The French Connection to Food

Alsace, France

The title alone has probably scared off a multitude of home cooks. For some reason, merely saying the words French Cuisine elicits disparate reactions. For foodies it brings slobbering adulation and visions of silky sauces, rich exotic meats and decadent desserts. For diners it can be the fear of being mocked by snooty waiters for using the wrong fork with their salads and fumbling through the menu with Jimmy Durante style verbal gymnastics. For the home cook, and many first year culinary students, the thought of cooking French food just brings fear. Sometimes the French act like they invented the entire concept of eating. It seems that in America we worry more about what we shouldn’t eat rather than enjoying what we do eat. The French have a cultural appreciation for food and wine that is absent from many regions of this country. Not every French meal is a seven course 30-dirty-pots destroyer of kitchens. Neither is every Gallic dish laden with snails and organ meats. The latest hip trend here is to eat local and farm to table foods, the French couldn’t imagine eating any other way.

Alsace, France

My favorite French dishes have rustic rural roots rather than Parisian pompousness. In France, regionalism and freshness reigns supreme in the kitchen. One region, whose cuisine has always attracted my attention, is Alsace. Located in the northeast corner of France, Alsace is nestled against the river Rhine next to Germany and Switzerland. At various points throughout its long history, Alsace has belonged to Germany and this is reflected in its gastronomy. Alsace belies the fact the man and politics can alter borders and allegiances but not an Epicureanism that is rooted in the earth, streams, fields, and forest. To be sure there are elements of Germanic cuisine such as sausages, spaetzle sauerkraut and beer, but to call Alsatian food a French/German hybrid does a disservice to all three cuisines. The distinctiveness of this region is demonstrated in its beverage selection. Rich rural farmland produces grapes such as Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and Sylvaner producing great white wines in a country associated with robust reds. Orchards and meadows yield a bounty of fruits which are distilled into potently aromatic eaux-de-vie. Then there is beer. Alsace is the largest beer producing and consuming region in France. All of these beverages pair well with the local fare and are also prominent in the food. This pairing is notably showcased in one of the region’s most famous dishes Coq-Au-Riesling.

A variant on the French classic Coq-Au-Vin, the Alsatian staple features the area’s best known wine. Fruity yet not as sweet as its Germanic cousins Alsatian Riesling lightens the flavor and color of the burgundy rich Coq-au-Vin. Finished with cream from local dairies this dish stands out as example of a cuisine adapting to its terrain. No discussion of Alsatian cuisine would be complete without mentioning my favorite culinary animal, the pig.

Alsace, France. Photo by Liam Heffernan

How could I not fall in love with a region the embraces the humble swine as much as the Alsatians? Pork in all its varied incarnations is well represented on the menu and the table. lardons of crispy slab bacon enhance Coq-au-Riesling as well as TarteFlambee. TarteFlambee or Flammekuche is the Alsatian take on pizza. A crisp wood oven fired crust is laden with fresh from the cow Fromage blanc, caramelized onions and strips of fat-streaked bacon. A dish composed from these rich earthen flavors can only be described with one word – Yum. Pork is also prevalent in the sausages and terrines that promiscuously appear in the brasseries and cafes of the towns and villages. The French art of charcuterie is living culinary history in Alsace. Fatty Foie Gras and smoke-tinged hams are produced with techniques that are several centuries old. The region is also famous for its earthenware pottery that often burst with gastronomic delights such a Chou-croute, a mild French version of sauerkraut served with juniper berries and sausage or braised meat, and Backhoeffe a casserole that explodes from its container with a trio of meats, potatoes and leeks. Alsace is a marriage of fertile land tied together with its people, craftsmanship and cuisine.

Explore this rich culinary heritage with the following recipes for TarteFlambee, Alsatian Salad, Coq Au Riesling and Fromage Blanc Tarte. Fill a glass with crisp Riesling or hoppy lager and enjoy a cuisine that is strongly tied to its land people and history. Until Next month, Bon Appétit

TarteFlambeeor/Flammekueche

When I first started planning this class every student I talked to said this was a must do dish. It is rustic and revolves around atypical Alsatian ingredients: slab bacon, fromage blanc, caramelized onions and crème fraîche. This tart lets you know you are in a fertile culinary landscape. Simple, yet rich, it is a great starter that pairs well with beer or wine.

The Dough

Starter: Mix ¼ cup flour ¼ cup, 100 degree water, 1 tbsp sugar and 1 pkg yeast. Let rest in warm spot 3- minutes. When frothy, add ¼ cup beer and ¼ cup milk, plus 2 tbsp.

In food processor add 2 cups flour and 1 tsp salt. Slowly add yeast mixture to flour. Process until ball forms. Do not over mix. Let rest 30 minutes. Roll out into very thin rectangle.

The Topping

  • 1 onion, julienned and caramelized, cooled
  • 4 oz slab bacon, cut into lardons and cooked until crispy (Lardon is a strip or cube of fat or bacon used in larding meat)
  • 1 cup crème fraîche, seasoned with salt pepper and nutmeg

Add cooled onions to crème fraîche. Spread over crust, sprinkle with sprinkle with lardons and fromage blanc. Bake at 450 degrees for 20 minutes.

Alsatian Salad

  • 2 heads Bibb lettuce
  • 4 oz jambon diced (Jambon de Paris is a wet-cured, boneless ham, which is served cold in thin slices)
  • 5 oz garlic sausage, cut into thick half moons, warmed
  • 4 hard cooked eggs
  • 2 tomatoes wedged
  • 2 lbs small waxy potatoes, cooked quartered, kept warm
  • 8 oz gruyere, diced
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • Chopped parsley

Arrange torn bibb lettuce leaves on plate. Top with warmed potatoes and sausage then gruyere and ham. Garnish with egg quarters, tomatoes and onion. Drizzle with vinaigrette and parsley.

The Vinaigrette

Mix 2 tsp Dijon mustard with 2 tbsp wine vinegar and 5 tbsp olive oil. Season. Mix well. Serve with neutral white wine like Pinot Blanc.

Coq Au Riesling

This is the Alsatian variant of the French classic Coq Au Vin. Alsace is famous for its Riesling wine so it is natural that the crisp white replaces the hearty red in this version. Finished with a hint of crème fraiche or cream and served with spaetzle, this dish can be at home on a farmers table or local brasserie.

  • 1 stewing hen, cut in 8 pieces
  • 3 onions, julienned
  • 8 oz slab bacon, cut in lardon
  • 1 lb mushrooms, quartered
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • Sprigs of thyme
  • 1 bottle Riesling
  • Chicken stock

In Dutch oven, melt butter. Add lardons and cook until crispy. Remove and reserve. Season hen with salt and pepper. Brown 3-5 minutes each side. Remove patting off excess fat. Add onions and mushrooms to pan. Cook until softened. Deglaze with wine, scraping pan to add flavor to the sauce. Add fowl back in. Add thyme. Cover bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Add bacon back in. cook 15 more minutes. Remove chicken to platter. Garnish with bacon, onions and mushrooms. To the pan, reduce liquid. Add crème fraiche and parsley. Pour over chicken. Serve with spaetzle.

Alsatian Spaetzle

  • 7 eggs
  • 1 kilo Semolina
  • salt

Mix. Let rest. Cut with knife into boiling water.

Tarte Fromage Blanc

The Crust

  • 1⅓ cups flour
  • ½ cup butter
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • ¼ cup water
  • Pinch salt

In bowl blend all ingredients except water. Work dough until it resemble bread crumb. Slowly add water until dough forms. Let rest one hour. Roll out thin and line deep tart pan. Prick crust with fork. Refrigerate 10 minutes. Bake 10 minutes. Cool. Fill with cheese mix.

  • 1 lb fromage blanc
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • ⅔ cup superfine sugar vanilla scented
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • ⅓ cup heavy cream
  • 3½ tbsp. cornstarch

In bowl mix cheese cream sugar egg yolks and lemon until smooth whip whites until stiff fold into cheese mix pour into crust bake at 400 for 40 minutes cool and serve with stewed rhubarb.

Stewed Rhubarb

  • 2 lbs diced rhubharb
  • 1½ cups sugar

Cook covered on low heat 1½ hours.

Persnickety Note: the French peel their rhubarb and asparagus. If you are expecting red rhubarb don’t peel it.