Cuisine, by the way, originally just denoted the kitchen. So I'm inviting you into the French kitchen to look at some of the facets of French food that make it so renowned. Maybe French is not your favorite romantic cuisine, but it qualifies in my house, and we've had several things French this week for dinner.
Are you thinking that French is too tricky to make easily? Sure there are some advanced techniques, I guess, and apparently a whole pantry full of specialty supplies and food molds to make things the right way, with the correct shape: molds like bombe, brioche, madeleine, cassoulet, parfait, savarin, petit-fours, charlotte and many more. A French cook's batterie de cuisine can include an implement designed for every conceivable food preparation task.
But the real secret, I think, is far simpler.
It's the use of high quality and fresh ingredients. Not to mention the judicious use of local wines and liquors. So I advise getting the best and freshest ingredients possible, and if you can't . . .well a more free use of wine while involved in the food preparation will make it all good, anyway.
And no shortcuts, unfortunately, because French cooking does not adapt well to the fast-food nation that we know here.
Fresh local ingredients vary across the French countryside, leading to regional specialties: look for butter-and-cream based cuisine in the north, in Normandy (and apples!) and around the Île-de-France. In north-eastern France, in the Alsace, foods reflect a more German influence, including pâtés, sauerkraut, pork sausage and geese. In Burgundy and central France, charollais beef and fruit from the vineyards produce dishes like boeuf à la borguignonne and pot-au-feu. Not to mention Dijon mustard. On the south coast, Provence luxuriates in olive oil, fresh herbs, seafood, and garlic. Foies gras and truffles are notable in south-central France. In the southwest, cassoulets are common with white beans and sausage.
Of course, much of the reputation of French food was erected on the edifice of Haute cuisine — literally "high cuisine" which took root in l’ancien régime during the 17th century under chefs like François Pierre de la Varenne (1618 –1678). A book La Varenne wrote contains the earliest reference to making a roux. Of course, use of roux became a standard production in sauces that are even now a staple of French cooking.
Another famous technique rooted in French cooking is the use of a marinade to infuse flavor and increase tenderness in meat. This was first mentioned in 1691 in a book by chef de cuisine François Massialot (1660–1733.)
Perhaps best known of the early chefs who cooked for the aristocracy and the wealthy was Marie-Antoine Carême (1784–1833). His career started with work at a patisserie, and he made some amazingly elaborate confections for his powerful clients. But he should be better known for his efforts at refinement of French national cuisine.
To him we owe the idea of creating sauces as a foundation to which other ingredients could be added. He called them "mother" sauces, and you know some of them which are still recognized in many recipes today, including velouté, béchamel, and hollandaise sauces. He apparently also introduced creation of soufflés to the world of cuisine.
After perusing a menu for a royal dinner produced under the auspices of Carême, I think his food is too incredibly elaborate, ornate, and rich to want to eat much of it. But his work was once seen as simplification of earlier styles of cooking for the haute monde.
Some of the standard sauces found in French recipes today--
béarnaise: a reduction of vinegar, tarragon and shallots that is finished with egg yolks and butter. It is similar to hollandaise. ["Don't get saucy with me, Béarnaise . . ." from History of the world, part I]
béchamel: a white roux with added milk or cream.
espagnole: a classic brown sauce, typically made from brown stock, mirepoix (a culinary combination of onions, carrots and celery), and tomatoes, and thickened with roux.
hollandaise: an emulsion of lemon juice and butter held together and stabilized by egg yolks. It is served hot with vegetables, fish, and eggs. Think of Eggs Benedict.
rémoulade: a mix of mayonnaise, mustard, capers, chopped gherkins, herbs, and anchovies.
roux: a combination of flour and a fat --often butter. Roux is perhaps the best known liaison. A roux can be white, blond, or brown, depending on ingredients and cooking time.
velouté: a mixture of a white roux with white stock (light chicken or veal stock).
All sauces need a liaison, or binding agent as their base. Sometimes this is called a binder, and may use egg yolks, or butter, flour, even puréed vegetables. Many sauces use the technique of reduction to attain their consistency. This results from rapidly boiling a liquid (like stock, wine, or a sauce) and causing evaporation, therefore "reducing" the sauce. The reduction is thicker and has a more intense flavor than the original liquid.
"An essential point in the making of sauces is the seasoning, and it would be impossible for me to lay too much stress on the importance of not indulging in any excess in this respect. It too often happens that the insipidness of a badly-made sauce is corrected by excessive seasoning; this is an absolutely deplorable practice" --Escoffier in a 1920s cookbook.
Beginning in the luxe life of the Gilded Age, renowned chef Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935) can be credited for several aspects of modern restaurant food which continue today. He worked in some of the greatest hotel kitchens of the time, such as London's Savoy, and implemented a style of food production, called the brigade system, with five separate stations of food preparation. These were the garde manger where cold dishes were prepared; the entremettier which prepared soups, vegetables and desserts; the saucier where sauces were prepared; the rôtisseur prepared roasts, grilled and fried dishes; and the pâtissier prepared all pastry items. Before this working style was implemented, one chef was responsible for any particular dish from beginning to end of its preparation—a much more time-consuming and inefficient style of kitchen management.
Escoffier established cleanliness standards in all his kitchens, a major revolution at that time. He taught his cooking staff to respect the wholesomeness of the food they prepared. He also simplified and organized the modern menu and the structure of the meal. His Livre des Menus, published in 1912, adapted the so-called service à la russe style, which included serving meals in separate courses on individual plates to diners at restaurants. We take that form of service for granted these days. Escoffier also invented various dishes which became French classics, such as Pêche Melba and Crêpes Suzette.
Perhaps his gastronomic style can be summed up as "above all, keep it simple," since he was also credited with establishing refined simplicity in food preparation as the standard, and in maintaining the quality of the food by avoiding over-preparation. In this, he laid the groundwork for the Nouvelle cuisine movement which come to the fore in France during the 1970s. Among the chefs who made it renowned were Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, and Michel Guérard.
The group of chefs who created the nouvelle cuisine movement established a set of guidelines, many of which still remain important for food nutrition and quality. They 1.) rejected excessive complication in cooking, making simplicity a goal. 2.) reduced cooking times to preserve the natural flavors, especially for fish, seafood, game birds, veal, green vegetables and pâtés. (Use of steam cooking aided this goal.) 3.) prepared food with the freshest possible ingredients. 4.) favored reduction of large menus to shorter menus. 5.) eliminated use of strong marinades for meat and game. 6.) eliminated use of heavy sauces such as espagnole and those thickened with flour based roux, in favor of seasoning their dishes with fresh herbs, quality butter, lemon juice, and vinegar. 7.) rejected adaptation of haute cuisine in favor of inspiration from local and regional dishes. 8.) used new technology accompanied by new techniques where desirable. This included use of microwaves ovens, for instance. 9.) paid attention to the dietary needs of diners and adapted their dishes to meet those needs. 10.) were innovative in the use of new combinations of foods and pairings of flavors. Along with all this, the value of presentation was emphasized, perhaps due to a cross-fertilization of Japanese cuisine.
Along this line, I'd like to share some recipes which are classics, but are pretty much straight-forward in preparation skills. There's a story to go with several of them.
We were staying in St. Tropez, and it was October. Lots of fine sailboats and yachts bobbed in the harbor, but no celebrities (thank goodness) and few tourists. Yet the richness of Provence was in the air, along with the luxury of leisure. After strolling around the area for some time, we settled down for dinner at the café which was part of the hotel called "La Belle Isnarde." My friend and I made identical choices from the menu. Then the next night, we went back and ordered the same items again.
I asked, in my fractured French, if it was possible to get a recipe from the chef. No, I was assured, that was not possible.
At home, some time later, I worked to recreate two recipes from that time: Moules Poulette and Veau Escalope Forêtiere. They are presented below, along with some alternative recipes, so that you can create your own menu choices. Be sure to include salad and vegetables, too.
Moules Poulette (Mussels in Cream Broth) --4-6 first-course servings
Double the recipe if you wish to make this the main course. Be sure to set around some empty bowls to collect the shells. If you eat this as finger food, finger bowls are a worthwhile finishing touch to this course, each bowl topped with a slice of fresh lemon.
about 2 quarts mussels
1 bay leaf
1 sprig parsley
1/2 shallot, peeled & minced
1 c. dry white wine
1/4 c. cream
1 egg yolk
1 T. chopped parsley
ground black pepper
Serve with: crusty French bread
Clean mussels by removing grit on outside of shells. Also remove the beards.
The old advice was that you should discard any with open or cracked shells.
This advice has been updated via research. So, if you do find a mussel open as you are getting them ready, tap the shell to see if it closes. If it doesn't close, then smell it. If it smells bad, then throw it away.
Rinse the mussels several times and place them in large heavy pan along with bay, parsley, shallot & peppercorns. Pour on the wine.
Cover the pan with a lid and heat on high, until steam starts to excape. Remove lid and lift out each mussel as the shell opens. Discard any mussels that do not open within about 5 minutes.
Remove the half-shell on the top side of each mussel and discard it. Set aside the mussels, still in bottom shells, keeping them warm and moist. Mix the cream with the egg yolk in a bowl. Add a few tablespoons of the hot wine broth & stir. Add the rest of the wine broth along with the parsley, fresh ground pepper and a dash or two of lemon juice. Return to heat until slightly thickened. Do not boil.
Divide the mussels in among the wide-mouthed soup bowls, open side up. Ladle hot broth over top. Serve slices of crusty bread for sopping up the rich broth.
Are mussels an aphrodisiac? Apparently they do have the same group of minerals as do oysters, which are lauded as aphrodisiacs, so –enjoy!
Potage Parmentier (smooth potato soup) --6-8 servings
This deceptively simple soup gained fame as sustenance for starving French peasants some centuries ago. Named for Antoine Augustin Parmentier, the man who had it served at such a soup kitchen, it makes a great first course. Parmentier, a fervent defender and promoter of the potato, a vegetable which was at that time widely distrusted by the public, has had his name linked to a number of recipes. They all contain potatoes.
3 c. leeks
3 T. butter
4 c. potatoes, peeled & chopped (red potatoes or boiling potatoes)
8 c. chicken stock
6 T. heavy cream
chopped parsley or chives
Slice the white and tender green parts of the leeks. Discard the rest. Sauté the leeks in butter.
In a Dutch oven, simmer the potatoes & leeks in stock until all are very tender--about 45 minutes. Purée the mixture, and keep it hot. You may add seasoning and salt if you must, but it doesn't need it.
When ready to serve, stir in the cream and warm through. Garnish bowls with fresh herbs as you serve it.
Then for the Main course--
Veau Escalope Forêtiere (veal scallops with mushrooms) --6 servings
One of the problems with translation of recipes from one locale to another is the differences between styles of butchering meats, for instance. The veal scallops used for this recipe are not the thicker tenderized cutlets common in American markets, but rather, ones that are very thinly sliced to begin with, and not already lacerated to tenderize them. You pound them lightly at home when you are preparing them.
1/2 c. unsalted butter
1 1/2 lb. thin veal scallops, pounded slightly
1/4 c. flour
1 lb. small, firm button mushrooms, washed & trimmed
black pepper & herbs to taste (marjoram, thyme)
1/2 c. heavy cream
1/4 c. marsala or Madeira
1-2 good fresh tomatoes, peeled, cut in wedges & seeded
fresh parsley sprigs
Heat 1/4 c. butter in a large skillet. Dredge veal scallops on one side only in the flour. Add to skillet, flour side down. Do not crowd skillet. Sauté for 3 minutes.
Just as juices begin to emerge, turn meat over and sauté the other side, about 3 minutes more. Shake skillet vigorously a few times to keep it from sticking. Remove veal and keep warm.
Sauté mushrooms in remaining butter for 1-2 minutes, tossing to coat evenly. Season to taste with pepper and herbs. Cook just a bit longer to draw out juices of the mushrooms.
Sprinkle 1 T. flour in skillet & stir thoroughly. Gradually add cream. Bring to a boil. Stir until thickened. Add marsala. Bring back to a boil. Add tomato wedges briefly, then veal, just to heat through.
Transfer to serving dish. Sprinkle with lemon juice, if desired. Garnish with parsley. Serve at once.
An alternative entrée:
Poulet á Quarante Gousses d’Ail (chicken with 40 cloves of garlic) --6 servings
This adaptation of a country French classic is great for a more casual meal. There’s something both simple & sophisticated about it. And tasty.
Don't forget to serve some finger bowls so your diners can rinse off the garlic and oil.
3 lb. chicken, cut in quarters
6 sprigs fresh thyme
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 small bay leaves
4 T. olive oil
40 large cloves fresh garlic, unpeeled
thick slices of crusty French bread
Preheat oven to 375º. Rinse the chicken pieces and pat dry. Heat oil in a large frying pan. Add chicken pieces and cook for about 3 minutes on a side, until they are lightly colored all over. Save the oil in the pan.
Place 3 sprigs of thyme, 1 sprig of rosemary and 1 bay leaf in the bottom of a deep casserole (one with tight-fitting lid) which is just large enough to hold the chicken. Add the chicken pieces.
Scatter the cloves of garlic around the chicken. Pour oil from the skillet over chicken. Place remaining herb sprigs & bay leaf on top.
Put on the lid, the seal it well with a strip of foil around the rim, pinched to form a tight seal. Bake it in the hot oven for 105 minutes. Do not unseal it while baking.
Remove the dish from the oven and allow to stand, still covered, for 10 minutes before opening. Meanwhile, toast the bread if you like, and wrap it up it in a serving basket to keep warm.
Divide the chicken into serving pieces. Transfer it to serving platter with the garlic arrayed around the perimeter. Serve immediately.
Diners may squeeze the baked garlic from its skin onto the chicken pieces or onto the bread. Spread it on the bread with knife.
Here's another yummy, rich entrée that's both simple and sophisticated. Plus, the flaming part adds to the romance--for about 6 seconds!
Steak au Poivre (peppercorn steak) --4 servings
4 boneless strip steaks
30-35 whole peppercorns
2 T. peanut oil
1 T. cognac
2 T. whipping cream
Crack peppercorns by placing then between two paper towels. Strike them with the side of a meat mallet, or roll over them with a rolling pin. Press the cracked pepper into the steaks.
Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the steaks. Brown for about 15 minutes or more, depending on doneness desired.
Pour cognac over them. Flambé by lighting the cognac immediately with a match. After it burns out, add the cream to the skillet. Bring it to a boil and stir to thicken. Transfer the steaks to serving dish & serve at once.
Many of you may want chocolate for dessert. I can easily be persuaded to indulge in chocolate, but I have to say that if you are looking for a lighter, authentically French end to your dinner, think of a tray with several cheeses and several fresh fruits. That's what we had at La Belle Isnarde.
Or try this suggestion.
Brie et Fruit
small rounds of quality Brie cheese
tart apple wedges
crisp pear wedges (try Bosc)
Remove cheese from any packaging and set on an oven-proof dish. Heat just long enough that center is warm and fluid.
For each diner, serve a wedge of Brie on a dessert plate, along with a small hors d'oeuvres knife. Pass a platter of the fresh fruits.
Spread the warmed cheese on fruit wedges to eat. Enjoy the cheese rind, too.
Since I’m not a sommelier, I leave the wine choices up to you, though I have fond memories of wine from the Châteauneuf du Pape, a full-bodied red wine from the Côtes du Rhône.
Vær så god!
Update: Some have noted the diary about Hunger, also on the Rec list. I recommend everyone who loves to eat goes to that diary to consider donating at one of the links included there. Also thinking about helping at your local food bank.