April 2, 2020

These Must Eat Potatoes Are Italian, Not French

One night, after returning from an art opening, I had a chance to tell a couple of Italian friends what I was preparing for my first-ever “Hot Summer Tuscan Nights Cooking Class for Couples.” I was, of course, looking for their approval. My friend Barbara is from Tuscany, so I was particularly eager for her praise. I passionately described the potato recipe below and asked for advice on naming it. “They’re basically french fries,” I muttered. Barbara’s face suddenly soured. “Noooo, not French. Don’t call them FRENCH fries,” she retorted.

The Italians and the French have a centuries-old rivalry that sometimes makes me laugh. They argue about their soccer teams, their wines, their cheeses and their lovemaking. I tend to side with the Italians.

The irony is, these European Union allies have a lot in common, particularly when it comes to food, art and romance. The French just take all the credit. French toast, French kissing and the French press are actually Italian. (The Romans started to dip bread in egg and milk during the fourth century; tongue kissing originally was called “Florentine kissing” and the so-called “French” press was patented by Italians Attilio Calimani and Giulio Moneta.)

Whichever of the two cultures you favor, the fact is that the Italians cook better. And so these un-fried, un-French potatoes have been lovingly named after the peninsula that has always loved me back.

Italia, ti amo.

Little Italian Potato Sticks with Rosemary and Thyme

from “Meal and a Spiel: How to Be a Badass in the Kitchen”

2 russet potatoes, scrubbed (see note)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
2 teaspoons kosher salt
15 grinds of the pepper mill

Preheat oven to 425 F (400 F for convection oven).

Place each potato on a cutting board. Slice potatoes lengthwise into 1⁄4-inch “oval sheets.” Stack the sheets on top of one another and cut to make them 1⁄4-inch or 1⁄2-inch wide matchsticks. It’s OK if they aren’t perfect. The smaller ones will get crispier and the larger ones will be juicier. It’s a good mix. Ultimately, you want some to look like matchstick potatoes, while others should look like skinny, imperfect french fries.

Place the potato sticks on parchment-lined baking sheet.

Drizzle enough olive oil to liberally cover all sticks. Sprinkle with thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper.

Use your fingers to toss. Lick your fingers. The taste should border almost on too salty, peppery and herbal because flavor tends to burn off in the oven. If the flavor has no kick on your finger, then add more salt and herbs.

Bake for 25 to 40 minutes, checking periodically to see if sticks need to be flipped or shaken. Baking time will depend on the size of the potato sticks and your oven. Also, if you double or triple the recipe, increase baking time. The sticks should be golden, browned and crisp.

Note: This recipe is based on medium-sized, organic russet potatoes. If potatoes are larger, be more generous with olive oil and spices. Better too much oil than not enough.

Variation: Follow the same process but add salt and freshly ground pepper generously, omitting the herbs. This is equally good and pairs well with a chicken or meat that has been made with lots of herbs.

Elana Horwich is the author of “Meal and a Spiel: How to Be a Badass in the Kitchen” and the founder of the Meal and a Spiel cooking school.