My top ten list of favorite French dishes to eat at home
I usually steer clear from these sorts of posts, but after a recent long walk in the Columbia Gorge rendered me insatiably starving and seriously contemplating eating my family, I decided to post what I do love, and dreadfully miss most about French food, in a vain attempt to save their lives. Earlier in the week, we had cut every single thing I love dearly about life as part of some satanic ritual known as the ‘new year’s resolution’. Foolishly, we thought adding exercise might reduce our surface circumferences quicker; instead visions of the doomed Donner party haunted my mind.
- French Onion Soup – I have fantastic childhood memories of going to La Creperie in Chicago with my late father and eating steaming bowls of French onion soup. My face was awash with a beautified gaze as I slowly lifted golden strands of molten Emmental cheese from the depths of the soup crock. Fortunately, making onion soup at home is quite easy, and will add one incredible benefit you can’t get from ordering it in a restaurant: your house will fill with the sweetest smells in the world. Click for here an easy recipe and step by step pictures.
- Snails in Garlic Butter – Escargots are one of France’s most iconic dishes and rightfully deserve their place on the golden pedestal of French culture; right next to cheese, the beret and the croissant. This year marked a special moment in my six-year-old son’s culinary development – he became thoroughly addicted to snails in garlic butter. During the course of perfecting this recipe, Beau went from beloved toddler to a pint-sized Peter Wells, the stinging New York Times restaurant critic who even caused Thomas Keller to cry. Click here for a foolproof escargot recipe.
- Olive Tapenade – When the weather starts to warm up, my stomach boards a plane and flies directly to the South of France to eat for the summer. Long renowned for its golden sunshine, bouillabaisse and pastis, Provence is the region I feel most akin to and could spend my days in a small farmhouse tending to ancient olive trees. The word tapenade is derived from the Provencal word for capers, tapeno, so any tapenade made without capers is simply a spread. Click here for three recipes for tapenade, including the original recipe. Click here for a quick YouTube video of the perfect start to any meal, Tapenade Sunshine.
- Pistou Soup – Ah soupe au pistou, I love you. Thanks for making every single bite a golden taste of sunshine on a spoon! No other soup defines Provence more clearly than soupe au Pistou. It is the edible history of the ‘arrière-pays’, or hinterlands of Provence, where farmers have long tended their fields growing some of the most amazing vegetables and fruits. There are several versions of Pistou ranging from ham and bean based ones to purely vegetable. This one is how my maman taught me, though she would probably roll her eyes and mutter ‘merde’ at the very thought of canned beans and San Marzano tomatoes being used. Click here for my mother’s pistou recipe.
- Simple Loup de Mer – As a small child, I believed in two things; Santa Claus and the virtues of a simple grilled Loup de mer, or branzino. Perhaps it is my favorite dish. Get your coals white-hot, put dried fennel branches on top, then the fish and let the licorice smoky flavors pleasantly permeate your fish, lending a feeling of being in Provence. There is no greater act of love than sharing a wonderful meal you cook with the people dear to you. Remember, good food can happen anywhere, this one is especially good cooked over an outdoor fire, preferably deep in the woods, with loved ones and a few bottles of great wine. Click here for my favorite simple dish.
- Coq au Vin – Coq au Vin is as synonymous with French culture as hamburgers are with American culture. It’s a dish I grew up eating quite a bit of, and still find very comforting when I’m longing for my mother and France. The sauce is packed with flavor and begs for a starchy vehicle to soak it all up. Classically boiled or mashed potatoes are served, but I think creamy spätzle, potato gratin or buttered noodles work better. It’s important to let the raw chicken marinate overnight and let the wine and aromatics fully penetrate the meat. Like all great stews, flavors continue to develop after cooked. It usually tastes best a day or two later. Click here to make Coq au Vin like a pro.
- Daube of Beef – Maybe I am like one of Pavlov’s dogs; I start to crave beef daube (Provencal beef stew) the first second cool Fall weather begins. Long ago, Lisa and I lived in a small, off the grid hippie cabin deep within the green woods, on the edge of Van Damme State Park in Mendocino, California. Our cabin often reminded me of Daudet’s windmill in Provence, though beaten and forlorn, it provided a quiet and safe refuge from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. Fall had started in earnest; a cool, light mist was falling on an otherwise drab day when we decided to take our dog Lucy for a long walk foraging wild cèpes. I built a roaring fire in our wood stove and placed a daube of beef perfumed with a cinnamon stick and dried orange peel on top to slowly braise. We decanted a heady bottle of red wine and walked out into the dank Mendocino forest on a narrow track through the dense, overgrown pygmy forest collecting two shopping bags full of precious boletes before returning home to enjoy our simple feast. As we neared our home, wood smoke commingled with the ever enticing aromas of slow-cooked meat and hung nose high in the clammy mist surrounding our cabin. Every step closer, the smells grew more ambrosial and inviting, prompting us to quicken our pace. By the time we reached the cabin door, I was drooling and my stomach growled uncontrollably in bated anticipation. Click here to make a daube of beef like someone from Provence.
- Chocolate Eclairs – Do you want a fun, edible project to tackle this weekend? Then try making these delicious chocolate eclairs for your family. They are only slightly harder than making basic brownies, only because there are three main components to prep instead of one. You will need a few tools like sil pats, pastry bags and star tips to make this. There are plenty of stores like Michaels or Sur La Table where these easy to find items can be purchased if you do not have them already. The results will be worth any frustrations you may experience. Click here to get my recipe for eclairs.
- Crepes Suzette – It has been said that crepes Suzette are served more often outside of France than actually in France. While the exact origins will never be known there are plenty of popular stories and some great theories. The most prevalent is that of Henri Charpentier, who at the tender age of 16, supposedly created it by accident. Henri recounted, “It was seven years earlier, in 1898, that I served crepe Suzette for the Prince of Wales, on the terrace of the Cafe de Paris in Monte Carlo. It was quite by accident as I worked in front of a chafing dish that the cordials caught fire. I thought I was ruined. The Prince and his friends were waiting. How could I begin all over? I tasted it. It was, I thought, the most delicious melody of sweet flavors I had every tasted. I still think so. That accident of the flame was precisely what was needed to bring all those various instruments into one harmony of taste . . . He ate the pancakes with a fork; but he used a spoon to capture the remaining syrup. He asked me the name of that which he had eaten with so much relish. I told him it was to be called Crepes Princesse. He recognized that the pancake controlled the gender and that this was a compliment designed for him; but he protested with mock ferocity that there was a lady present. She was alert and rose to her feet and holding her little shirt wide with her hands she made him a curtsey. ‘Will you,’ said His Majesty, ‘change Crepes Princesse to Crepes Suzette?’ Thus was born and baptized this confection, one taste of which, I really believe, would reform a cannibal into a civilized gentleman. The next day I received a present from the Prince, a jeweled ring, a panama hat and a cane.” However fantastic the story, the dessert is great and best of all you do not need to be royalty to enjoy this simple treat. Click here for my adaptation of Henri’s creation.
- Tarte Tatin – Tarte Tatin has been popular worldwide since its birth at Jean Tatin hotel since its creation in the late 1800’s. Jean Tatin opened his hotel (l’Hotel Tatin) in the 1800’s. In 1888 his two daughters Caroline and Stéphanie took over when he passed away. Caroline managed the books while Stéphanie cooked. From morning to night she worked in her kitchen. She was a great and gifted cook but not the brightest of people. Her speciality was an apple tart, served perfectly crusty, caramelized and which melted in the mouth. The sisters were always busy during hunting season and their restaurant was exceedingly popular. One day Stéphanie, running late because she had been flirting with a handsome hunter, rushed into the kitchen, threw the apples, butter and sugar in a pan and then rushed out to help with the other duties. The odor of caramel filled the kitchen, Stéphanie realized she’d forgotten the apple tart, but what could she do now? She decides to put the pàte brisée on top of the apples, pops the pan in the stove to brown a bit more and then turns it upside down to serve. Raves of delight emanate from the dining room. The story continues a bit from that first day. Curnonsky, the famous gastronome of the time, hears about the Tarte and declares it a marvel. Word of this new gastronomic delight reaches Paris. Maxim’s owner hears about it and he decides he must have the recipe. He supposedly sent a cook/spy, disguised as a gardener, to Lamotte-Beuvron to discover the secret. The spy is successful, brings the recipe back to Maxim’s, and it has been on the menu of that famous restaurant ever since. Click for my mother’s version of this sweet classic.