French cuisine sounds fancy, conjuring up images of anniversary date nights, expense-account feasts, and once-in-a-lifetime trips to Paris. But with the right ingredients, techniques, and dining mentality, you can create amazing French meals on an average weeknight in your very own kitchen.
French cooking may seem sophisticated, but it’s not rocket science. “It’s ultimately about creating a harmonious dish that elevates the quality of the main ingredient. For example, different regions in France may treat chicken differently—Burgundy makes coq au vin, the Basque region makes Chicken Basque [stewed chicken and vegetables with earthy spices]—but it’s still all about the chicken,” explains Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin in New York City and judge on Top Chef. “There’s a lot of tradition involved in all of it.”
“It’s about building flavors,” says Dorie Greenspan (DorieGreenspan.com), author of Around My French Table ($40, amazon.com). “The French do that so well; they can really layer flavors.” In the soup-, stew-, and sauce-heavy cuisine, dishes often start with a base of mirepoix, a combination of diced celery, onions, carrots, and garlic. And it’s no secret that French chefs cook with wine every now and again—but it’s never just sloshed into a dish. It’s often added into a hot pan to reduce so that the concentrated flavor of the wine comes through. When browned meats are added, the layers of flavor intensify. Finishing the dish with fresh herbs adds that final punch.
But the ability to whip up cassoulet, steak au poivre, and bouillabaisse without breaking a sweat comes from mastering the basic techniques. “What makes French techniques universal is that they are based on logic,” Ripert says. “Sautéing, roasting, braising, poaching, broiling—they all have a reason to be used. For example, a beef stew would be braised because otherwise that cut of meat would be tough.”
However, to truly understand the mentality of French dining, you have to look beyond the ingredients and the techniques. Think of it as a way of life. “It’s really the style of eating, how meals are planned and a way to sit around the French table,” Greenspan explains. The typical meal includes three courses—a simple starter (soup is a popular option), a main dish (this could be as basic as a quick chicken recipe), and then cheese and fruit for dessert. “It’s meant to unfold, so it’s a really relaxing moment at the end of the day. It’s about the pleasure of sitting down, enjoying family, company, and food,” she says. “So put your elbows on the table and let the meal flow.”