Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Quebecois Staple: Poutine

As I started to discuss in my Life From Ann Arbor blog, my boyfriend Greg and I spent a week in Canada recently. Our first stop was Toronto for a night, then we moved onto Montreal, a city I have not visited since I was 13 and with my French club. I enjoyed Montreal a lot more this time around. There was a lot more open to me. Rather than take the trip day by day, I thought I'd stick to specific themes. Today's theme is: poutine.

It is very possible you have no idea whatsoever what poutine (pronounced "poo-teen") is, and don't feel bad. I could never remember the name when I was in high school because my classmates mostly referred to it as maggots because, they claimed, that is what poutine resembled, a dish of maggots. I never had any while I was there before, but I've tried it since then, and I really like it. I mean, what isn't to like about french fries covered in gravy and cheese curds? Surprisingly, it isn't as greasy as it sounds, though I suppose you could make it greasy if you wanted to, or if you were cheap.

Our first day in Montreal, Greg and I were suckered into a poutinerie (a restaurant that specializes in poutine; yes, it's a thing) in Vieux Montreal, the old city. All of the menus posted outside of the restaurants there are in French. Though my conversation and listening comprehension are pretty rusty after so many years, my reading skills are still pretty strong, and a restaurant menu isn't exactly taxing. Still, it was easier to have them in English since Greg doesn't know French. This particular establishment, Montreal Poutine, had a man stationed outside probably to keep an eye out of Anglophones puzzling over the menu on the wall.

"There's an English menu inside," he told us, and ushered us in. We unwittingly followed. He then directed us to sit down at a table and informed us they would bring us an English menu. What a sneaky devil! We would have felt bad just getting up and leaving, so we stayed. Besides, we were starving, it was Quebec, and we had intended to eat poutine at some point. There's no time like the present, right?

Greg was immediately amused by the server when he arrived at our table. He spoke in this goofy voice that I have associated with the Quebecois (the men, at least) since I was 13 and visited the Labyrinthe du Hangar 16, a giant maze located on one of the piers, and a sugar shack out in the middle of nowhere where I was treated to the Macarena on a fiddle. (We also did the Chicken Dance, the Electric Slide, and played limbo.) I don't know if there are Quebecois who naturally talk with a higher pitch, pushing all words to the top of their mouths, making them sound a lot like living cartoon characters, but it is definitely a common affectation they seem to enjoy. Greg was like "Wha?" and I was like "Yeah, they do that here." 

Anyway. Greg ordered a Trois Pistoles, a dark ale by Unibroue, and was immediately chastised for pronouncing it like it was Spanish and not French. (It's "pis-tohl," not "pis-toh-lays.") The weather was cold and on the damp side, so I really just wanted some hot tea. I was surprised and delighted when he gave me not only options for which kind of tea I wanted (I chose orange pekoe), but if I wanted cream or milk, and how much sugar (none, none, and none). A place that knows their tea. Love!
For dinner, Greg chose poutine with bacon, an excellent choice according to our server. I chose poutine with sauteed mushrooms and onions. I was not disappointed. Both of our choices were remarkably filling and absolutely delicious. Sauteed mushrooms and onion gravy is amazing on anything, but to put it on fries with cheese is genius. If you are ever in the Vieux Montreal area, you must try poutine from Montreal Poutine. 

We didn't eat poutine again until our way out of the country. We stopped at a roadside eatery for dinner that included a Tim Horton's, naturally, as well a Wendy's (the apostrophe was in the shape of a maple leaf; Canadians are incapable of doing any sort of logo without a maple leaf somewhere, it seems), a Cold Stone attached to the Tim Horton's, and a New York Fries, a hand cut french fry chain we had often noticed that, oddly enough, despite the name, specializes in various takes on poutine. I didn't know they had poutine in New York, but I could be mistaken. I have found it once or twice on a Michigan menu, after all. (If you're really curious about the name, read about NYF here.)

This is where poutine gets really ingenious to me. They had butter chicken poutine. Butter chicken is possibly my all time favorite faux Indian dish. I say faux because in all likelihood it was invented by the British. Wherever it originated, butter chicken is one groovy dish. And combining it with poutine... Oh, there are no words. I figured it would either be really terrible or a food of the gods. I couldn't not order it. 

But I was equally being tempted by their offering of braised beef poutine, "slow-cooked Angus beef, carrots, onions and mushrooms in a red wine sauce." It's basically beef stew on fries with cheese curds. And it looked amazing. This is what Greg ordered so I could get the butter chicken. They were both really, really tasty. I think I need to make both of these dishes in my own kitchen now. My mouth is watering at the memory. 

If you can't readily get to Canada to try poutine for yourself, it is really easy to make at home. Just get some good, crisp french fries, pour on some hot gravy followed by cheese curds. That's it! And you can may enjoy a quintessentially Canadian - and specifically Quebecois - dish in the comfort of your own home. 

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