Riding the gravy train to Kzoo's Canadiana Fest: Healthy poutine? You bet!Wild Mushroom Gravy Poutine recipe from Chef Channon Mondoux

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

I grew up in a French Canadian household and my earliest memories are of seeing my Memé (grandma) cooking at the kitchen table. I desperately wanted to help. Chubby fingers pointing, pigtails bouncing, I couldn't contain my excitement. Looking back, I am forever grateful to my Memé for the patience and love she shared with me through her cooking.   

She taught me to cook by feel and allowed me to develop skills in understanding how texture and flavors combine without cooking from recipes. Under her tutelage, she helped me to trust myself, my tactile senses, the qualities of the food, and the ingredient's relationship to me —not just as words and amounts on a page. This was my grounding to develop an intuitive sense of how to put food together, a skill that lent itself well to my work in culinary history. Her methods are what I use to teach others to cook — and in that same spirit, how this dish was created.

Poutine, a family staple — from mess to meal

In our home, it was customary to serve French fries with gravy, as it was across the country. I can recall taking a plate of it onto the front porch and sitting in a little red rocker, enjoying every drop, wiping up the lingering drops of gravy with the last French fry. Poutine, as it’s known today, is that plus some. 

The word “poutine” means “mess” in French Canadian. The story is that it was created in the 1950s by a French Canadian restaurateur named Fernand LaChance in Quebec when he was asked by a customer to add cheese curds to his take-out container of French fries and gravy. Lachance reportedly replied, “ça va te faire une maudite poutine!” (“That will make a damned mess!”) and the name stuck.  But this dish didn’t become popular in English-speaking Canada until the 1980s or 90s. 

The following recipe, Wild Mushroom Gravy, and Savory Streusel Vegan Poutine was created so that I could enjoy poutine with less guilt. Traditional poutine is made with fries and country cheese curds drenched in dark rich beef gravy (the curds, by the way, are best if they “squeak”). Best served piping hot, the gravy is expected to help soften the curds and produce a stringy, melty, beefy mouthful.

A filling entrée to be sure, Poutine has become incredibly popular in the United States, with many variations and styles on menus around the country. Some versions include adding smoked meats, seafood, and even a fried egg on top (which to me is complete overkill).

Many other cheeses than the traditional cheese curds can be used, and creative chefs are even changing up the gravy with anything from curry spices to Mexican flavors — or *GASP* using TATER TOTS instead of fries!  Actually, Tater Tots are really good too — it all depends on the execution. 

Want to find some local Poutine? Try checking out the “World Champine Poutine Competition” at the upcoming Canadiana Fest on October 7 at Arcadia Creek Festival Place. Get your passport and try all 7 entries.

Pronunciation and more

Traditionally, Poutine (pronounced poo-tin by the Quebec French, with the emphasis on the last syllable, not Poo’tin as in Putin) is made with French fries dabbed with cheese curds and drenched in rich beef gravy. As delicious as that sounds to meat eaters, it is not only incredibly high in calories (as much as 1100 calories and over 50% calories from fat) but also means a good portion of the population who might like to enjoy something a little less artery hardening and a lot more animal friendly wouldn't find it appetizing. My Wild Mushroom version comes in at approximately 637 calories and has 32% of the calories from fat. It has more protein and fiber as well and still delivers a flavor sensation. 

Wild Mushroom Gravy and Savory Streusel Vegan Poutine

I created this recipe to be able to enjoy one of Canada’s most famous dishes and have made it so that it is as low-calorie, gluten-free, and as healthy as it can be. Although this recipe utilizes wild foraged mushrooms, you can easily use cultivated options.

Mushrooms provide a very meaty flavor and texture to any dish; here is no exception. As we build flavor to replicate the beef gravy traditionally used in French Canadian Poutine, I supplement with caramelized onions, garlic, and a touch of smoky paprika. You can use a combination of dried and fresh mushrooms, wild and cultivated as available. I have made this using wild harvested and dried Chicken of the Woods, Oyster, and Hen of the Woods Mushrooms as well as cultivated cremini. 

Any of the stronger-flavored mushrooms are best. I would not waste Lion's Mane or Chanterelles on this dish for instance.  If you're choosing cultivated mushrooms consider using Cremini, Portabello, or plain button mushrooms but be sure to caramelize your onions, mushrooms, and garlic well for flavor. If you're using dried mushrooms, the soaking water will be used as a part of your gravy so be sure to strain it well and reserve.  

If you’d like to source your own mushrooms, I highly recommend a class in identifying mushroom types or going to the local farmers market where many farmers have done all the work for you. Nabe Shin, for instance regularly has wild foraged mushrooms from the area of over 300 acres of wetlands and forests around the Bonemago Farm and has them available at her stand at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market. Just look for Bonemago Farms and Nabe’s smiling face. 

Another excellent local mushroom source is Zazu Mushrooms, which is a mushroom farm in Mattawan. Owners Zach and Jackie Alkhamis offer a variety of cultivated mushrooms available for pick up at the Texas Township, Portage, Kalamazoo, and Fulton Street Farmers Markets (see website for details).

When it comes to cheese, nothing really beats the stretchy, melty goodness of a classic cheese curd. However, for the sake of having a vegan option, I’ve tried a few different “cheese” products. I have yet to find one that genuinely mimics the original, but Myokos Cashew Mozzarella is as close as it comes. It is also a healthier “cheese” as it is made from nuts, not coconut oil but that may not be an option for you if you are allergic to nuts. If that is the case, try out your favorite vegan cheese —I don’t think you will be disappointed. 

World Champine Poutine CompettionTM at Canadiana Fest

No matter what your poutine preferences are, you will find something pleasing at the upcoming “World Champine Poutine CompetitionTM” during the Canadiana Fest or at any number of restaurants that are now carrying it on the menu. The Canadiana Fest will feature a truly international competition for the “Golden Gravy Ladle” Trophy.  
At the festival, you can taste the offerings by Brooklyn St. Local a Poutinerie (Poutine restaurant) coming from Brooklyn, Michigan in Detroit’s Corktown Neighborhood. Deveri and Jason Gifford, owners, chefs, and French Canadians originally from Toronto, Ontario will be serving up several versions including a vegan one.

In addition, Cesar Ayala-Orellana and Delmy Orellana will be creating a Salvadorian version at Casa de Los Abuelos GR,  a curry version by Chef Reid Nadoo at Curry in a Hurry, meaty version by Motor Mouth Food Truck, a smoky version by Kevin Christensen at Final Gravity Brewing, a top-secret version by the chefs at Firekeepers Casino and a yet to be named version by the combined Millennium Group Center St. Taphouse in Portage and The HUB Tavern & Grill Kalamazoo restaurants. 

See my recipe for Wild Mushroom Gravy Poutine in the Sidebar.

To attend a poutine-making class live, join me, Chef Channon, on Thursday, Sept. 7, or check out other options on my website.

More on the Canadiana Fest: The Canadiana Fest, a first-of-its-kind event, is the brainchild of local chef, food writer, and event creator Channon Russette-Mondoux and will be held at the Arcadia Creek Festival Place in downtown Kalamazoo on Saturday, October 7. 

"If you can't get to Canada, Canada comes to you in Kalamazoo" is the festival motto. The festival will feature four live bands including folk, jazz, and tributes of the iconic Gordon Lightfoot, as well as a classic three-hour RUSH concert at night. Seventeen food vendors will be serving up Canadian-style cuisine and hosting the World Champion Poutine Competition. 

There are cultural activities and fun things to do like live curling, lacrosse, and even getting a chance to learn Crokinole, a Canadian table board game. Costumed actors of Center Stage Kalamazoo will portray famous Canadians and wander the park engaging in character. You can even compete to win a destination package to Caesar's Windsor in the Canadian Cosplay Contest so you can dress as your favorite Canadian.

The Canadian-style beer garden will offer craft brews and classic Canadian-style beers, wines, and other options. The Canadian values will go beyond music, food, and culture, to love and kindness by benefitting the South Michigan Food Bank and the Educational Scholarship Fund of the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation.

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Read more articles by Channon Mondoux.

Channon Mondoux is a published author, food historian, and local food chef. Her work reflects decades of experience in private and commercial kitchens, having food adventures that have taken her across the country and places beyond. She is an avid historical re-enactor who puts her culinary skills to work by creating dishes from bygone eras as well as reinventing modern cuisine using time-honored traditions. A native of Windsor, Ontario, Canada she is married to Dan and has three sons.