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Food Forum

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In & Out of the Kitchen: Tasty imitations

Having lived as a single man for the bulk of my adult life, I consider myself to be an expert on bachelor cooking.

In my younger years, my cupboards were filled with the staples of a single man’s existence — Ramen noodles, boxed macaroni and cheese, canned tuna and the like — and I had every halfway-decent pizza place in town on speed dial. The most difficult thing I ever made for dinner back then was reservations.

As I got a little older, I learned to cook a few more complicated meals, mainly as a way to impress a date by being able to cook her a nice dinner, but my lack of patience — and money — made that a very infrequent occurrence.

I wish I could say I had evolved into at least a competent cook over the years, but that would be a lie. I have come to enjoy that bastion of masculinity known as barbecuing, but I leave the (more complicated) preparation of the all-important side dishes to my significant other.

Another area where I took an interest was more the result of necessity. As anyone with children will tell you, time and money — or, more appropriately, the lack thereof — make dining out a much-less-frequent happening once you take up family life.

The days of going on a whim to one of my favorite restaurants (and I know true connoisseurs will frown on this, but I prefer chain restaurants like Outback and Olive Garden because I know what to expect when I walk in the door) are long gone. And before I met my bride-to-be, that meant an existence built around those bachelor staples (with dinners out reserved for weekends with my children because I would never subject them to a single man’s diet).

That all changed a couple of years ago, when, on a whim, I decided to try to improve on one of those staples. I have been tweaking my recipe for tuna salad for decades, but never achieving my goal of duplicating what is used at Subway restaurants. When I turned to the all-knowing Google, it pointed me to a host of websites that offer so-called “secret” recipes like that for Subway’s tuna salad and McDonald’s Big Mac sauce, and a new cooking passion was born.

What started out as a way to save money soon became a passion. If I found a dish on one of my infrequent nights out, I was on the Internet as soon as I got home (or on my phone these days), trying to find out how to duplicate it. My personal favorite is Top Secret Recipes at, where Todd Wilbur has been sharing secret recipes for almost as long as there has been an Internet.
My interest grew from there to try to imitate other, not-so-secret recipes I come across at less-well-known restaurants, parties and even dinners at a friend’s home. That brings us to Saratoga Race Course, where, as a single man, I was once a regular, but now I am just able to make an annual visit with my soon-to-be better half and my 6-year-old twins.

From the minute I read that they would be introducing a new treat known as Montreal poutine at this year’s meet, I knew that would be the first stop on our annual visit. Poutine, essentially, is that old bar food staple, fries and gravy, with cheese curd on top, with or without any of a host of other toppings.
Sure enough, as soon as we walked onto the grounds (conveniently right at lunchtime), with the kids ravenously hungry after the hourlong drive, we made a beeline to the stand near the Carousel and got a large order of their Meat Lover’s variety, which featured piles of sausage, ground beef and bacon atop the fries, Montreal gravy and cheese.

Even my daughter, the pickiest of eaters, tore through them and asked for more. At that moment, I knew I had my next challenge when we got home. The next day, I asked the kids if they wanted Daddy to barbecue or make some poutine, and the answer was instantaneous.

After sitting down for a few minutes, I came up with a quick recipe, and we headed to the store for a few of the things we didn’t have around the house. Less than an hour after we got home, we were tearing through another huge batch, and a new tradition was born for weekends with the kids.

I couldn’t find some of the ingredients I needed at the local Walmart, so I made some substitutions, but the recipe below includes the proper items along with what I used as substitutes.

Meat lover’s poutine
1 bag (16 ounces) frozen french fries
5 sweet sausage links
1 pound ground beef
1 jar (2.8 ounces) bacon pieces (NOT those fake bacon bits)
1 jar (12 ounces) pork gravy (I couldn’t find Montreal gravy at Walmart and didn’t realize at the time that it is just brown gravy)
1⁄2 of an 8-ounce bag shredded mild cheddar cheese (I couldn’t find cheese curd, but the shredded cheese worked out well because I melted it into the gravy to give it a little more consistency)

Bake or fry the french fries as directed on the package. Parboil the sausage 5 to 7 minutes, then cut into bite-size pieces (do not discard water from pan). Brown ground beef in water (again, about 5 to 7 minutes), then mix in the sausage and bacon. Simmer over medium heat 15 to 20 minutes. Drain off the water and pour in the gravy. Let simmer another 5 minutes. Pour in the cheese and heat until the cheese melts into the gravy. Spoon over french fries and serve.

Serves two adults and two hungry 6-year-olds.

Now, if only I could duplicate the recipe for a few winners next summer at Saratoga.

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