Understanding a bit of French can be useful for cooks, because so many foods and techniques are known by their French names. Unfortunately -- as with English -- some terms define very different things. For example, if you know that "pomme" is the French for apple and that "fondant" is a kind of rolled icing for cakes, you might conclude that "pomme fondant" is an apple-flavored icing, or perhaps an apple dessert. In reality, it's a richly flavored potato side dish.
The name used by the French for potatoes lies at the root of this confusion. Their term is "pommes de terre," which translates literally as "apples of the earth." Since pommes de terre is inconveniently long on a menu, it's typically shortened to pommes for day-to-day use. Hence, restaurants might offer golden rounds of pommes Anna, oniony pommes Lyonnaise or crisp, golden "pommes frites," better known as French fries. Pommes fondant, similarly, refers to earth apples rather than the tree-grown variety. The "fondant" in this case is an adjective conveying softness or tenderness, rather than the sugar-based product known to cake decorators.
The Basic Technique
As with other foods, the flavor of potatoes is greatly enriched by browning. The two processes involved, caramelization and Maillard reactions, convert simple sugars and starches into the complex, savory flavor molecules that give roasted or fried potatoes their allure. Boiling, on the other hand, causes no browning but gives potatoes a pleasurably soft texture. Pommes fondant display the best features of both techniques. They're first browned in a hot pan, then simmered in chicken broth or other liquid until perfectly tender. The broth enriches the potatoes with extra flavor of its own, and can also infuse your potatoes with the flavors of aromatic vegetables, herbs or spices.
Making Your Own
You need sturdy, "waxy" potatoes such as Yukon Gold or Bintje for pommes fondant, because russets or other "starchy" potatoes will simply dissolve and fall apart. The potatoes are traditionally trimmed slightly to a drum shape, flattened at top and bottom and gently rounded at the sides, so they'll cook evenly. Brown them first in hot oil or clarified butter, then add enough broth to immerse them roughly halfway. Season the broth with salt and pepper, a sprig of thyme, some crushed garlic, or other flavorings as desired. Simmer the potatoes, turning once, until they're completely tender. If you wish, you can strain out your flavorings and reduce the broth until it makes a fine, syrupy glaze for the potatoes.
Fondant potatoes can be used as a side dish with any meal that might ordinarily have boiled or mashed potatoes as an accompaniment. They're an ideal complement to a perfectly roasted chicken, a pairing that's common in French kitchens. Alternatively you can serve them alongside a turkey or roast beef, or spoon stewed or braised meats onto the plate alongside them. In each case, pommes fondant provide an appealingly upgraded side dish that elevates your meal above the everyday.