French menus are, at best, confusing, and at worst, completely incomprehensible to the poor lay person out to wine and dine in style. Waiters with attitude, chefs with accents, intimidating service and descriptions which are not translated, bear testament to the mystique and, I have to say, the distance French food has created for itself. This is a great pity.
French cuisine is really the basis of fine European food and is steeped in tradition and classic techniques. Cuisine in French could mean the simple ‘kitchen’, it could mean ‘cooking’ and it also refers to the myriad recipes, techniques and styles which give it its deserved reputation for being part of an elegant lifestyle.
I love France, and I speak French. France shaped my adolescence, and Paris took care of my culinary upbringing and structure. I am, therefore, a little biased. However, I do recognize that in this era of approachable and trendy global menus, where chefs use Moroccan accents, Thai ingredients and Indian cooking techniques and everybody is quite happy to drink affordable and easy New World wines, France has somewhere, somehow, lost out. So, let me start by unravelling the mystery behind classic French dishes.
Let’s start with the beginning of the menu. Paté and terrine are two basic starters. They are often confused, but are quite different dishes. A paté is a cooked mixture of minced meat and offal (usually liver). At the top of the scale you have foie gras (literally ‘fat liver’), which comes from goose or duck. The pure liver is best eaten just gently fried as is. I trained for a while at the famous three-star Michelin restaurant, Lucas Carton, in Paris, where they served foie gras steamed in spring cabbage leaves, accompanied by just thick sea salt and cracked pepper—purity itself. This is really, for me, what French food is all about: a few quality ingredients, well put together. A paté of foie gras is liver mixed with other ingredients such as clarified butter and herbs, and made into a paste. It can be eaten as is or cooked in a bain marie (double boiler). You also have patés made with rabbit and pork and so on. Mushroom pate is a delicious vegetarian option.
The basks: A terrine is French food at its simplest
A terrine is essentially any dish made in a terrine, a rectangular earthenware dish with a tight-fitting lid, the size of a small loaf of bread, in which you traditionally put a mix of chopped meat and fat. The whole lot is cooked in a bath of boiling hot water in the oven. When cool, it is served in slices and has a coarser texture than paté. Recently, with the need to invent more vegetarian options on menus, a whole landscape of vegetarian terrines has appeared. Some are cooked. Others are set in aspic (clear, savoury jelly).
The other day, at my book launch at The Hilton Towers in Mumbai, we had a fabulous roasted pepper one, prepared by Chef Matthew Cropp of The Oberoi. It needs no cooking, just some advance preparation. Here is the recipe.
Bell Pepper Terrine
500gm yellow peppers, roasted
500gm red peppers, roasted
500gm green peppers, roasted
4 tsp salt
3 tsp cracked black pepper
½ cup fresh basil leaves, torn into bits
200gm tapenade (olive paste, optional)
100gm Balsamic reduction
100gm olive oil
Place the roasted peppers in a bowl and toss with olive oil, a sprinkling of salt and pepper till all are well coated. Arrange in a baking tray and roast in the oven at 200°C for 20 minutes. Remove and let cool, peel and deseed.
Line a terrine mould with cling film and layer the peppers in alternate coloured layers. In between each layer, season and sprinkle a few basil leaves. Seal the top with cling film and place a heavy weight on top for at least 12 hours prior to using. Remove from the mould and re-roll in fresh cling film very carefully. With a very sharp knife, slice the terrine into ½ inch slices, discard the film and place directly onto individual plates.
You can serve the terrine with some lettuce and steamed asparagus spears. For something really fancy, reduce balsamic vinegar over the gas until you get about half the quantity. When cool, drizzle alongside the terrine. Garnish with tapenade.
Write to Karen Anand at firstname.lastname@example.org