Posts Tagged ‘natural’

A couple of weeks ago, my good friend Claudia told me she joined a delivery service for organic/local/ecological/artisanal foods.  She sent me the website information and I decided to give it a try. To my surprise, one of the partners of the company is Olga “Bebe” Casellas, a friend from adolescence whom I haven’t seen in a while.  We got in touch and I placed my first order. Like a small child in the wait list of a new toy, I showed up right on time (I was informed in an order-confirmation email, what was my date, place and pick up time, which conveniently is about 3 blocks away from my house!). This was really exciting, because in Puerto Rico organic/natural farmer markets are just starting to become a bit more popular. Local farmers that practice organic/natural/artisanal farming display and sell their goods at designated locations for a few hours a few times a month. Sometimes the time is inconvenient since it is only on weekends or coincides when we have other family or work commitments. In addition to such efforts, I feel little by little we are getting back to our roots by cooking with natural products with iniciatives and services like El Departamento de la Comida (The department of food) (click name to go to site), which acts as an on-line intermediary between small scale sustainable organic local farmers and food artisans and the people that want to get to consume their products in an easy, convenient and affordable way.  It is truly a vehicle to incorporate variety and creativity into our diet and into our lives.

During colonial times and the first half of the 19th century in Puerto Rico, it was the custom for people to go to each town’s “plaza de mercado” to buy fresh ingredients from local farmers, like many places in the world still do. As technology and progress took over our lives, the workday became longer and two income households began to flourish. Convenience, speed and practicality became the priority when it came to our food choices.  Supermarket chains substituted fresh markets to accommodate to the new generation’s wants and needs. Engineered and processed foods found their way into every household.  As a result, disease and obesity became rampant in the United States due to a high fat diet and lack of nutritional value in the foods we chose to eat most of the time. Lately, we have seen a constant shift towards wellness and a growing commitment to buying organic, natural and/or local looking to find a convergence between contributing with the environment and to obtain better quality foods. I must admit that puertorricans have been resilient to frugal life and consuming locally grown foods for a variety of reasons and I, like everyone else, struggle everyday with the choices I have available for me and my family and the time I have to get to them. It is a complex web of criteria, whether to choose local or organic, or to buy or not fruits and vegetables that are imported and not in season, what is the difference between natural and organic, what does artisanal means, etc, etc. Everything so confusing and overwhelming! Evidently,  I don’t always make the best choices!  In a nutshell, for me, the answer is to keep our food choices and cooking techniques as simple and natural as possible for everyday meals and to elaborate, include processed foods and/or a “tasty prohibitive treat” only in special occasions, as a complement to a meal or when there is no other choice. I realize it is sometimes more convenient for us to buy processed foods (between work, school, social and family activities), than to go through the “hassle” of finding good quality local ingredients and cooking them at home . Oh! How I wished we could find a way to meet somewhere in the middle of convenience and quality… until now!

Delicious artisanal local cheese made with raw cow's milk without antibiotics

As we grow more concerned about the quality of the food that we put into our bodies and on our family table, we become more demanding and more curious about by whom/where and how our  food is grown.  The connections from farm to table become part of our daily lives once we include in our lifestyle the elements of nutritional values and harmony with nature.  Local farming also builds a better sense of community by giving us a chance to cook fresh homemade meals to share with others.  From a family point of view, it brings together young and old by gathering around the kitchen to talk about the day and provide a fertile ground for little ones to ask questions, join in and help. Buying what is grown locally connects us with the earth and gives us an opportunity to be what I call “foodieventurous” and to try new recipes with the ingredients that are in season.  To my knowledge, it is a proven fact that consumers are willing to pay more for organic and good quality ingredients from a place they can point to on a map.  Knowing more about the product, its origins and who farmed it becomes a delightful story to tell your children or guests at the dinner table. This trend is not limited to the urban and the young, it covers a wide range of ages, professions and ethnicities.  From college students to Baby Boomers, everyone is becoming focused in a healthier, greener lifestyle and this group is growing by the minute. This culture includes not only the elements of recycling, excersise and meditation, but also nutrition. Home cooked dishes, (yes! even cakes, pommes frites and cookies made from scratch with fresh ingredients), are always a better alternative to take-out and fast food. Of course, they can be time consuming, but the results are definitely better!  (Note: Please, as I have mentioned before in other post, lets include the words moderation and balance in this equation, you can have the occasional Oreo cookie or favorite decadent splurge, but make it the exception and not the rule.) In addition, old fashioned recipes are becoming popular again and regional food is celebrated as you can see in many restaurants, food and lifestyle magazines.  This trend is here to stay and is not going anywhere!

As I picked up my assorted box of natural, organic and artisanal products from El Departamento de la Comida at my assigned pick-up station, I orchestrated this week’s menu in my head.  When I got home, I started to pull out from my box fresh focaccia bread, okra (guingambó, kimbombó), sweet potato, arugula, aji dulce, curry leaves, lemon grass, jicama, papaya, artisanal local cow’s milk cheese (absolutely delicious!) and eggplant which were included in this week’s harvest.  So exciting to create a dish with what is available as opposed to going to the supermarket to buy the ingredients for a recipe…a rare challenge and a gift for a foodie like me!  So this week, I will probably have arugula salad with homemade vinaigrette and papaya slices and cucumber with focaccia croutons, roasted okra, pasta with arugula and butter sauce, jicama oven fries, sauteed eggplant with mashed sweet potato, lemon grass tea (to relieve stress and sleep better)… yummy, recipes coming in the near future, I promise! I still have to figure out what to do with the curry leaves, maybe you can give me some ideas.  Definitely, for breakfast, I will make a papaya smoothie for the kids and some more warm focaccia bread.  I was also pleased to find in my box an information sheet which includes a detailed list of the week’s harvest and what is available in season, of the pick up locations, time and days (covers most of the island), cooking suggestions, general information about the products (fresh artisanal breads and cheeses as well as for the fruits, herbs and vegetables), and a friendly reminder to return your box to your pick up place in order to help the environment and waive a $5.00 charge.  I am looking forward to seeing what next week’s box has to offer to my dinner table and will continue to support what is good and local.  We are all connected in the circle of life, lets each of us do our part in promoting a better and healthier community.


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For a couple of years I have been daydreaming about visiting Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York. Every time I read a new article about the farm or about its renowned restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, my imagination started to fly and wished one day I could visit this place and eat at the restaurant.  An unexpected trip to New York City came up and I found myself looking for my computer to contact Stone Barns and arrange a visit.

As one would imagine, the Blue Hill at Stone Barns Restaurant was fully booked. It turns out that if you want to go to have dinner at this restaurant, you must make reservations exactly two months ahead of time!  The hostess I spoke to was kind enough to give me some pointers and told me that they had a full service bar area with a first come first serve policy and if we arrived early (meaning when they opened at 5pm), we had a good chance of having dinner at Blue Hill’s bar. So I arranged our visit in a way that we could enjoy nature, tour the property, and sample what the farm had to offer.

pain quotidien

grand central station

Everything turned out better than planned! It was on a Saturday morning in late May that my mother, my friend Maryse and I had a delicious organic breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien in Manhattan ( 922 7th ave. corner 58th st. ) and immediately headed to Grand Central Station to catch the next train to Tarrytown.  Once we got off the taxi cab and entered Grand Central Station to catch the Metro North line, I felt bombarded with “food stimuli” as we walked through a large arched hallway that lead to the train tracks filled with endless stations of food specialties on both sides for the convenience of daily commuters.  I though I had died and gone to heaven!  Anyway, we took the 11:45 am train in which we could appreciate beautiful views of the Hudson River.  Tarrytown is a quaint village about 25 miles north of Manhattan, near Sleepy Hollow, where Washington Irving’s story was inspired.  Once we got to Tarrytown,  we hopped into a cab to Pocantico Hills, where the farm is located (about a ten minute ride).

Stone Barns is located in Pocantico Hills, a hamlet in the town of Mount Pleasant, on 80 acres of Rockefeller’s Park Reserve (4,000 acres in total). Once you start walking around the property, you get a sense of freedom and community.  I noticed many visitors bring their dogs, families with small children, and couples, maybe on a first date, but we all had one thing in common and that was to enjoy the outdoors, get away from the city and learn first hand about sustainable farming. Dan Barber, executive chef and creator of the concept of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and co-owner of Blue Hill Restaurants, has been promoting for many years the concept that people should be more conscious about their food choices and how those choices affect your health.  The farm is a non-profit center for food and agriculture education and for city dwellers to come learn about the farm-table connections. They even have a camp for children to get their hands dirty and learn about farming and growing good food.

maremma sheepdog

We arrived early, so we had time to take a walk on our own towards the livestock areas of the farm since our tour would be focused on vegetable farming.  On our way to the open hilly pasture fields, we could reckon the fringe of the forest of the Rockefeller Park Reserve which surrounds the farm. Further ahead, we began to see little white heads popping from the tall grass.  They where a group of sheep guarded by a docile Maremma Sheepdog, and italian breed of dogs with a thick white coat that protect sheep from predators. Then we walked towards the grass-fed cattle. On the way, we also saw Berkshire pigs resting in the shadow of a large tree, natural honey being harvested and lastly, we visited the free range chicken coops.

free range chickens

At 2 pm, our tour met at the farm’s courtyard which is surrounded by the Blue Hill Cafe, Blue Hill Restaurant, event rooms and the Stone Barns gift shop.  The building is made of gray slate stone,  hence its name, and is also available for private events. At the farm, they don’t harvest seeds.  Instead, they buy them from heirloom seed banks. The farms crops and products are sold to the Blue Hill Restaurants (the original Blue Hill Restaurant is in Greenich Village in New York City) and Café, at their farmer market on weekends and if there are any leftovers, sold at other farmer markets no further than 250 miles away, to comply with the Locavore (those who prefer to purchase locally produced goods and services) movement.


farmer at work

cornstarch tarps to protect crop and prevent weeds

where compost tea is "brewed"

First, stop was the four acre farming area which is seeded according to the four seasons and with an 8 year rotation system.  I was told by our tour guide, that spinach and winter greens taste better when planted in the winter because in order to strive they turn starch into sugar yielding sweeter greens. Crop rotation is a practice that promotes a more fertile soil, diminishes pests and pathogens and obtains better yields.  The dissimilar crops are rotated every year to replenish nutrients in the soil.  For example, in the area where crops like nitrogen-hungry spinach was harvested, nitrogen-replenishers like legumes are used as fertilizer or as the next crop.  In addition, what they call Compost-tea is produced on the farm with the restaurant scraps, organic material, non-edibles and farm and forest leaves to fertilize the soil. As you walk though the field you notice a dark “plastic” that covers some parts of the crop which is actually a tarp made of cornstarch used to prevent weeds and protect the crop. Throughout the farm there is a marriage of old style farming tradition and modern technology in order to produce the best outcomes without the need of artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics and/or pesticides. Garlic, onion, spinach, beets, potatoes, carrots, grapes, tomatoes among others, are grown at Stone Barns. It is from the top of the small hill where the vegetables are farmed where you glance over your shoulder and get a majestic view of the barn with a beautiful small garden which, we were told, is a tea garden.

view of stone barns from the 4 acre vegetable field

view of the half acre green house

Furthermore, we had the chance to tour the awesome half acre greenhouse. The seeds are planted into the soil (instead of raised beds) and has a sophisticated irrigation system.  Everything planted in this hi-tech greenhouse is for consumption and follows a 2 year rotation.  It has automatic sensors that open up when it gets too hot or at the time of day it needs direct sunlight.  We had a chance to sample some arugula and enjoyed the aroma of rosemary.  As an interesting fact, in the summer, the yield is about 300 pounds of greens per week.  Also, we took a quick look at a small cabin where they dry herbs.   Nearby, there is a chicken slaughter house and a livestock slaughter house where the stress-free pastured animals are taken to be turned into the ingredients used to delight patrons at the Blue Hill Restaurants. Everything in the farm is grown for food in a natural way. However, they have not been certified by an organic food organization and do not seek to. In addition, there is an area in the woods where the pigs that are for procreation are kept.

We had a couple of hours to kill after the tour, so we took a break for our tired little feet to rest at the Blue Hill Café where you can find outdoor communal tables for visitors to relax and sample some of what the farm has to offer.  Everything there is compostable or recyclable and the waste bins are clearly labled.  Even my water cup was fully compostable!  I had a savory potato focaccia as a snack and enjoyed a lively conversation with Maryse and my mother about what we had just seen and heard. In addition, we met a couple from upstate New York who came to the property to learn how to expand their family farm into a sustainable and eco-friendly local business.  Later, we curiously watched as the guests of a wedding arrived and as the visiting farmers and natural foods bakers packed after a long day selling their goods.

Finally, fifteen minutes before 5 in the afternoon! We entered the Blue Hill Restaurant at Stone Barns and immediately its friendly maitre d’ came over to greet us.  As I explained that we didn’t have a reservation, that we wished to have dinner at the bar, he was still gracious enough to invite us to take a view at the empty grand salon where the people that had made reservations two months in advance would have dinner that evening.  It was a medium sized room with high ceilings, bright, simple and crisp white linens.  He asked where we were from and started telling me stories about how much he liked Puerto Rico and the places he had visited in Condado, Ponce and Isla Verde.  Finally, he brought us to our seats at the bar near the fireplace and we met our waiter/bartender.

menu of ingredients available that day

At Blue Hill many drinks are made with natural rhubarb sugar which we saw our bar tender use to prepare virgin cosmopolitans and the Mojitos ordered by the couple sitting next to us.  My mom and I ordered red wine.  Then, our waiter proceeded to explain how things are done at the restaurant.  First, he brought us a menu with a list of all the ingredients available that day.  Then he asked if we were having the 3 ($55), 5 ($105) or 8 ($175) course meal. We chose the 5 course meal and although pricey, the experience was worth every penny.  Finally he asked us what we don’t want or can’t eat from the list in the menu and to choose a preference from the two alternatives for appetizer, main course and dessert.  The way our meal was prepared and the “amuse-bouche” in between, were entirely up to the chef’s desires.  This gave the whole experience an element of surprise and excitement. Everyone, according to their tastes and selection of ingredients, got different servings. Ah, and we got the best view from the bar, because from our seats we could watch the kitchen staff work their magic! Fantastic!

switzi city spritzer and mixed greens

button head mushrooms burgers amuse-bouche

amuse-bouche of aparagus and sesame seeds

The first thing we tasted was called a Switzi City Spritzer, a sparkling concoction that had Anise flavor. The next waiter brought (yes, there was a different waiter for each entré!) a selection strange greens sprayed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper staked in a wooden base with nails.  They were crunchy, fresh and delicious. On the other hand, our neighbors got baby carrots and greens for this course. In addition, since asparagus and mushrooms were in season, we were served “amuse-bouche” of asparagus tips dipped in egg batter and covered with sesame seeds and mini hamburgers made of a mix of button mushrooms, garlic and herbs with sweet bread.  Following, the first course was served in a glass bowl.  A salad of mixed seasonal greens, parsnips, rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries and flowers like johnny jump up violets and broccoli flower with a foamy goat cheese-yogurt dressing.  At this moment, a selection of flavored salts ( asparagus, carrot and black trumpet mushroom) was placed in front of us to sprinkle over the butter on the heavenly caramelized onion bread.

mixed greens, flowers, fruits and vegetable salad with goat cheese yogurt dressing

flavored salts and butter for bread

black sea bass

poached egg with mushrooms

peruvian purple potato gnocchi in lettuce broth


The second serving was a black sea bass (some ingredients are outsourced if they cannot be found in the farm) in a bed of sauteed greens with fresh chives and a delicate butter-white wine sauce. Next, was a poached egg served in a “green soup” with sauteed button mushrooms, onions and garlic. Since Maryse couldn’t eat egg, she was brought peruvian purple potato gnocchi with spinach broth and shiitake mushrooms. She loved it! Fourth was a piece of farm raised Berkshire pork which seemed to be tenderloin.  However, our waiter didn’t confirm or deny if it was a pork tenderloin.  What he did say was that sometimes other pieces of the natural, stress-free pork, if butchered and cut properly and cooked delicately or with special techniques like “sous-vide” (sealed in a vacuum in low heat for a long period),  the meat cuts will become as smooth as tenderloin.  Whatever cut it was, it was tender indeed and full of flavor served with morel mushrooms, asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, red vein sorrel, chives and chickpeas with a sultry butter-wine sauce. Finally, for dessert I was served a chocolate-hazelnut crunch bar with ice cream, cocoa nib and caramel.  Presentation and service was superb.  The creativity and quality of the food was exquisite.

Bar at Blue Hill Restaurant at Stone Barns

After some tea and almost 2 hours of delectable dining and wonderful company, we headed back to the Tarrytown train station. On our way to the station, we passed the Union Church at Pocantico Hills where there is one Matise and several Chagall stained glass windows and enjoyed beautiful water views.  During our train ride back to New York City were felt satisfied both emotionally and physically. Running south on the east bank of the Hudson River, I admired the sunset and reflected on the wonderful opportunity we had that day to slow down and recharge in communion with nature and simplicity.

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I don’t know why it feels so good to get your hands dirty with soil and plant herbs in your home.  It can be done in apartments or houses and there is no doubt that dishes prepared with fresh herbs are more aromatic, colorful and savory.  I have had success stories as well as disasters with my gardening, but I keep going at it.

I have mentioned in previous posts that I have a fresh herb garden.  It was not very pretty, rather a bit wild, so last Monday I worked on it with my daughter to make it look appealing and more organized .   We transplanted the rosemary and oregano to pots and sowed new seeds for sweet basil, cilantro and italian parsley.   I have not been very lucky with my sweet basil, but have high hopes this time around.  I must tell you it is not an organic garden yet, but I am working on getting organic top soil and making compost in the near future when I start a bedding for my vegetable garden.

I was looking for a cool way to lable my herb garden when, tadah!!! Martha Stewart “personally” sent me an email with a great idea!  Ja, ja!!  So I went with the kids to my backyard and started looking for rocks approximately the size of the palm of their hands. We found really beautiful quarz-like smooth rocks that problably I had thrown away from a nice flower centerpiece I got as a present or something like that, because they where very different from the rest of the rocks in my backyard. Anyway, they were lovely,  so I took out a blue Sharpie and started to lable my herb garden. Turned out so nice and really pretty! Tomorrow Cristina and I will soil our hands to teach the girls in our Girl Scout Troop to pot and care for cherry tomatoes. By doing this, we will try to plant a seed in the hearts and minds of the next generation to love and care for our Planet and all living things.

Have a nice Earth Day!

Meet Rosemary. Ja! You can see Culantro (recao) in the back on the ground starting to spread its seeds.

Recao- Culantro

Sweet Basil starting to grow

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Our trip to Beaver Creek, Colorado last winter was a great success!  Even though our planes were delayed and cancelled on our departure date and our son had a snowboarding accident on the first day of skiing, we had a wonderful vacation.  As always, the first day was dedicated to grocery shopping, getting to know the village, organizing luggage and clothing, getting the kids to calm down about their excitement of being in a place with snow and having the ski equipment fitted to each person. We are very grateful to our travel advisor, Beatriz Martinez from Ski a la Carte, that she suggested Venture Sports delivery service.  They were on time and very patient with our group of eight, visited us at our apartment and did all the fittings in the comfort of our living room.  The two bedroom apartment that we rented along with the Fuertes family in Centennial Lodge was amazing! Big kitchen, porch with a view, cozy chimney, two large bedrooms, three full bathrooms, sofa bed, ski storage, daily cleaning service, complimentary breakfast and walking distance to the slopes.

My parents took me skiing for the first time when I was 9 years old to Sugarbush, Vermont and I have loved the sport ever since. The Beaver Creek Mountain was well groomed and not crowded at all. It was fun for the whole family.  Our five-year old daughter is a natural skier and fearless little girl.  She went down the mountain like a pro! Very proud of her.

Most of the nights we stayed in and my husband and I cooked for the whole crew.  We made risotto, veal saltimbocca, mustard chicken, salads, roasted vegetables, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, tortilla española, arancini, pasta with shrimp, new york steaks and jasmine rice with vegetables among others. Sometimes for lunch, we would go back to the apartment for left overs or pizza.  Other days, we went to 8100 Bar at the Park Hyatt Hotel where I tried a delicious selection of cheeses.  My favorites were the Sno Drop , with a creamy texture and mild taste and the Bleu cheese paired with a homemade strawberry jam, a blend of flavors that explode in your mouth. I also tried the mushroom soup which was delicious and mini-pizzas with goat cheese, chicken and bbq sauce.  The kids had beef sliders with homemade french fries, homemade ketchup and garlic mayo,  Yummy! The kids also loved making smores at the fire pit in front of the Hyatt where everyday at 4 pm they had a complimentary selection of marshmallows, chocolates and graham crackers for everyone to enjoy.

One night, we had dinner at Beaver Creek Chophouse.  I ordered shrimp with polenta as the main dish but what I liked the most was my appetizer; pommes frites with white truffle oil and parsley. The combination of flavors was amazing!!!  So earthy and aromatic. The chocolate cake was delicious too. Also,the kids had a blast with the in-house illusionist.  Another highlight of the vacation was having dinner at Beano’s Cabin.  It is a 15 minute freezing cold ride to get there in their big sleigh pulled by a huge snow plow half way up the mountain, but once you get there you feel right at home.  It has such a cozy and warm atmosphere with live 70’s american music (Cat Stevens, Carly Simon, James Taylor, etc.).  We made reservations for an early dinner (5:30pm)  because the later seating doubles in price. Our whole experience was delightful.  In the menu selection they had buffalo, elk, pheasant, scallops, blue nose bass, antelope, sweet potato gnocchi, saffron mashed potatoes, so it was not your traditional selection in a restaurant menu.  Of course, for the kids they had fruit salad, beef skewers, pizza, chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes and brownie a la mode.  I loved the open kitchen, chimney and the service was superb.  Another night, the Barbosa’s and Lockwood’s where kind enough to invite us over for dinner and had a great time playing cards with the “girls”.  In addition, another evening, the Cortés family delighted us with their company at our apartment and had a blast watching America’s Funniest Videos with the kids. Blue Moose Pizza was one of the places we went for lunch.  The Chupacabra pizza, with mushrooms, goat cheese, mozzarella , red onions and white truffle oil was out of this world. We also enjoyed the traditional cheese and pepperoni pizza.

Regarding “extracurricular” activities, we went snowmobile riding with Nova Guides. Our tour was at 8 am and it was great because our group was the only one there.  It was a chance for our family to enjoy nature and the views of the Vail Mountain Back Bowls were breathtaking. Our guide Chacha, took us from 8,000 to 10,500 feet above sea level. We took a break at a community log cabin in the middle of the national park and had hot chocolate and apple spiced drinks.  That afternoon we went to Vail to the Adventure Ridge Park with the Sánchez Family where we went tubing with the kids.  This was so much fun! I though this park was only for the kids, but the adults get a kick out of it too!  Thankfully, our return to Puerto Rico was smooth and simple. Happy to go home with wonderful new memories and new hopes for 2010.

Ever since we arrived back home a few months ago, I have not been able to get enough of this recipe and everyone that tries it becomes a fan. There’s nothing like homemade french fries and the white truffle oil makes them absolutely unsurpassable.  White truffle oil is expensive but worth it.  I also use it to drizzle a small quantity over my white bean cream soup and salads. So, here is my version of Natural French Fries with White Truffle Oil. Enjoy!

Natural French Fries with White Truffle Oil


2 large potatoes cut lengthwise (long and thin)

canola or peanut oil for frying

2 tbsp fresh parsley

2 cloves of garlic (mashed) optional

3 generous pinches fleur de sel or kosher salt (one for garlic mash and two for sprinkling over fried potatoes)

drizzle of white truffle oil


1.  Wash potatoes and cut lengthwise.  Place in a bowl with salt and water.  This will take some of the starch out so that they don’t stick too much during frying and become crispier.

2.  Pour  canola or peanut oil in medium-large heavy bottom saucepan (enough to cover potato sticks). Heat in med-hi.

3.  Once the oil is very hot, drain potatoes, tap them dry with paper towel and begin to fry.

4.  Meanwhile, in a mortar and pestle, mash garlic with dash of salt.  Add finely chopped parsley and mix with a spoon.

5.  Once french fries are golden brown remove from pan and drain excess oil by placing them in paper towel for a few minutes.

6.  Transfer french fries to a bowl or large plate sprinkle evenly with parsley-garlic mixture, salt and white truffle oil.  Serve immediately.

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