My recent discovery of a French vegan blue cheese here in Paris brought back some fond memories from my student days. I was living in downtown Milwaukee, finishing up my bachelor’s degree and working at a popular restaurant on Cathedral Square Park. Some nights after finishing up our last tables, a few fellow servers and I would take our exhausted selves down the street to Elsa’s On the Park, a cocktail bar that was way cooler than the place we worked at. We loved its sophisticated ambiance, avant-garde art, high-end cocktails and the fact that its kitchen stayed open late enough that we could get something to eat after our restaurant closed.
Looking online, I was happy to see that Elsa’s (described on the Google map as “trendy eatery for burgers & martinis”) was still there, in the same beautiful Victorian building. It now had a website and on it I found their menu, which didn’t seem to have changed. I recognized the same burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and, best of all, their Hell’s Fire Fries: thickly sliced rustic housemade chips topped with melting gorgonzola cheese and hot sauce. Tucking into this spicy dish was the perfect way to forget that awful table that had run you off your feet all night and then tipped you only 10%, I found. The dish was also the perfect accompaniment to a stiff drink, ordered for the same reasons.
This Proustian trip down memory lane of course inspired me to see if I could reproduce this yummy treat, now that blue cheese had re-entered my world. A friend from the olden days volunteered to stop by Elsa’s to order the dish and report on what she was served, and it turned out to be the same as I’d remembered – thick fried potato slices with the skin on, something midway between fries and chips.
I’m quite happy with the result, which I have named in homage to the original dish. The vegan blue cheese I used, the Jeanne from Jay & Joy, is made with the very same mold cultures that you find in animal-sourced blue cheese (just in a base of cashews and almond milk instead of animal milk), and its flavors go as well with the hot sauce as I remembered.
Elsa’s is part of the student-days nostalgia I share with my brother, who also lived in Milwaukee in that time, also worked as a server (at a different restaurant) and also loved visiting this favorite spot. If recipes could be dedicated to people like books are, I would dedicate this one to him.
Anyway, if you can get your hands on a cheese like this and want to try it for yourself, all the info is right here.
Heavenly hot homefries
Makes a smallish dish of homefries (serves 1 or 2)
- 12 oz (350 g) firm potatoes, skin on, or more for a bigger portion
- 1 cup vegetable oil (such as canola, rapeseed or colza) for frying
- vegan blue cheese, as much as you like – I used about 0.5 oz (15 g)
- Mexican hot sauce
Equipment required: mandoline slicer (recommended)
The potatoes I used are a variety called Grenadine in French, but any firm potatoes, such as you would use to make regular fries or a potato gratin, will be fine. If you opt to leave the skin on, clean them thoroughly with a vegetable brush.
Using a mandoline, cut the potatoes into slices about 1/8th in. (3 mm) thick. Be REALLY careful and make sure to use the safety attachment when you get near the end of the potato. If you don’t have a mandoline, you can try slicing them with a knife, but cutting them evenly may prove challenging.
In a deep saucepan, heat the vegetable oil on high. Once it’s hot enough for frying (350°F or 180°C – check out these directions for determining the temperature without a thermometer), carefully immerse the potato slices in the oil. I used 1 cup of oil and fried my potatoes in two batches, but you could opt to use 2 cups and fry them all at once if you like. The goal is to not crowd the slices so they don’t stick together.
Once the slices have begun to turn golden brown (it took about 10 minutes for mine), carefully remove them from the oil using a metal slotted spoon and place them on paper towel, ideally in a single thickness. Sprinkle a bit of salt over the top. As soon as the paper towel becomes saturated with oil, get another sheet for the remainder of the slices or the whole batch is likely to be overly oily and might get mushy.
Now that they’ve been fried, in your home, the potato slices are homefries!
Before they cool too much, transfer the homefries to a plate or bowl. Crumble some gorgonzola or blue style cheese over them and then drizzle some hot sauce on top. I used a Mexican sauce I brought back from my last stay in the US, but just about any hot sauce will do – choose whatever level of heat you can tolerate. I recommend against Sriracha, since it has a sweet side that might not be so good in this dish.
If your homefries have gotten cold or you just want to warm up the cheese a bit, you can place the fully assembled dish under the broiler for a few minutes (in an oven-proof container, of course). Note that vegan cheese tends not to melt as much as animal-sourced cheese.
And there you have the perfect dish to help you unwind, along with a martini, mojito or merlot, at the end of a long and aggravating day. Be sure to keep the hot sauce handy so you can turn up the heat if needed.
Rumor has it this dish tastes even better when you’re wearing Tapatio socks!
Where to find ingredients…
Vegan blue cheese: This may not be an easy item to find, depending where you live, but if it does exist in your area, it’s likely to be at organic or vegan food stores. In France, you can find the Jay & Joy brand at their own shop in Paris (and online shop), Naturalia organic food stores, and also vegan shops like Aujourd’hui Demain, Un Monde Vegan (and its online shop) and Mon Epicerie Paris. And if you’re ambitious (and patient!), you can even make it yourself with this recipe.