When, after my mother’s death, my father married a woman a few ticks above us on the social pecking order, I was initially intimidated — and depressed. Poor Dad was marrying a snob. Our life would never be the same. But when the bride told me her favorite food was potato chips, I knew we’d be OK. Suddenly she had something in common with, well, pretty much everyone I knew.
“People are crazy for chips because they’re everything that our prehistoric brains say we love: fat, salt and crunch,” says Ashevillean Chris Bryant, author of Chips: Reinventing a Favorite Food (Lark/Sterling Publishing, 2014). “They’re a guilty pleasure. Even hard-line nutritionists who contributed to my book said things like ‘My favorite chips are Cool Ranch Doritos.’”
Bryant’s book presents chip recipes with gusto, including potato chips and chips sliced from beets, carrots, parsnips, kale, fruits, tofu skin (the skin that forms on top when soymilk simmers) and even cured meats and sausages. “Pretty much everything can be a chip,” says Bryant, also a food stylist, developer and tester. “For instance, you can put cold cuts in the oven for a few minutes to crisp, and they make an incredible ingredient for salads, on a sandwich or in soup.”
Chips Worldly and Local
The Gourmet Chip Co. on Broadway in downtown Asheville goes far beyond the spud as well, offering chips made from Idaho potatoes but also from sweet potatoes, plantains and taro root. They also have an international flair. ”I woke up in the middle of the night before the company opened and thought of combining truffle oil and herb-crusted goat cheese,” says Neala Steury, founder and president of the company, which opened in 2011. “That became the Parisian. I wanted to use chips as a canvas, painting chips in ways based on international cuisine.”
Joe Scully, chef and owner of Chestnut on Biltmore Avenue and Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village, serves a symphony of chips at Corner Kitchen called, unsurprisingly, Joe’s Chips. “We fry separately red bliss potatoes, sweet potatoes and purple potatoes usually from North Carolina, plantains and malanga, a type of taro root that can be as big as a thigh. When I first saw a malanga at the DeKalb Market outside Atlanta, it said, ‘Make me into a chip.’ So I did.”
Chestnut also serves housemade chips made from Yukon gold and red bliss potatoes tossed in a mustard seasoning.
Scully recognizes that a homemade chip is simply further up the food chain than a mass-made one. “You take a basic product and finesse it into something really special — and as simple as chips next to a burger.”
Jeff Miller, owner and chef — or as his employees call him, “proprietor and pit boss” — of Luella’s Bar B Que on Merrimon Avenue, focuses on frying up North and South Carolina sweet potato chips seasoned with the restaurant’s spicy brisket rub, sweetened a bit. “Chips are such a simple way to put snacks on the table that are from the region,” he says.
Home Chip-Making: Pleasure or Peril?
Although cultures worldwide savor crisp fried snacks — think Latin American corn chips or Indian kerala plantain chips — enjoying them is a lot simpler than making them.
Still, Bryant says making chips is not complicated once you get the equipment you need, including a mandoline, or tool to slice the tubers thin, a heavy wok and a frying thermometer. “Then it’s so easy. You soak the raw chips in hot water and a couple tablespoons of vinegar to release the starch so the chips won’t turn dark too quickly. Then you wrap the raw chips in a towel, squeeze out the moisture and fry them in oil that’s a low -enough temperature” — 200 degrees Fahrenheit to start — “to get the moisture out before the sugar in the starch caramelizes. If you cook them at too high a heat, the chips’ exterior seals and the moisture stays inside.” Take the chips out when the oil rises to about 325-350 F.
Scully has different advice: “Don’t even mess with making your own chips. Just to make the limited amount of chips we serve, we use two 85-pound fryolaters, and enough oil to fry a suckling pig. We have one guy named William — we call him Machete because he’s a tough guy who rides a Harley — who walks in, makes our chips and then goes home. I’ll pay him whatever he wants.“