Mimi Sheraton recommends foods to eat on Bastille Day, excerpted from 1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die
What better way to celebrate France’s greatest holiday than by indulging in some of the delicious classics of that unbeatable cuisine? Fortunately, considering the possibilities of a simmering July heatwave, that cuisine includes a number of light and even cooling dishes that rank as high among gastronomes as France’s luscious soups, stews, and braised meats. Following are nine enticing examples that might inspire you to start humming “La Marseillaise.” To learn more about any of these foods, just click on one of the photos below.
Escargots à la Bourguignonne
A classic French bistro meal with steak frites as the main course allows for only one choice as a starter: escargots à la bourguignonne. These plump snails are nestled in their shells and bathed in an aromatic sauce of garlic, shallots, parsley, and lots of hot butter. Eaten scalding hot between sips of red wine and nibbles of little crusts of bread soaked in their tantalizing juices, six of these slow-moving wonders make a fine appetizer, although a dozen is more than twice as good.
There are many other ways to prepare snails, and many riffs on this classic, a delicacy since ancient Roman times; but none shows them off to such great advantage as escargots à la bourguignonne. One allowable deviation: ditching the shells, from which the snails have to be removed and cleaned (tediously) and then replaced (laboriously).
In fact, there is so much handwork involved in this presentation that many restaurant owners, mindful of labor costs, eliminate the dish from their menus entirely. Function would suggest that, once out of the shells, snails are more conveniently nestled in the indentations of the special small casseroles made for the purpose. Still, there is a certain amount of fun in the challenge of grasping the hot and buttery shells in the appropriate clamps and wresting the snails from the winding interior with the typical two-tined fork.
For the record, escargots à la bourguignonne are not to be confused with escargots de Bourgogne. The first refers to snails served in their highly perfumed butter; the second defines snails raised in Burgundy, where they feed on grape leaves to become what are considered France’s best. Any of France’s snails, however, are better than the canned variety imported from China that are often fishy and bitter—so whether fresh or canned, try to discover the source.
Where: In Paris, L’Ami Louis, tel 33/1-48-87-77-48; in New York, Bar Boulud, tel 212-595-0303, barboulud.com/nyc. Further information and recipes: The Food of France by Waverley Root (1992); saveur.com (search snails in garlic herb butter).
Dover Sole à la Meunière
Whatever else may prompt controversy in the French kitchen, most French cooks would agree that the only way to treat a delicately flavored Dover sole is in the classic preparation, à la meunière—in the style of the miller’s wife. What the good woman brings to her poisson is a fine dusting of flour that protects the fish, which gilds in an oval meunière pan large enough to hold the entire sole. Leaving skin and bones intact ensures that no juices are lost and uncompromised texture and flavor remain.
The result is a firm, pearly fish as enticing as a fresh sea breeze, enhanced only by hot, nutbrown butter, a dash of lemon juice, and a sprinkling of bright green parsley. Ideally, the fish should be opened at the table, the fillets deftly lifted off the bone with surgical skill by trained restaurant captains, who seem to belong to an endangered species.
So simple a preparation requires the utmost attention to detail on the part of the chef. In addition to the fresh, authentic Dover sole caught in the North Sea waters around the British Isles, a proper result demands that the copper sauté pan be lined with tin, which imparts just the right golden-brown finish; the only alternative is stainless steel—a bit trickier to handle, as it can develop hot spots that scorch the fish. The butter must be unsalted, and clarified prior to cooking to remove the milk solids—basically sugars—that might blacken under the high heat required for quick sautéing. All of which might explain why this specialty, not to be mistaken for the layman’s filet of sole meunière, fetches between $50 and $75 a portion in New York City restaurants.
Steamed white rice or dry, floury boiled new potatoes are about the only acceptable sides, although a little creamed spinach might not go amiss, nor would a glass or two of a dry white or light French red wine. This meal is a rite of passage for anyone with pretentions of gastronomic connoisseurship.
Nothing goes to waste in any frugal kitchen, least of all stale bread, which is cleverly worked into some of the Western world’s most beloved dishes. Of course, we’re all aware of French toast, known as pain perdu, or lost bread, but there are bread puddings; soup; and the cool and lovely Italian summer salad panzanella, among many others.
Along the Côte d’Azur, the desire to make use of stale bread led to the creation of this sustaining and remarkably healthful summer sandwich that is essentially a salade Niçoise heaped into a crusty loaf of French bread. Sliced in half lengthwise, the cut sides of the baguette are liberally rubbed with garlic and doused with olive oil, hence the name pan bagnat—bathed or wet bread. The fixings are layered in: thinly sliced tomatoes, onions, green peppers; always hard-boiled eggs; and either the soft, salty accents of anchovy fillets or dark tuna cured in olive oil. The final touch is tiny black olives Niçoise, authentically unpitted, though the hazards are obvious. Once composed, the sandwich is wrapped firmly in wax paper, covered with foil, and then pressed down with some kind of weight for about an hour. Thus all the ingredients meld together, and olive oil oozes out until it is a downright threat to pristine shirt fronts. A bib might well be in order.
So might a glass of cool white wine, or an astringent, licorice-tasting pastis. In his classic work on French Mediterranean food, Jacques Médecin recommends this sandwich as a mérenda or midmorning snack, or as “a wonderful summer hors-d’oeuvre, an excellent and practical component of the picnic basket, or even a complete meal if you are out fishing or if the weather is hot and your appetite is flagging.” Who could ask for anything more?
Where: In Nice, at stalls and cafés in the open market on the Cours Saleya. Further information and recipes: Cuisine Niçoise by Jacques Médecin (1991); Flavors of the Riviera by Colman Andrews (1996); saveur.com (search pan bagnat).
Humble celeriac (Apium graveolens rapaceum, also known as celery root or knob celery) is a bit like the Cinderella of celery. The bulbous, tangled knob grows underground while its better-known stalk sister is a favorite for salads and seasonings. But with a little attention and the proper dressing—in this case, the mustard seed–based mayonnaise known as rémoulade— celeriac becomes a star. Frugal French cooks long ago figured out that the creamy, soothing rémoulade made a perfect foil for the root, maximizing its clean and earthy flavor and toothsome texture.
To get the best out of celeriac, some work is required: First, its stalk, leaves, and tough darker outer layer must be peeled away with a sharp knife, preferably of stainless steel. When only ivory remains, the root must be julienned into ultrathin bite-size pieces and quickly dropped into water that has been acidulated with lemon juice or white vinegar. Once thoroughly drained, the slivers are tossed with rémoulade, creating a salad that serves as a crunchy, refreshing companion to charcuterie and seafood dishes or stands on its own as an hors d’oeuvre. It also makes a great unorthodox slaw for fish sandwiches or burritos.
Where: In California and Las Vegas, Bouchon Bistros, bouchonbistro.com. Further information and recipes: Bouchon by Thomas Keller (2004); cookstr.com (search celery remoulade). Tip: Celeriac is in season between winter and early spring; choose small to medium roots that are firm, and refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to a week.
In these days of culinary one-upmanship, the savory baked custard tart known as quiche might include bits of almost anything: seafood, meats, vegetables, herbs, cheeses, and perhaps even fruit. But the one, the only, and still the most delectable is the original quiche Lorraine, which to be truly authentic may include only bacon, eggs, cream, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
Although the incident may have faded from memory, quiche became something of an American joke in 1982. The publication of Bruce Feirstein’s bestselling book Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, a send-up of modern macho culture, succeeded for a while in branding the tart as sissy food—an undeserved slight for a delicious dish that has been around since the sixteenth century, when the French invented it in the northeastern city of Nancy, then the capital of the Lorraine region. (In an etymological twist that may only add fuel to the sissy-food fire, the word quiche is said to have been adapted from the German küchen, or cake; possibly because, though its pastry crust has long been standard, quiche Lorraine was originally made with bread dough.)
Now a gender-neutral staple of brunch menus across America, it is usually accompanied by a green salad. More substantially and dramatically, in Lorraine it is traditionally served on May Day along with roast suckling pig in aspic.
Where: In Paris, Angelina, tel 33/1-42-60-82- 00, angelina-paris.fr; in New York, François Payard Bakery, tel 212-956-1775, fpbnyc.com; in Sonoma, The Girl & The Fig, tel 707-938-3634, thegirlandthefig.com. Further information and recipes: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck (1961); The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan (2007); saveur.com (search quiche lorraine julia child).
Salade Lyonnaise or Frisée aux Lardons
“After all, it’s only a salad,” a naïve dieter might proclaim, presuming any dish bearing that name to be beneficently light and nonfattening. Just as long as there is plenty of greenery in view, never mind what is tucked beneath.
Let’s hope the naïfs do go ahead and order this sumptuous salad from Lyon, the city famous for its lusty charcuterie and lavish cream-enhanced fare. More of a lunch main course than an appetizer, this salad combines springy frisée lettuce with a gently poached or boiled egg, the yolk still runny, and lardons. Chunks of sautéed chicken liver hidden under the greens add an even more velvety heft, and the whole is tossed with a red wine vinaigrette brightened by a hint of mustard and garlic.
In springtime, another version of this salad is made with the sprightly dandelion greens known as pissenlits—a play on wetting the bed that derives from the plant’s alleged diuretic effect. Considering how much the runny egg yolks, the wilting fat of the fried lardons, and the red-wine-vinegar-and-olive-oil dressing do to relax and enhance the piquantly bitter greens, it’s worth taking the risk.
Where: In Lyon, Daniel et Denise, tel 33/4-78-60-66-53, daniel-et-denise.fr; in Paris, Aux Lyonnais, tel 33/1-42-96-65-04, auxlyonnais .com; in New York, Bar Boulud, tel 212-595-0303, barboulud.com/nyc. Further information and recipes: Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud Cookbook by Daniel Boulud (1999); gourmet.com (search frisee salad with lardons and poached eggs).
Pots de Crème au Chocolat
When it comes to the outrageously rich French dessert known as pots de crème au chocolat, not much is lost in translation. The name refers to both the baked French custard and the small, lidded cups in which it’s steamed, and the dessert adds up to little pots of utterly thick, rich, creamy chocolate (and little else). Make no mistake—this is no chocolate mousse, and “airy” is not a property that applies to pots de crème. What is prized in this game is substance, which is why the acid test of a pot de crème is that a spoon dipped into its petite cup should stand upright unassisted. And yet, the dessert consists merely of cream, milk, eggs, sugar, and chocolate, which makes it a cousin to such canonical French dessert classics as crème brûlée and crème caramel. The key to its exceptional richness is the high proportion of egg yolks to whites; it is the abundance of yolks that creates its distinctively silky, smooth texture. The treat is also coddled a bit: While baking, the small pots are partially submerged in a bain-marie (water bath) and are steamed slowly at a low temperature until the just-right dense and seductive texture is achieved.
Further information and recipes: Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts by Maida Heatter (1995); Bouchon by Thomas Keller (2004); epicurious.com (search pots de creme).
These flaky golden pastry crescents are among the most iconic foods of France, found on standard petit dejeuner trays in even the dreariest of hotels and cafés—which means they are not always perfect.
To achieve that vaunted state, the croissants must be made with pure butter—never mind those adulterers who claim margarine produces a more reliable effect. The slightly sweet yeast dough must be turned in the manner of puff pastry in order to be what is technically known as yeast puff pastry—the same dough that distinguishes Danish and Viennese pastries at their best. Properly done, the results will be quintessentially buttery and messily flaky, with a yellow-white interior that is just the least bit elastic as it is pulled from the center to be spread with dabs of butter and perhaps some fresh fruit jam.
Those who like their croissants served warm are entitled to their choice, but heating results in a much softer crust and an interior that can be greasy. Customers with a sweet tooth will be well acquainted with the pain au chocolat based on the same yeast puff pastry, wrapped around a rod or two of bittersweet chocolate for an extra morning lift.
There was a time when all croissants in France were made in one reliable, authentic way. But these days, even some authentic patisseries will have two batches, one marked butter, the other margarine—so pay attention as you choose. In America, most croissants have become much too huge, on the theory that the customer will pay a higher price for a larger crescent, thereby covering the high cost of hand labor. Yet small croissants are preferable, yielding the right proportion of outer crisp crust and crunchy horn tips to a softer interior.
Although now universally synonymous with the home country of the baguette, the croissant is another of the gastronomic treasures western Europe supposedly won following the seventeenth-century siege of Vienna. To celebrate the defeat of the Turks by the Polish King John Sobieski, the story goes, the Viennese bakers formed this roll in the shape of the crescent on the Turkish flag. According to legend, coffee was introduced to Vienna at the same time, as the Viennese went into the deserted battlefields and scooped up the beans they had noticed the Turks brewing. The bagel, too, is considered by some to be a product of the same battle. What would breakfast be like if the Turks had won?
Where: In Paris, Pâtisserie Jean Millet, tel 33/1-45-51-49-80, www.chocoparis.com/jean-millet/. Further information and recipes: The Art of French Pastry by Jacquy Pfeiffer and Martha Rose Shulman (2013); cookstr.com (search croissants).
“Those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell.”
Who better to describe the spongy, fragrant blond tea cakes than Marcel Proust, who immortalized them as a touchstone for memory in Swann’s Way, the first book in his seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past. Biting into one as an adult, Proust began to recall the Sunday mornings as a child when his aunt shared the delicate pastries with him; suddenly his entire life flashed before him, and an epic was born.
Remarking on the literary mileage Proust eked out of that one small pastry, A. J. Liebling noted in Between Meals, “In light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite.” The formidable journalist and trencherman speculated that an even greater masterpiece might have resulted had Proust dined on a dozen oysters, a big bowl of clam chowder, steamer clams, scallops, soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of corn, two lobsters, and a duck.
To eat this little cake may be to indulge in cliché, but madeleines have considerable charms; the moist and buttery morsels are soft and light on the inside but satisfyingly crisp at the edges, with a simple flavor that makes them a favorite of children everywhere.
The origin of the madeleine is the subject of hot dispute. Commercial madeleine makers in the town of Commercy say that in 1755, King Stanislas of Lorraine was hosting a luncheon. When his mercurial chef stormed out of the kitchen during the meal, a young assistant saved the day by preparing a little cake similar to one her grandmother made. The king and his guests were so delighted that they named the cake after the girl, Madeleine. Another version suggests that madeleines were invented by Avice, Talleyrand’s pastry chef, while he was seeking to create a pound cake in miniature form. Still another tale insists that Marie Leczynska, the wife of Louis XV, perfected them with the advice of her own cook, Madeleine.
Although they are baked throughout France, the town of Commercy in Lorraine is considered the epicenter of their production. Proust fans flock there to buy the biscuits, traditionally packed in quaintly designed oval boxes.
The madeleine’s sweetly innocent flavor begins with a blend of egg yolks beaten with sugar and seasoned with grated lemon zest. Folded into flour and combined with snowy beaten egg whites and golden melted butter, the mixture is poured into pretty shell-shaped baking molds. Some recipes call for brandy, but in a quantity that, as Liebling put it, “would not furnish a gnat with an alcohol rubdown.” With or without it, the cakes exude a heavenly scent as they bake. The special metal baking pans with scalloped indentations produce equally charming results when filled with cornbread or gingerbread batter.
Where: In Paris, Blé Sucré, tel 33/1-43-40-77-73, blesucre.fr; in New York, La Maison du Macaron, tel 212-243-2757, nymacaron.com. Mail order: histoiresucree.com (search madeleines de commercy). Further information and recipes: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (1913); Between Meals by A. J. Liebling (1962); Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts by Maida Heatter (1999); smittenkitchen.com (search classic madeleines).