A lot of people think of French food as oh-so posh and la-di-da. Anyone who’s dined at a high end French restaurant would be justified in making that assessment, what with the classic plating, pretty garnishes and all the other niceties of haute experience. But then there’s rustic French, which is more reflective of the necessity of using everything available and letting nothing go to waste, a legacy of hard times throughout the centuries. French cooks have done such an exemplary job of taking their resources and producing something good, that you’re convinced it must be fancy. Americans are wealthy enough (relatively speaking) to chuck out the bones, organs and other odd bits they’ve grown unaccustomed to eating–or that they connect with lean times. But these are the parts that make some of the best, most satisfying food, and French cooks are masters at utilizing it all.
This is what I kept thinking about as we enjoyed our rustic French dinner recently. I noted throughout the evening that our meal looked like a study of food preservation methods. Since it was late wintertime, this meal reflected what we’d be eating when we’re relying on our reserves of food and awaiting the return of springtime and a new growing season.
We had the good fortune to dine with our friends, Bert and Noel, who have spent a considerable amount of time in France for more years than they likely want to admit. Bert knows his way around France–and French cuisine–like he knows his way around his own house, so we went to Cafe des Artistes in Hollywood with our own personal authenticity meter, and we let him order. It was a nibbly night, meaning we enjoyed a succession of appetizers and dishes to share around the table. I’d eat every meal this way if my dinner partners were always amenable. It’s a good way to try a lot of dishes, and it’s more fun to share and discuss.
The house paté and house rillettes were served with onion marmalade and cornichons and lots of toasted baguette slices. Marmalade is a tasty way to preserve onions when you have a bumper crop. Cornichons, of course, are tiny pickled cucumbers. Rillettes and paté represent similar methods of preserving meat for future use, paté by collecting, grinding and seasoning meats, then pressing the mixture into a mold and cooking it.
Rillettes is meat cooked slowly in its own fat, then pulverized with some of that fat and seasoned to form a rich spread. It keeps well when you spoon it into ramekins and cover it with a thin layer of fat, which seals out the air. The cornichons and marmalade added the sweet and sour notes that kept these fat-happy meats from being too rich.
This Alsatian tart flambée was made with farm cheese, bacon and onion. Of course, bacon and cheese represent ways of preserving pork and milk for later consumption. My only problem with this tart was that as a Tennessee farm girl, naturally I assume all bacon will be smoked. The French just don’t do it this way. Still, it was really good, but if I ever make this tart, the bacon I use will be smoked!
No, the French don’t call it French onion soup! Soupe a l’oignon gratinée is good way to utilize a surplus of onions once you’ve made enough marmalade. When you slowly, slowly, slowly cook down those onions, you discover how much water there is in them, and when it’s all cooked away, you’re left with a little bit of rich, sweet yummy onion confiture. Simmer this with some beef stock, made with those bones you didn’t throw away. Ladle it over some stale bread that you didn’t throw away just because it was stale (it’s good for making croutons, too, by the way), grate some cheese over it (gruyere for authenticity, emmental if you’d rather) and hit it with the heat. Et voila! You have one of the best, most nourishing and satisfying bowls of soup ever.
Our concession to France’s north African influence was an appetizer of grilled merguez sausages, made of lamb. We dunked them into harrisa, which added a zingy little accent to our French meal. Maybe it’s not as ubiquitous as Indian food is in England, but still such dishes are growing in popularity around France.
You can’t get any more hearty-peasant than cassoulet–duck confit in a pot of beans and veggies with browned crumbs on top. Confit is a method of preserving meat, especially pork, duck and goose, by cooking and storing its own fat–similar to rillettes, except that those pieces of confit are kept whole. This dish and these meat preservation methods originated in the southwest of France. I’m not proud of it, but hey, I snatched that duck leg!
When there’s good cheese to be had, for me it trumps dessert every time. Goat cheese, bleu and morbier with dried fruits and nuts were the perfect finish to our meal. France boasts several hundred cheeses, so we have our work cut out for us. What a happy chore that would be…
With a meal is this satisfying, accompanied by a generous flow of Cote du Rhone, why would you need fancy presentation and such? I’ll take rustic cuisine over haute any day!