Part III think of the fried polenta I ate on cold nights in Florence fairly often. So why don't I ever eat it? It's not as if I can't get it; we eat polenta fairly often, especially in the winter. And there's almost always leftovers. But they tend to get reheated, or sliced thinly and fried in small puddle of oil in a cast-iron pan.
Since I generally bake polenta in a rectangular casserole (thanks to Paula Wolfert's recipe in Mediterranean Grains and Greens), the leftover polenta is already neatly formed. Last time I had some left over, I decided to give deep frying a try.
The piece I had was about one-inch thick, so I sliced it into fairly neat (for me) one-inch cubes. I fried them in olive oil at 350º, just a couple at a time (full disclosure: I used a ridiculously small saucepan, so as to limit my oil expense). When their surface hardens (you can tell by pressing them with the back of the spoon) and they turn golden, drain them on paper towels, and sprinkle with salt.
So. It's easy to go back for seconds of the actual food, and I'll be doing it often now.
But what about the big picture? Eating fried polenta in my living room, while watching a baseball game, isn't too shabby. But where were the other adventurers? I started thinking. If I were a traveling 18-year-old again, and found myself in Portland low on funds but ready for adventure, what would I be eating? Where would I end up?
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With all the food carts in Portland, it's strange no one sells fried polenta. But that's not to say Portland's short on spots to meet people and eat cheaply. I like to think I would do a little research before landing in Portland; with a little luck, I made a few friends along the way, and found a place to crash cheap (sleeping in the Greyhound Station is not tempting). If not, I'd probably end up at the Youth Hostel on SE Hawthorne. From there, it would be a short walk (for and 18-year-old) to the food cart pod at SE Hawthorne and SE 12th.
Yes, that's the moon
There's lots of choices there, from Whiffie's Fried Pies, to Perierra's Crêperie. But I'm pretty sure Potato Champion is the place I'd be getting my cheap supper (now for dessert, that's a whole other ball of string). They open at 6 PM, and don't close until 3 AM. The scene shifts with the hour--the later you go, the more crowded it gets. But at any hour, you're likely to run into all ages of French fry eaters. The pod has even made a covered area so you can enjoy the carts year round (though you'll want a jacket--the winds whip through).
Potato Champion sells Belgian style fries, which, according to them, means they are blanched first at a low temperature in the fryer, then left to sweat out the oil (they use rice bran oil), which "brings out the potato's natural fragrance."
When you step up to order your cone (and a large, $4.50, is always plenty for me and a friend), you'll see the pile of blanched fries, looking a little naked (the low temperature doesn't crisp them at all). A few minutes later, your cone of cooked to order fries is ready. I don't know if it's the blanching that does it, but the fries taste of earthy potato--crisp outside with slightly mealy insides, and, what do you know, plenty of natural potato fragrance.
With each order you pick one sauce--there's dijon mustard, horseradish ketchup, and various mayonnaises (I'm partial to the anchovy and the remoulade) to choose from; if it's too hard, spring the extra 50 cents for each additional sauce. They sell poutine as well ($4.50 and $7), which would make more of a complete meal. Maybe I would have made that my Sunday dinner.