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Credit: Katie Lukes
personal essay

Forget Parsley — Chips Are My New Go-To Garnish

published May 26, 2021
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It was in the early months of the pandemic when I found myself slipping toward giddiness in the kitchen. By that point, I had been cooking three squares a day for four people for weeks with no end in sight, and everything was starting to look and taste like a product of the same Instagram-to-Table pipeline, running together to become a homogeneous stew of texture and flavor. Scroll, bookmark, cook, repeat. In those loopy moments of cooking fatigue, brilliance crept in and suggested in a whisper: Put chips on stuff.

In Danny Bowein’s Beef Jerky Fried Rice, a recipe I leaned on heavily to inject a bit of joy in my quarantine lunches, I realized that the most exciting ingredient was not the beef jerky I might have expected to be the hero, but instead the potato chip garnish. The surprising crunch and smack of salt gave me the edible equivalent of a high five. Could it be that more chips on more stuff could mean … more joy? I owed it to our family of four — nay, quarantiners everywhere — to find out.

Sandwiches were my first potato chip playground. I crammed some salt and vinnies in an Italian-style sub, and little fireworks exploded with each bite. Joy: Check! Presented with a quart of oysters, I tried my hand at a Po’ Boy, working some ground-up Zapp’s New Orleans’ Style Voodoo Chips into the oyster breading (plus a few more in the sandwich, for good measure), and I was rewarded with a total spice bomb that bounced off the minerality of the oysters and creaminess of the remoulade. Joy and spice endorphins: Check and check! For Utz’s Crab Chips, my personal favorite, I respected the maritime theme, using the crushed chips as a topping for a velvety crab dip, snazzed up with some fresh scallions and trout roe. Joy, elegance, chips on dips on chips inception: Check, check, checkity check!

I realized that anything breadcrumbs could do, chips could do better. Bulk up a meatball, top a cassoulet, oh god, schnitzel! But there were some lessons. A high-crunch chip like a Cape Cod or Kettle chip is best-suited for situations that demand a bit of heft — anything creamy or with big chunks of meat — whereas the practically-melt-in-your-mouth Classic Lay’s have the ideal delicacy for desserts. 

Using potato chips in sweets has a certain Tosi-esque irreverence, thanks to the potato chip and pretzel-flecked Compost Cookies the pastry chef popularized at Milk Bar. For a faster, no-bake approach, I suggest a handful of plain potato chips as a hot fudge sundae garnish, standing in for (or addition to!) salty peanuts. Chips also bring the perfect crispy texture to simple chocolate truffles. Make a batch of bittersweet chocolate ganache, let it cool, and then add crushed chips to the chocolate as you roll your truffles. There, the chips have a way of acting like a salty feuilletine and making your truffles soar beyond the sum of their parts, even though one of their parts is potato chips and the other is chocolate, and those are both pretty great parts.

Eventually, if you’re like me, you’ll get to a place where you want to bread chicken tenders with potato chips, and you should follow that instinct to a bag of your favorite barbecue chips, which do the work of creating crunch while also delivering flavor enough to spare your spice rack. And a baked potato, that blank slate of dinner potential, also has much to gain from a potato chip topping. Sour cream and onion chips are as on-theme as it gets (Molly Baz’s sour cream and onion potato salad is another example of why this works all day long), but this is a good place to test the limits with your favorite flaves — Jalapeño Kettle Chips, Carolina BBQ Utz, Bacon and Cheddar Ruffles. It’s hard to mess this up.

Once I started putting chips on everything, something happened: I stopped seeing the bottom of the bag of chips as an ending and started seeing it as the beginning of something exciting and a little joyful. It made me wonder what else I could see that way —the dust at the bottom of a box of cereal, the end of a bottle of salad dressing, or maybe even life itself.