The first time I ate true French food was when my parents took me to France for three months during the summer of 1995. I was seven, which is perhaps not the best age to be introduced to a cuisine that considers snails a delicacy and doesn't really do peanut butter.
Fortunately, I quickly developed a taste for two of the most common meals at Parisian cafes and restaurants: steak haché avec pommes frites and salade niçoise. For snacks, I dined on Nutella crêpes or fresh baguettes with stinky cheese and a bottle of Orangina. And dessert! Well, convincing me to eat pastries was never a chore, what with the bounty of heavenly éclairs, palmiers and fruit tarts displayed like jewels in patisserie windows.
One of the most exciting days of that summer was Bastille Day, a celebration in remembrance of the storming of the Bastille prison during the French Revolution. The festivities involve fireworks, parades, drunken revelry and, of course, lots and lots of food.
Bastille Day, or as they call it in France, la Fête de la Fédération, marked a turning point in the French Revolution. On the morning of July 14, 1789, the proletariat French citizens, fed up with their treatment by the aristocracy, surged into the prison (which to them represented royal tyranny) with the goal of obtaining gunpowder and ammunition to use in later conflicts against the royal military. There was no clear winner in the battle that ensued, but shortly after the storming of the Bastille, feudalism was abolished in France, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed. It was made an official holiday in 1880, and today it is celebrated with the same amount of fanfare and fireworks with which we celebrate the Fourth of July.
Because France holds a special place in my heart, I choose to celebrate Bastille Day in some form every year. Generally, this involves French food and a drunken conversation or two in my broken French. However, because Julia Child I am not, I've learned how to do French cuisine the simple, easy way with good ingredients and copious amounts of wine (to be consumed both during cooking and the subsequent meal).
Here are a few of my favorite French recipes. Try them out this July 14 for a meal that is truly magnifique!
Steak Haché avec Pommes Frites
Here's a secret about French food: Sometimes it's a lot like American food just with a fancier name. Steak haché is much like a hamburger, and pommes frites are french fries. Though the French have a (unwarranted, in my opinion) reputation for being food snobs, they really do enjoy a good burger and fries. It would be best to go to a local meat market for the steak meat, as it should be more coarsely ground than hamburger meat and steak quality.
For the steak haché you will need: 1 ½ lbs ground beef crushed peppercorns salt
Divide the ground meat into six even parts and form into oval shapes, then flatten slightly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat a heavy skillet on medium-high, but do not add any cooking fat. Once the skillet is hot, add the patties, cooking about five minutes on each side (add an extra three minutes if you want it well done). Serve with herbed butter and absolutely no buns. Serves six.
For the frites you will need: 6 large russet potatoes coarse salt 4 cups vegetable oil
Wash and peel potatoes, then cut lengthwise into strips 1/4 inch to 1/3 inch thick all around. Rinse the strips, then pat dry. Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet or pot until a deep-fry thermometer registers 325 degrees. Add half of the potatoes and cook until they start to turn gold, about five minutes. Remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon and let them cool on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Repeat with other half of potatoes. Once first batch has cooled, heat the oil to 400 degrees and return the first batch to the pot until they are crisp and golden brown, about two minutes. Repeat with second batch. Toss in salt and serve warm. Serves six.
There are a number of variations on the salade niçoise depending upon the region in which you eat it. The great thing about it is if you don't like something in it, you don't have to include it. It's a very versatile little number. Some recipes call for potatoes, some for basil and some for peas or radishes. Add red onions or capers if you want. One thing is certain, though: It must have those tiny niçoise olives.
You will need: 1 lb mesclun lettuce mix 6 large tomatoes like Saint Pierres 1 green bell pepper 12 oz green beans (you can get the steam-in-bag kind) 1 cucumber 3 green onions 6 hard-boiled eggs 12 anchovy fillets 10 oz tuna (canned or fresh) 2/3 cup olive oil 1 tbs Dijon mustard 1/3 cup red wine vinegar salt and pepper
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Fill a large salad bowl with the lettuce. Chop tomatoes, bell pepper, cucumber, green onions and hard-boiled eggs and arrange them along with the green beans, olives and fish in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Mix olive oil, mustard, red wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste in a measuring cup. Pour over salad and serve.
For dessert, I recommend a cheese and fruit platter. French cheeses like chèvre, brie, mimolette and Roquefort pair well with grapes and pears.
Oh, and don't forget the wine. Though it can be interesting and rewarding to pair wine with food, for this meal just make sure it's French and that it never stops flowing during your four-hour meal.