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Oven "fries" and cheese sauce

We were in the mood for comfort food yesterday, and something about French fries seemed just right. Cheese fries, in fact: Hot and crisp, salty and filling, consoling fare to bring some light to a gray, drizzly autumn day.

I'm not crazy about deep frying at home, though - a lot of work, a lot of oil, a lot of calories from fat; but a trip to a fast-food shack wouldn't fulfill my comfort needs. A quick search through my recipe files and scribbled notes brought enlightenment: For a long time I had been meaning to try an oven-baked version of French "fries," and my mood du jour made this the perfect occasion.

It's a simple, if somewhat time-consuming, procedure: Cut large potatoes into fat wedges. Coat them in a moderate amount of tasty peanut oil, season them with salt and pepper, and bake on a sheet at high temperature until they're just as crispy and addictive as the real thing.

The cheese sauce was just as easy, and it boasts a French heritage, too. Although dressed down in informal attire for this dish, it's no mere Cheez Whiz but a simple variation a classic French "mother" sauce - a Mornay, or Bechamel with cheese, substituting mellow yellow Cheddar for the more traditional Gruyere.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two as a meatless main course, four as a side dish)

For the "fries"
2 large baking potatoes, about 1/2 pound (250g) each
3 tablespoons peanut oil
Black pepper

For the cheese sauce
2 ounces (60g) sharp Cheddar
2 tablespoons (30g) butter
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon flour
3/4 cup (6 ounces/180g) milk
1 teaspoon (5g) spicy brown mustard
Black pepper


The "fries"

1. Preheat oven to 475F (250C). Peel the potatoes, cut them in half lenghthwise, and cut each half into about six long wedges. Put the cut potatoes in a mixing bowl filled with hot water, and let them soak for 10 minutes or so.

2. Drizzle about half of the peanut oil on a large cookie sheet and spread to cover. Shake salt and black pepper over the oil.

3. Take the potatoes out of the water and pat them dry with paper towels. Dry the bowl, put the potatoes back in the bowl, and toss them with the remaining peanut oil until they're well covered. Put the potatoes on the baking sheet, distributing them evenly so they lie in a single layer. Cover tightly with aluminum foil, put the tray on the bottom oven shelf, and bake covered for about five minutes.

4. Remove the foil and continue baking for another 15 minutes, turning the cookie sheet around after about 10 minutes if they don't appear to be baking evenly. Using a thin metal spatula, turn each "fry," taking care to scoot the spatula underneath so the crunchy bottoms release cleanly from the sheet. Bake for another 15 or 20 minutes, turning the pan once if needed, until the potatoes are crisp and brown.

The cheese sauce

While the fries are baking, make the (optional) cheese sauce.

1. Grate the cheese, which should be enough to fill about 1 cup, loosely packed.

2. Heat the milk to just under the boiling point (about 1 minute in the microwave should do it). Put the butter and the peeled, smashed garlic clove in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook until the butter stops bubbling and the garlic is aromatic, but don't let the butter start to brown. Remove and discard the garlic, put in the flour all at once, and stir briskly with a whisk or wooden spoon until the flour and butter are well mixed. Cook for a minute or two, then pour in the hot milk, a little at a time, stirring constantly.

3. When the mixture comes back to the boil, add the grated cheese, mustard and cayenne, and stir until the cheese is melted and the sauce is thick and smooth. Remove from the heat and leave it to cool and thicken for a few minutes. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste, if needed.

When the potatoes are ready, put them on warm plates and accompany each with a pool of cheese sauce. Season to taste (chances are you'll need little additional salt), and serve.

MATCHING WINE: This casual meal doesn't demand a specific wine, and in fact a good cold beer would be a delight. But the rich, sharp cheese sauce makes the dish wine-friendly, too, and we were in the mood for something a little special; so I went to the "special occasion" shelf for an excellent Loire Cabernet Franc with a little age on it, Clos Rougeard 1998 "Les Poyeux" Saumur Champigny. There's a reason why "wine and cheese" is a classic pairing, though: Just about any wine you like will do.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of these recipes, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Oven 'fries' and cheese sauce."

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

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Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Duck breast scaloppine (Oct. 28)

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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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