill a deep-fryer with the canola oil, and bring to 250 F. Proceeding in batches if necessary, deep-fry the fries until they look dry and slightly colored. Don’t overfill; the potatoes tend to release a lot of water, which increases the liquid-level in the fryer. Transfer to a cooling rack and discard (or eat) the small broken potato pieces — there will be some, unavoidably. Let cool, then refrigerate until cold.
Yields 4 servings
braised bear ribs
2 3/4 oz heavy cream
1 3/4 oz egg yolk (between 2 and 3 egg yolks)
12 oz cheese curds
- Reheat the braised bear meat in the cooking liquid very gently.
- Pour the bear sauce into a saucepan. Mix the heavy cream and egg yolk, then stir into the sauce. Over low heat, stir constantly, until it coats the back of a spoon. This gravy must never boil.
- Bring the deep-fryer to 375 F, then deep-fry the fries again until golden brown. Transfer to a bowl lines with paper towels.
- Pile some fries at the center of each plate, top with cheese curds and bear meat, and cover with sauce.