Poutine: Curdy Canadian Comfort

Serious Cheese

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Photograph from iwona kellie on Flickr

Our Quebecois cousins to the North may speak a different language and enjoy the solace of universal health-care, but when it comes to comfort food their North American tendencies peek through in the form of poutine, a fancy word for cheese fries with gravy.

OK, well they're a little more involved than that. The cheese is really a helping of fresh cheese curds, made soft by the heat of the fries, and the gravy is Canadian-style barbecue chicken gravy, which is quite different than traditional American gravy—dark, thick and vinegary. Last weekend the Boston Globe profiled Chez Ashton, a chain of Quebecois fast food restaurants that many consider as serving the best poutine around.

Cheese curds are nuggets of fresh cheese that are removed in the middle of the cheddar-making process (before pressing) and sold separately. When they are very fresh, they make a squeaky sound when you chew them, and are a very popular snack in Wisconsin and Quebec. (And like most American culinary foodstuffs, there is also a deep-fried version of cheese curds, usually available at state fairs and the like.)

In America we enjoy a very similar dish to poutine, but we call it gravy fries. I remember as a kid getting steak fries topped with melted mozzarella cheese and brown gravy at my local Long Island diner. I don't want to know how many calories and grams of fat were in that dish, but to a 16 year old at 2 a.m., nothing could be better. At Nectar's in Burlington, VT, many a stoned Phish fan has enjoyed a midnight helping of gravy fries topped with either chili, shredded cheese or cheese sauce.

Whatever you call it, it's hard to beat the combination of fried potatoes, cheese and gravy. Canadians, who makes your favorite poutine and what makes it special?