Global kitchen: French cuisine

Written by katherine spiers
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Cook like a French chef at home

The only way to perfect these techniques is by repetition: The more you do it, the more you understand, the more you are capable of improving.

— Chef Eric Ripert

The French will passionately fight anyone who disagrees that they invented haute cuisine. Not that many would take on that fight: In 2010, the country’s cooking tradition was recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation as an “intangible cultural heritage” worth preserving for the good of the world. French food also has a reputation of being difficult and time-consuming to create. Some French chefs want to argue that point too.

Less is more

It connotes imagery of pure elegance and fine dining, but French cuisine is rooted in simplicity and can trace it's heritage to the Middle Ages. That's when Guillaume Tirel, a cook in the royal court, compiled his recipes to create a now-legendary book, "Le Viandier." Tirel, also known as "Taillevent," also served the royals domestic wine, making it popular in France. Until then, the French had preferred imported wine.

In 1903, Georges Auguste Escoffier published the first edition of "Le Guide Culinaire" — a widely respected masterpiece on French cooking. Its recipes form the basis of everything we know about French cooking and helped popularise the general idea that French cuisine is the most sophisticated in the world.

Some of France's leading chefs, however, are happy to demystify their country’s cooking.

“French techniques are based on logic and are therefore universal,” says Eric Ripert, chef at Le Bernardin in New York and a guest expert on "Top Chef." “If you have a cookbook, you need to read and follow the instructions carefully. When you choose a dish, explore the techniques and don’t be surprised if you succeed the first time.”

Some French cooking terms sound intimidating, but Claude Le-Tohic, the executive chef at Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, said they’re actually quite simple. A velouté, for example, is essentially just a sauce or soup.

Ripert, who is also host of "Avec Eric," said marinating, like pureeing, is also “a great technique for beginners."

One type of marinating is to use an acid such as vinegar or lemon to "cook" the food. Ripert said a ceviche can be made just by combining high-quality raw fish, herbs and vegetables in lemon juice and allowing it to sit.

It couldn’t get easier than a cooking technique that requires no heat. If you do want to get a little more ambitious, Le-Tohic recommends veal or chicken blanquette. He cuts the meat into small dice and cooks it in boiling, salted water while boiling vegetables and herbs in another pot. He then combines them, adds cooking liquid and cream, and serves it over rice or potatoes.

“It is essentially just meat cooked in broth, which then makes a sauce," he said. "It’s so simple that it’s not usually made in restaurants. In France, it’s sort of a national at-home dish, and it’s great for weekday cooking because kids love it.”

Other recipes submerge proteins in hot liquid, but a liquid more flavorful than water. Ripert poaches fish in a simmering, aromatic liquid like a broth or nage, a white wine with vegetables and herbs.

“I love to poach because it’s a very gentle and delicate way to cook fish,” Ripert said. “It works particularly well with halibut."

Both chefs are big fans of sautéing for a simple French meal.

“I like to get a nice crust on the fish when sautéing, so I season the fish, then lightly dust with flour,” Ripert said. He said the pan should be very hot before you add the fish, and you should use a vegetable oil, which has a low smoke point.

“With sautéing, you get a sear on it, instead of blanching,” Le-Tohic said. “And with this method, you cook it in sauce.”

Sauces are very important in French cooking. They all originate from five “mother sauces” of bechamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise and tomato. Bechamel is a white sauce. The veloute and espagnole are stock-based, but the espagnole is darker than the velouté. From these five come sauces like béarnaise and mustard, which are brushed atop steak when it’s on the grill.

Grilling isn’t very fancy, and that’s the thing to remember about French cooking: Despite its reputation, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Ripert said coq au vin is one of his favorite winter dishes. It started as a farmhouse dish, produced by cooking an old, no-longer-egg-producing hen all day in a sauce of cheap red wine.

While the average cook might not wish to try coq au vin, Ripert said other French meals are just a matter of effort.

“The only way to perfect these techniques is by repetition," Ripert said. "The more you do it, the more you understand, (and) the more you are capable of improving.”

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