Simple Fancy French Foods
For many Americans in particular, the names of the most famous French dishes will always ring in our heads with the unmistakably high pitched voice of the late Julia Child. “Boeuf Bourguignon“ she would say to her audience, and it brought to mind sitting at a tiny sidewalk table in a quaint Parisian bistro. Few associated it with the much more mundane “Beef Stew.”
Catherine de Medici is often given credit for introducing many types of foods and cooking techniques to France. The truth is complicated by the fact that the earliest references to this honor actually meant it as a slight. It was her detractors, some two hundred years after the fact, while accusing her of bringing decadence to France, that forever tied her name to the most famous cuisine in the world.
Fast forward a few hundred more years and nearly everyone will agree that it was Auguste Escoffier (following on the earlier work of Marie-Antoine Carême) that popularized French cooking and brought it into the (what was then the late 19th century) modern world. From him we get the concept of the 5 Mother Sauces, which to this day define French Cuisine for many.
Hollandaise is the perhaps the best known of the five Mother Sauces. What is less known is that hollandaise is but one of a class of “emulsion” sauces. Mayonnaise is the one most are familiar with, and it differs from hollandaise in that it uses oil instead of butter to bind the egg yolk. Maltaise is orange instead of hollandaise’s lemon (and is amazing with asparagus). Béarnaise is tarragon vinegar, and traditional with steak while Sabayon (Zabaglione is the Italian name) is a sweet variant made with wine.
Crawfish with Maltaise Sauce
Béchamel sauce, another of the five, is the fancy French way of saying “Cream Sauce” and it is the key ingredient in a Croque Monsignor (Madame is with an egg). This inside out ham sandwich is a staple through France. You can find it anywhere from humble gas stations to upscale cafés. Thin sliced white bread with cheese melted on the outside, a thin piece of ham and Béchamel on the inside. With such simplicity it is the quality of the sauce that makes the difference.
Béchamel with just a touch of nutmeg
Velouté sauce is traditionally made with a lighter fish stock thickened with roux (butter and flour). Espagnole is the heavier, meat based version, but time has passed and for me at least these two sauces have merged, and anything I make with stock and thicken with roux I think of as Velouté because of the velvety texture of the sauce. For me, this is the workhorse sauce, from which many a meal begins.
Beef Filet with a Plum Velouté over Lentils
The fifth sauce is simply tomato. It doesn’t matter if the tomatoes are simmered for days like the classic Italian Red Sauce (Pomadoro sauce without meat, Bolognese with) or if the tomatoes are just diced and heated for a few minutes in olive oil with basil. For some reason Escoffier lumped them all together.
Tomato Concasse being added to Lasagna
Use any of these five sauces, and your food can be said to be French, but for the biggest bang for your buck, think about serving a few of these well known, but surprisingly simple dishes:
Shrimp (or Lobster) Bisque - A rich creamy soup.
Crêpes - With a variety of shapes and fillings few things are easier or more impressive.
Coq au Vin - As Beef Bourguignon is to beef stew, so Coq au Vin is to Chicken stew. A little more effort, and a good glug of wine or two.
Quiche - If you can crack eggs, you can make a quiche. Fill a baking dish (with or without a pie crust) with your favorite ingredients and cover with egg wash (eggs and milk or cream). Bake. Cool and serve.
Ratatouille - More than a favorite animated movie, this veggie stew is as simple as chopping and simmering.
Bouillabaisse - A fish stew that is perfect for those with access to a variety of seafoods. Usually served with Aioli (garlic mayo) on a croute (a small round slice of French Bread).
Crêpe in a Beggar's Purse Shape
A white Coq au Vin
Vermouthed Shrimp Quiche
Preparing to make Bouillabaisse