Guess which country we tackled this week? French food is known to be the most ‘non-friendly’ cuisine out there. Translation-it is the most complicated to make. There’s really no middle ground with French cuisine-it’s either great or horrible. Carol had us taste cheeses from all over France, as there are so many fabulous tastes to be had. She also brought some authentic Normany butter for us to munch on. I was amazed at the difference in taste. I could be happy eating this on a wonderful crusty bread with a glass of wine.
Carol then regaled us with information about each region and their specialties. I’ve attached a map of the country she gave us. For those fellow wine lovers, it just HAPPENS to be a wine map of France and a nifty thing to keep on hand. There was a ton of info, so I’m going to try to give you the highlights of each region:
The geography of Normandy is of rolling hills and has a cool climate. There is year round grass which is perfect for raising cows. It makes sense that this area specializes in cow’s milk, butter, very creamy cow’s milk cheese like Camembert (as well as other “smelly” versions). They also have a lot of rind cheeses like l’eveque. Rind cheeses are either ‘washed’ or ‘unwashed.’ If you see a cheese with a darker rind, it means it’s washed. That can be done with salt, with beer or other liquids. An unwashed rind is very light yellow. Apples are also grown in this region. Any dish that ends in a la Normandie is sure to be made with cream and apples-perhaps even a little Calvados!
Bretagne (Brittany) is right by the ocean, so there are lots of salt mills there. French salt is amazingly flavorful. Grey salt has the minerals left in. Seafood is big in this region. Their mussels are black, as ours are, but because of the water temperature, difference in their diet and salt in the water, they have a distinct taste.
The beautiful Loire Valley is perfect for growing vegetables. They have amazing goat cheese (one of my favorite things in the world) and the famous regional dish is Rillettes. This is a potted meat similar to confit. It’s cooked for a long time, shredded, and then fat is added and it’s tightly packed. It can be made with anything from pork to rabbit.
The area of lower central France is the least populated, as it’s highly agricultural. It’s an area of high produce because of mountains and rivers. White asparagus is grown here, as are walnuts. Walnut oil from here is wonderfully fragrant. The animals raised are goats and ducks. Huge ducks. Most are over 9 pounds. I’m from Long Island, where the ducks are pretty big, but I think these win out! They’re also fatter than the ducks of my childhood. Much of the cuisine is made with duck fat and duck confit is a specialty here. This dish can take 7 hours to make. Me? I like my duck with a crispy skin and cooked a bit faster than that. Want to make sure your duck skin is crispy? Air dry it in the refrigerator the night before and use a pin to poke the skin before cooking it-especially the legs.
Languedoc-Roussillon, in the southern region is famous for their cassoulets. These are casseroles made up of beans, duck fat, sausage and spices. There are variations, but these are the basic ingredients.
Just east and north of there is Bordeaux and Toulouse. Great wine, of course, but also the local dishes use fresh water fish and lamb. Prunes and lentils are also used a lot in the local cuisine. French lentils are smaller and crunchier than green lentils and they marry well with the region’s amazing sheep’s milk cheese. Because the area is damper than the surrounding areas, Bordeaux is the perfect breeding ground for mushrooms and truffles. Hmmm….great wine and truffles. Shall we book a vacation there now?
The Pyrenees, the mountain range between France and Spain, (also known as the Basque region) is famous for their sheep and sheep’s milk. They use lots of olives and olive oil and their cuisine is similar to Spanish, utilizing garlic, pepper and vinegar.
Over on the west coast of the country we find Provence, a gorgeous area known for olives, goat cheese and a myriad of herbs. Tapenade is famous here, as is bouillabaisse and aioli. Because it’s right by the Mediterranean, the fish is plentiful and they use preserved fish in their cooking during certain times of the year.
Lyon, to the north by Beaujolais, is a “food” city. THIS is the place to go to learn how to cook. Chefs from around the world come here for lessons. They’re known for their chickens and fresh eggs, as well as sauces and nouvelle cuisine. Their dishes are almost deconstructed compared to formal French cuisine.
Dijon is known for mustard. Shocking, I know-but Dijon mustard is only one of the kinds they make. It’s right next to Burgundy where the wine is used for their famous Beef Bourguignon and Coq au Vin. The dishes are heavier here, lots of stews, cows and goat cheeses and they do wonders with snails.
Jura is known for big wheeled, harder cheeses. Their breads are hardier and Fondue is popular here. They also produce pork products, especially smoked types.
Alsace-Lorraine has some Germanic influences and besides the famous quiche Lorraine, is known for its sauerkraut with goes well with their sausage, French onion soup, hardy cheeses and other pork products. These all go very well with the crisp wine made in the area.
Paris and the environs is an ethnic melting pot. The capital of France actually has a large Moroccan influence and you can get some great Tagines there. These are stews made in a special pot often consisting of a meat and fruit combination.
Next to Paris is the Champagne region. The terrain is a perfect for growing cabbage, turnips, beets and, well, champagne grapes. There is also some nice brie cheese to be had, which goes very well with a glass of the bubbly.
The best wines to eat with any of these regional dishes are the ones MADE in the same area. It makes sense, doesn’t it? There were some amazing dishes made this week. Check out Cathy’s blog to get a great endive salad! Here are two I was especially fond of:
MOULES MARINEIRE (Mussels with White Wine) and PAILLAISSON DE POMMES DE TERRE AUX POIREAUX (Straw Potato Cake Stuffed with Braised Leeks)
- For the Mussels:
- 4 oz unsalted butter
- 2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
- ½ bottle dry white wine
- 5 lbs mussels, scrubbed and debearded
- ½ bunch parsley, finely chopped
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 baguette
- For the potatoes:
- 1 lb leeks, white part plus 1” of green, julienned, washed and dried
- 5 tablespoons butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled
- ¼ C clarified butter
- For the mussels:
- Melt butter in a large, deep skillet with a lid over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until soft and golden, about 15 minutes. Add wine and mussels and cover. Shake the skillet regularly, holding the lid down firmly and continue to cook until the mussels open, about 10 minutes. Discard any mussels that don’t open.
- Divide mussels and their broth between 6 warmed soup bowls. Sprinkle generously with parsley and pepper. Serve with bread to soak up the broth.
- For the potatoes:
- In a medium sized saucepan, melt 2 tbsps butter. Add the leeks and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add remaining 3 tbsps butter. Cover and cook without browning, 20 minutes.
- Stir in the cream and boil down to thicken. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cool, uncovered.
- Cut the potatoes into very thin matchsticks. Rinse in several changes of water. Drain. Spread on a kitchen towel to dry. Roll the towel and potatoes up and squeeze out all excess water.
- Heat the clarified butter in a large nonstick skillet. Spread half the potatoes to cover the bottom of the skillet. Top with the braised leeks, leaving a 1” margin around the edge. Cover with remaining potatoes and pat to form a cake about 10” in diameter. Cover and cook for 5-10 minutes over medium heat. Lift cover to allow steam to escape. Wipe the inside of the cover dry. Cover and cook 5-10 minutes longer or until potatoes are done. Carefully remove the cover so the moisture doesn’t drip onto the potatoes. Tilt the skillet and spoon off any excess butter. Reserve.
- Cover the skillet in invert so the potatoes rest on the lid. Return the butter to the skillet and heat. Slide cake back into the skillet, browned side up. Continue cooking, uncovered, over medium heat for about 10 minutes or until potatoes are tender and browned. Slide onto a serving dish, sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve at once.
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