What we need now is chips, but without your local fish shop, where can you turn? The answer is to our roaming reporter Josh Cobb. This week he aims to make the perfect chip. Pass the ketchup.
My brief foray into further education took place in the seaside town of Falmouth, where instead of the kebabs and pizzas that other students across the country were turning to for comfort, sustenance and lining of the stomach. We sought after the fluffy, vinegar-soaked chips from Cod on the Corner, and Gem’s Fish Bar. These chunky fellas lounged over each other, steaming themselves into an inseparable glob of oil-soaked potato. Perfect for homesickness, hangovers or last-minute hand-ins. Pass the wooden chip-fork.
Years on, I’ve followed in Brighton the trend of ‘Belgian Fries’, thrice fried at exacting temperatures and offered with a litany of extravagant dip choices; allium aioli, satay sriracha or truffle tartar. The scrupulous journey through baths of bubbling oil produces a shattering crust, protecting the clouds within.
I adore experiences like this (not only starch-based, but in all of my interests); taking one’s hobbies a step too far is rewarding, when shared with friends who care about you.
Home-cooking, however, requires a different mindset. It’s a different activity with a different goal. Whilst there is a sort of puzzling fun in the daedalean blueprint of an Ottolenghi orzo, convenience is a currency for the home cook; I’m not aware of anyone who relishes the opportunity to deep fry something on a weeknight. The comfort of newspaper wrapped chips is but a faint memory, and now in a locked-down United Kingdom, the onus of crispy tasty goodness falls upon us.
Time is a poor measure of convenience. Would you rather take three buses with a total journey time of 30 minutes, or one train that takes 45? Recipes have called for a parboil for literally hundreds of years. I’m not kidding – Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook describes "potato's boil'd and fried in butter" in 1660. The potatoes used in this recipe must have been fresh off Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship from Peru. The parboil is supposed to develop a fluffy interior with less time to burn in the oven, perfect for your traditional 1cm squared Queen-and-Country style chip. But as far as I’m concerned, parboiling adds extra steps, extra pots, extra timings and overall too much grief for the haggard home-worker. The work-around that I found was to cut batons as ‘skinny’ as a sharp knife will let you. These straight up shoestring bad boys will cook through at the same time that it’ll take to crisp up the outside.
At this stage, I put them in a colander, and get them under a tap. A long soak might better get the starch off of them, but I’ve found that aggressive waterboarding seems to work, and will certainly get rid of any remaining mud on the spud. When you run out of patience, empty them onto a clean tea towel and give your chips a good old dry.
The next key step is to ensure that each of these golden bullets has their own space. To mindlessly chuck them into a pile as you might a bag of trustworthy freezer tots would be a grave mistake. Instead, swish some vegetable oil on an oven sheet and take the time to line them up, avoiding any contact, so that they resemble the queues outside supermarkets since the lockdown began. Brush them with some more oil so that each brotato can have their own tanning sesh.
Sling them in a hot oven (180C/200C fan or more) and pull them out when they look delicious. On an ill-advised cake baking spree, I took the time to test the oven in my flat at the time with an oven thermometer, and found that it was all of 30 degrees hotter than advertised by the temperature knob. So crank the heat as you might the volume, and think of England.
As soon as they look golden brown (texture like sun), empty them into a big bowl and toss them with salt whilst they’re still hot, the way you imagine they might do in restaurants (remember restaurants?) and then serve them as a matter of priority. Incorporating a bit of chopped up fresh rosemary into the toss is a welcome but entirely unnecessary addition. Get some sauce involved and tuck in.
Will a potato solve all of your problems? It seems unlikely, I don’t know your circumstances, but I don’t reckon it will. But in these internationally trying times, we should all lean on the things that make us feel better, even for a brief moment.