Think of French food —of croissants, wine and cheese, creamy sauces. Then, turn your mind to the so-called French Paradox that has fascinated Amercans. How do the French stay so fit —and healthy —while eating all that cream and butter?
The answer is in their lifestyle — plenty of walking, an emphasis on seasonal produce and a preference for small portions.
And, contrary to popular belief, cooking in the “French style ” is not hard, it ’s simply a matter of practice, practice, practice.
Today, the most successful “French ” chefs in America are those who continually hone classic culinary technique and judiciously incorporate local flavor while keeping healthfulness in mind. (See the cookbooks below for great sources of recipes, both classic and contemporary.) For example, Frank Stitt, a chef in Birminghan, AL, worked with both Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse fame) and Richard Olney, considered one of the great French chefs. Stitt combines Provencal flavor with southern influence in his four restaurants. Here Parmesan stone-ground grits meld with wild mushrooms, crouton and Red Eye gravy, the trout is served with brown butter, capers and Brabant potatoes (a signature southern recipe);and the salad consists of roasted beets, white bean purée and pecan pesto. It is an excellent example of American ingenuity and French culinary panache!
French Menu Theme Ideas
A French bistro, of course!
Un Crêperie. As a breakfast and lunch special, consider a crêpe station. These delicate pancakes are very easy to make and hold up well. Envelope sweet —les crêpes sucrees (fruits, cheese, nuts, chocolate) or savory —les crêpes salées (cheese & spinach, shellfish, salmon fillings, add a light garnish or sauce, and voila, simple sophistication on a plate!
Celebrate Bastille Day, July 14th. This holiday, established in 1790, celebrates the establishment of the short-lived constitutional monarchy in France and what people of the time considered to be the happy conclusion of the French Revolution. It’s also a huge feast! Held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, offer a French-inspired picnic-themed luncheon menu and picnic box lunches for customers to enjoy outside —weather permitting!
In a French Kitchen
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes One/Two, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, Alfred A Knopf, Inc. , originally published in 1961 updated 2001, $40. Consider all of Julia Childs books!
The Dione Lucas Book of French Cooking, by
Other classic authors and chefs to consider: Jacques Pépin, Richard Olney, Madeleine Kamman, Elizabeth David, and Roger Verge.
Barefoot in Paris, by Ina Garten, 2004, Clarkson Potter Publishers, $35, to name a few.
Bacon. The French favor fresh, unsalted and unsmoked bacon. For proper flavor in recipes that call for it, smoked bacon, more readily available here, should be blanched.
Butter, unsalted and clarified butter. Clarified butter burns less easily than whole butter and is used in roux, particlarly for fine sauces, and to enrich soups and other sauces. (To clarify butter;cut it into pieces and place in a saucepan over low to moderate heat. When it is melted, skim off the foam, and strain the clear yellow liquid into a bowl, leaving the milky residue in the bottom of the pan.)
Cheese, particulary Swiss (Gruyere, Emmenthaler)and Parmesan.
Cream. French cream is matured cream which has a nutty flavor. For recipes that call for créme fraîche —if you cannot find it —use American whipping cream. To make a similarly textured cream, thicken the whipping cream with some buttermilk, and it will taste quite like French cream (combine 1 tsp. buttermilk and 1 cup whipping cream, heat to 60-85 °F, set aside to thicken —up to 8 hours on a hot day, 24 to 36 hours at cool temperatures. Stir, cover and refrigerate).
Flour, Regular French flour is made from soft wheat (and unbleached), while most Amercian flour is made from hard wheat. Consider mixing three parts all-purpose flour with one part plain cake flour to achieve those flaky croissants or crusty breads.
Glaceed fruits and candied fruits, a must for desserts.
Herbs. The French favor fresh parsley, thyme, bay, tarragon, chervil and chives. Mediterranean France adds basil, fennel, oregano, sage and saffron to the mix. (Fines herbs is comprised of fresh parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil. Bouquet garni, the little pouch of herbs used to flavor soups, stews, sauces, braised meat and vegetables, is comprised of fresh parsley, thyme and bay leaf.)
Marrow. The fatty filling of beef leg bones, marrow is poached and used in sauces, garnitures and on canapés.
Oil. Classical French cooking almost exclusively uses odorless, tasteless vegetables oils for cooking. Shallots are prefered over onions for their delicate flavor and slight hint of garlic.
Truffles, the round, pungent wrinkled black fungi are dug up in France and Italy from December to the end of January.