•   Saturday, 24 Feb, 2024
20 classic French dishes everyone needs to try

20 classic French dishes everyone needs to try

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The roots of French cooking run deep. The foundations of the country's culinary empire were laid as early as the mid-1600s when chef François Pierre La Varenne penned his hugely influential "Le Cuisinier François" recipe book, emphasizing regional and seasonal ingredients, highlighting complementary flavors, and beginning to document its terms and techniques.

"French cooking is, at its core, about making beautiful, refined food out of simple ingredients," said Maryann Tebben, author of "Savoir-Faire: A History of Food in France."

"There is some mystery and magic to French cuisine that still draws people in. Even the basics -- a perfect baguette, flaky pastry, potatoes simmered in cream -- are astonishingly good even if we can't quite figure out what makes them so delicious."

The impacts of France's culinary contributions have been widespread. When famed TV chef Julia Child tried sole meunière for the first time in 1948 at La Couronne restaurant in Rouen, she was overcome by the simultaneous simplicity and delicacy of French cooking.

The dish inspired Child to pursue a career in cooking that subsequently prompted an entire generation of Americans to throw out the TV dinners and gelatin dessert molds and return to fresh, flavorful foods made with whole ingredients.

Child's experience was not unique. There is a reason, after all, that so many of the words we use to describe a lover of good food -- gourmand, gourmet, gastronome -- are French in origin.

"French cuisine has been explored by generations and generations of chefs, home cooks, passionate people like Julia (Child), and food writers," said Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud, owner of 14 restaurants worldwide. "And French cuisine keeps inspiring people. It is entertaining. It is delicious. It is accessible. It is possible."

Whether it's country fare or haute cuisine that inspires, French food is rife with dishes that could captivate even the most discerning of critics. Take a look at 20 of them.

Is there possibly a more French way to prepare beef than to marinate it in red wine? Named boeuf Bourguignon after the famed red wine from the Burgundy region of France, this dish combines a nice, fatty cut of beef with a dry pinot noir and plenty of fresh vegetables to create a hearty and indulgent stew.

It has been the focus of many discussions over which cuts of beef and types of wine create the best flavor profiles. But the most important ingredient for success is patience -- like any good stew, boeuf Bourguignon is best when left overnight before serving.

Not a fan of beef? Another French favorite, coq au vin, takes the Burgundian preparation and gives chicken the leading role instead

With a long name and an even longer list of ingredients, bouillabaisse is seaside city Marseille's gift to France's culinary canon. The soup, once a poor man's dish and now a mainstay on many a Michelin-starred menu, elevates the catch of the day beyond your standard soupe de poisson.

According to Marseille's bouillabaisse charter, in an attempt to standardize the ingredients and preparation of the classic dish, the soup must include at least four of six specific fish selections that are cut up in front of the diners. Alongside optional crustaceans and a spicy broth, no self-respecting bouillabaisse is complete without a topper of croutons dipped in rouille, a peppery garlic sauce.

This list of classic French dishes would be incomplete without the inclusion of something from the country's extensive repertoire of patisserie. Though not as refined or architectural as some treats seen in the windows of French sweet shops, the buttery, simmering tarte Tatin, essentially an upside-down caramelized apple tart, is famous around the world for its rich flavor and unique history.

Legend has it, sisters Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin were working in a restaurant in the Loire Valley of France in the late 19th century when Stéphanie was overwhelmed in the kitchen by the influx of customers during hunting season. She accidentally left the apples in her apple pie cooking too long and tried to salvage it by covering the apples in pastry and baking. The resulting dish -- steaming apples under caramelized sugar with a flaky crust -- was so popular it was eventually named after the sisters: la tarte des demoiselles Tatin.

Though tarte Tatin is sure to be delicious anywhere you try it, it might be best sampled where it originated.

"Northern France is very known for its apples," said David Lebovitz, author of "The Sweet Life in Paris." "They have spectacularly good cooking apples."

Onion soup is not a new invention or even a dish that can be directly tied to France -- some of the earliest iterations of it can be traced back to ancient Rome -- but the most famous version? The version you think of when you think "onion soup"? The version you order to start off your meal made with beef stock, onions, toasted bread and ooey-gooey Gruyère cheese? That's all France.

The element that really sets this soup apart from other, less indulgent onion-based options is the layer of cheese that tops the steaming broth. That comes from baking the soup in a broiler to melt the cheese and produce what the French call au gratin.

The gratin "technique (is) about making something in a shallow dish that will bake and get croûte on top -- which means creating a crust -- and that crust can be cheese, can be bread, can be all kinds of things. But a nice crust," explained Boulud, who opened Le Gratin, an entire restaurant dedicated to highlighting the technique, in New York. The most popular dish at the restaurant is another cheesy French favorite, gratin Dauphinois, or gratin potatoes.

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