If I were to confess to a secret food weakness, it would be hot chips — or fries — hot, salty, flavourful and crisp. Cheese, in all its iterations, runs a close second, but biting into the crunchy deliciousness of a well-cooked chip, with its golden shell and the pillowy whiteness beneath, is simply irresistible. Little wonder that empires have been built on it.
When Ray Croc purchased the franchise for their eponymous burger stand from the McDonald brothers back in 1954, it was the fries that really caught his attention. You could take a potato, cut it into batons, fry it in beef tallow and douse it with salt to create a cheap, flavourful snack that everyone loved.
Croc worked out early that the art of potato chips lies not just in the variety of potatoes used, but their water content. The amount of water affects the cooking time as well as the texture of the end result. Furthermore, when potatoes are freshly harvested their starches are sugary, which means they go brown on the outside well before the inside is cooked (you may have noticed this if you have tried to turn a waxy new-season potato into a fry — it's guaranteed to come out brown and limp). Freshly dug potatoes have to be stored at a warm temperature for several weeks in order for their sugars to convert to starch. So having established that Idaho russet burbank were the ideal potato to make fries with (in New Zealand, agria is my choice for the job), Croc sent field men out with hydrometers to make sure all his growers were producing potatoes in the optimal solids range of 20 to 23 per cent.
American fries were orginally made with beef tallow, which, like pork and duck fat, has particular qualities that develop a very crisp, crunchy, outer crust. But then the health lobbyists got on board and decreed these animal fats were too high in saturated fats and causing an epidemic of heart disease. For many years, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils were used to reduce the saturated fatty acid content but in time the trans fat content of these oils could be seen to be contributing to cardiovascular disease. The fact is that fries aren't good for you but if you're going to enjoy them occasionally you may as well make them as good as possible.
My nan always used to boil the potatoes first for 10 minutes then drain them and dry them off in a clean tea towel. She then double-fried them, first in hot fat at 160C to cook them through and let them drain completely before briefly frying again at 190C to crisp the exterior.
I tend to double-cook them too but as a healthier alternative to deep-frying, I par-boil them in water, then add a little oil and bake them in the oven until crispy.
American Independence Day offers the chance to indulge in some home-cooked diner fare, with a feast of chunky oven-baked fries, a hearty beef burger and a homemade apple pie.
Stellar Apple Pie
Ready in 1 hour
Sour cream pastry
200g butter, chilled and diced
1 ¾ cups flour
½ cup sour cream or creme fraiche
8 apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced, or
2 x 375g cans sliced apples, drained
½ cup raisins
¼ cup honey
Zest of ½ an orange, finely grated
¼ tsp each ground cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves
To make the pastry, pulse butter and flour in a food processor until they resemble fine breadcrumbs. Add sour cream or creme fraiche and pulse until the dough starts to form a ball. If still crumbly, add a little cold water until it comes together. Form into a log about 6cm in diameter, wrap in waxed paper and chill for at least 20 minutes or freeze until needed.
To prepare the filling, combine apples, raisins, honey, zest and spices in a pot. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until apples are semi-soft (5-6 minutes). Allow to cool. If using canned apples, drain well then stir in raisins, honey, zest and spices. Preheat oven to 180C fanbake and like a medium (about 25cm-diameter) pie dish or ovenproof frying pan with baking paper. Cut ¾ of the pastry log into circles about ½cm thick. Use to line the dish, pressing together to cover the base and 4cm up sides. Fill with apple mixture. Roll out remaining pastry and cut into stars. Arrange on pie then bake until pastry is crisp and golden (about 45 minutes).
Annabel says: If you don't have sour cream or creme fraiche or don't have time to whizz up this quick homemade pastry, use frozen sweet short pastry sheets. Serve the pie warm or cold with cream or icecream, if desired.
Ready in 1 hour
Serves 6-8 as a side
8 large floury potatoes, scrubbed
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp flaky salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 200C fanbake and line 2 large shallow oven trays with baking paper for easy clean-up. Cut the potatoes into chunky chips or wedges. Cover with salted water in a large pot, bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain well. Transfer to prepared trays, add olive oil, salt and pepper and toss to combine evenly. Spread out to a single layer and bake until crispy and golden (40-45 minutes).
Annabel says: The brilliant thing about homemade oven fries is that you need very little fat or oil to get a crunchy result. Pre-cooking the potatoes means you can get ahead of the game and they'll only take about 40 minutes in the oven to crisp up.
Ready in 30 mins
500g lean beef mince
1 small onion or red onion, grated or very finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp tomato sauce
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
½ tsp salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp neutral oil, to cook
Slices of cheese or blue cheese (optional)
4 soft burger buns, to serve
Salad fixings of your choice, such as lettuce leaves, tomato slices, gherkins, onion slices, beetroot slices, fried eggs or avocado slices
Dressings of your choice, such as mayonnaise or aioli, tomato relish or fruit chutney
Mix mince with onion, egg, garlic, sauces, mustard, salt and pepper until evenly combined. Divide mixture into 4, form each into a ball then press into a patty about 10cm in diameter. The patties can be prepared in advance, covered and chilled for up to 24 hours or frozen until needed. Preheat a heavy frying pan over a high heat. Add oil and, when it is hot, add patties and cook for 2 minutes until well browned. Turn, top each with a slice of cheese, if using, and cook until patties are cooked through and cheese is melted (another 2 minutes). While the patties cook, slice burger buns in half, horizontally. Toast buns on their cut sides. Serve patties in buns with salad fixings and sauces or dressings of your choice.
Annabel says: Mix-and-match burgers make for an easy midweek meal. Lay out all fixings and let everyone build their own to enjoy with fries.