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Impossibly elegant, French...and not too difficult?

I'd like to make a really special French meal, but I'm so pressed for time these days. I'd love some suggestions for beautiful and delicious recipes that aren't too time consuming. I'm up for a good five or six hours in the kitchen, but I can't start by making brown veal stock, or assemble dishes with numerous components.

For dessert, I'll serve pears poached in red wine with vanilla and black pepper, and filled with sweetened mascarpone cream. It's gorgeous, and only takes about an hour to make. What are the analogues for the first course and entree?

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  1. it depends on some of the qualifiers that you'd like to add to further flesh out your requirements for elegant, special, beautiful and delicious. That and perhaps what the point of this meal is supposed to be.

    Oeuf mayonnaise as an example can be transformed to match those descriptors but isn't necessarily what you'd be looking for at the end of the day. And I can make numerous French dishes that will take the better part of 6 hours without involving fond brun and numerous components.

    2 Replies
    1. re: wattacetti

      Sorry, I should have said dinner. Dinner with candles. For my husband's birthday and a couple of people who would be really excited to be served to be served a fancy French meal. White tablecloth.

      As for what might be "elegant, special, beautiful, delicious" --- I'm going to have to leave that up to posters to interpret. Something that will look nice on a plate a plus.

      1. re: CathleenH

        That tells lots and I'll assume that you have good skills and won't worry too much budget-wise. I'll also assume that you actually want to eat with your husband and your guests. Your selection of what to make will depend on whether you want to do restaurant service (individual plating; my personal preference for white tablecloth events) or family-style service.

        I'd suggest a relatively simple starter and concentrate on a more extravagant main, partially so that people can anticipate it and partially to make best use of your time.

        For this you could do leek and potato soup (about as French a potage as one can get), rillettes, brandade de morue and the like. Simple, make-ahead, minimal fuss for service prep.

        Saw the posts suggesting boeuf en croute (and the Wellington), and would suggest that unless you`ve made them before, you avoid anything in a pastry case. Theres always the issue of overshooting the cooking of the beef or undercooking the thing and getting soggy pastry and you don`t need that stress for a first go.

        Boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin - both nice, but both nicer if you've got lead time to make the day ahead. I have had lots of conversations as to how to make each look pretty but that depends on personal style.

        Caroline1 has already suggested Tournedos Rossini, which would give an opportunity to showcase foie gras and truffles. Nice dish and quite do-able if you've got your timing down because overcooked foie gras = pool of oil. She is right about top-flight ingredients so unless you have access to the ingredients, set it aside. If you're going to buy black truffles make sure they're from France as the less-expensive Chinese and Australian ones don't taste or smell right. For foie gras, get duck foie gras for this recipe since it can be seared; goose foie gras is harder to obtain and can't really be cooked this way.

        I'm going to throw the following two suggestions into the ring:

        Sole meunière: it's one of *the* French fish classics and will be one of the recipes that will test your capabilities because its simplicity gives you plenty of rope to hang yourself with several times over. Since there are four fillets on a flatfish, if you get a large enough sole you'll just have to cook one fish and can then do tableside service.

        Poulet en demi-deuil: lots of variations on this but in its most basic form, it's a roast chicken with slices of black truffle slipped under the skin of the chicken breast. You'll need a really good chicken (the best version I've had of this was made with poulet de Bresse), black truffle, and butter. If you wanted to be like Alain Passard, you would roast the bird in a pan on top of the stove (not in the oven) and turn the bird with your bare hands (because metal will taint the taste). If you wanted to be Paul Bocuse, you'd put a piece of foie gras into the cavity and then put the chicken into a pig bladder with vin jaune before poaching and roasting. If you want to be realistic, just roast the thing in your oven after you've prepped the bird (truffled breast, trussed, slather in butter) and again carve tableside and serve with a chicken jus mounted with butter.

        Even if you go with something else, if your main dish permits, make and serve Joël Robuchon's pomme purée (the mashed potato that won a third Michelin star).

        And don't forget appropriate wines and consider a small cheese course before your dessert.

    2. On a recent episode of French Food at Home, she did some dishes to impress.

      Boeuf en Croute

      Grilled Sea Bass with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Broccoli Puree

      There is also a beautiful roast lamb and some other very elegant recipes. I would just peruse through her stuff.

      For your first course I don't know if you are planning on making a soup or salad but she has those as well. I would also try Epicurious and just type in French first courses.

      1 Reply
      1. re: AmandaCA

        Bouef en Croute could be a great option. (And you've got me thinking about the many uses of Dufour puff pastry...

      2. Poulet a l'estragon is not too time consuming if you can get fresh tarragon. I cut this recipe out of a food & wine article about Pepin from March 2003, and have made it many times. Here's a link to the recipe I found by googling; the original recipe called form 2 chicken breast halves on the bone and 2 whole chicken legs, you'll see the blogger substituted all thighs:


        The headnotes to the recipe in Food & Wine state that active time is 30 minutes, and total prep time is 1 hour 15 minutes. I rarely complete recipes within times given, and this one is no different, but it won't take more than two hours total.

        1. My favourite French first course is a mixed crudite (apologies - can't work out how to get the accent over the "e"). I think with a careful choice of vegetables and good plating up, this could be an elegant idea. And completely easy peasy.

          Alternatively, if your local supermarket stocks a decent ready made fish stock, then you've got the basis for another very easy seafood soup. Certainly as elegant as you want it to be.

          For a main course, perhaps poached chicken. Looks wonderful and lends itself to serving some vegetables with bold colours - maybe some wild mushrooms sauteed.

          1. I love Julia Child's Steak Diane. I'm not at home so don't have the book handy (Julie Child &Co.) and can't find an online recipe. But it SO easy, delicious and fun. If you cancheck out the book from the library, you can see if it suits.

            1. Coquilles St Jacques is a nice, elegant dish that would pair well w/ poached pears for dessert. There are many variations. I like Emeril's:


              Along the idea of AmandaCA's beouf en croute, you could also do beef wellington.

              5 Replies
              1. re: chowser

                Although use of the word "Wellington" suggests this is a British, not French dish. Named after the army commander who beat Napolean's army?]

                And isnt there a strong case for suggesting that Steak Diane, in the modern sense of the dish involving flambe, is an American not French creation?

                1. re: Harters

                  Here's an interesting piece on Steak Diane:


                  And is "flambe" both a French word and technique? Not at all knowledgable about French cooking but I've been making this dish as a special meal for about 30 years and LOVE it.

                  1. re: Harters

                    Ooh, that was a brain blip, I don't know what I was thinking. I think beouf on croute made me thing Wellington.

                    1. re: Harters

                      Re Beef Wellington, not that Wiki is the be-all, end-all but this is a fun story:


                    2. re: chowser

                      I was going to suggest Coquilles St. Jacques, too, and the Emeril recipe looks very good. Hard to get more French than Coquilles St. Jacques.

                      How about a cream soup to start? What's your husband's favorite vegetable?

                    3. This:

                      It is one of the most delicious, subtle, and rich fish dishes ever.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Isolda

                        Salade au lard (frisee with roquefort, bacon lardons & croutons in a mustard vinaigrette) and steak au poivre with frites. Over & out in 30 minutes & a classic intro to your poached pears

                        1. re: Isolda

                          Isolda, that sounds wonderful. I think I'll make salmon this way next time. Thanks.

                        2. You mention time restrictions but not a word about budget restrictions. There are dishes that are elegantly French, fairly time consuming but can be spread over a day or two for time management, and are relatively inexpensive. And then there are realy easy to prepare knock-their-socks off elegant French dishes that take minutes to prepare but are pretty expensive, so you're kind of asking us what size shoe you need without showing us your whole foot.

                          For a first course, one of my all time favorites is oysters Rockefeller. I served them as the first course for many years as part of Christmas dinner. For simpler, but very last minute, I like to wrap slices of prosciutto or very thinly sliced hard salami around long thin Italian bread sticks and serve them three to a plate with a martini glass of cantaloup balls with a grating of lime zest.

                          I would be cautious about the beef Wellington/pate en croute (the French don't mention anything related to the Duke of Wellington all that often) because it can be pretty challenging when it comes to keeping the crust from turning soggy. If I wanted to prep a Wellington ahead of time, I would lay out sheets of plastic, and then do EVERYTHING on the plastic I would do on the puff pastry, refrigerate that a day ahead of time, remove from the fridge in plenty of time for it to regain room temperature, THEN I would wrap it in the puff pastry and roast in time for dinner. Caveat: I always line my puff pastry.with a layer of prosciuto or other very dense dry ham as a moisture barrier so that the bottom of the puff pastry doesn't get soggy during roasting. For night-before prep, I would cover the plastic wrap with the prosciuto (no gaps!), then lay on the layer of duxelle, top it with a layer of pate if you so choose (and I strdipe the pate with rounds of black winter truffles), then lay on the whole browned tenderloin, tail tucked to promote even thickness of the whole, lift the plastic wrap to encase the tenderloin in the layers of ham, duxelle, pate and truffles (if you choose to use pate and truffles) and form it into a nice giant sausage to cool in the fridge over night. Then proceed with the bringing to room temperature and wrapping in puff pastry before roasting. If you're good at cutting intricate little shapes, like leaves and flowers, out of the left over puff pastry and decorate the finished "package" with them, then egg washed prior to roasting, you can turn out a presentation for boeuf en croute that will take their breath away!

                          If budget is not a problem but time is, I would go with a very haute-cuisine/Escoffier/mid-20th-century elegant and classic French dish called tournedos Rossini. Done right, the presentation is gorgeous and the flavors are incredible. This dish requires premium everything, including dry aged USDA prime beef. For tournedos Rossini you need a loaf of artisan French bread, a whole tenderloin you will cut yourself or one tournedo per person cut by your butcher to 1.5 to 2 inches thick from the LARGE end of the tenderloin, You also need a lobe of foie gras OR 1/4 thick slices of foi gras, one for each steak, a nice fat French black winter (Perigord) truffle (canned or fresh), some cognac, some demi-glace and lots of drawn butter. METHOD: Slice foie gras into 1/4 inch slices and trim them into rounds so they approximate the size of the steaks if possible, or into the largest rounds you can get from that size lobe of foie gras. Cover with plastic and keep ready. Peel carefully then slice the black truffle into 1/8 to 1/16 inch thick rounds (the size of the truffle will determine the diameter of the rounds), one per steak, and set aside. Mince remaining truffle and its peel fine and place in a small saucepan with about a quarter cup of liquid and simmer gently while you cook. Mince a shallot fine and set aside, "mise en place" fashion. Cut the bread to produce slices the same thickness and diameter as the steaks, preferably crustless, and saute in drawn butter until nicely browned on both sides using a good oven-safe frying/saute pan of sufficient diameter to hold all of the croutons at one time (meaning it will also hold all of the steaks at one time with NO crowding!). Set croutons aside to drain on paper towels. Set appropriate number of serving plates to warm. Raise the heat under the pan and add more drawn butter if needed. Make sure the steaks are patted perfectly dry, then add them to the pan and sear until nicely crusted, turn and set the pan in a hot oven checking regularly for medium rare. If you have no choice, you can use a needle thin probe digital thermometer, but a better way to check them is to press the steaks gently with a finger; they will be medium rare when they have the same resistance to pressure the fat pad at the base between your thumb and forefinger have when you make a tight fist. Remove pan from oven, place a crouton on each serving plate and set one tournedo on each crouton to rest while you continue with cooking/assembly. You can loosely set a sheet of aluminum foil over them to help preserve heat, but do not make it snug. If needed, add some drawn butter to the pan you cooked the steaks in and add the minced shallots to cook gently until softened. Add some drawn butter to a small clean saute pan, dust the foie gras circles lightly with flour and brown quickly and remove, one slice atop each tournedo. Top that with a slice of black truffle. Deglaze the foie gras pan with the truffle liquid (it's okay if the minced truffles make it into the pan too) then add this to the pan you cooked the steaks in. If you used a small jar of canned truffles, you can use some of that liquid too, but leave some for the other truffles (if there are any) for future use, and add all of the minced truffles if there are any that didn't make it into the foie gras pan. Now add a tablespoon or so of demiglace and stir gently. Add a tablespoon of cognac (I like Courvoissier) or to taste. Taste for seasoning and add salt if desired but do taste first as the demi-glace is already seasoned. If flavor is too strong or sauce is too thick, it may be thinned with water, but it's pretty unlikely you'll need to do this. If the sauce isn't glossy enough, remove from heat and add some cold butter to it and stir until melted and sauce is glossy. Nap a tablespoon or more of sauce over each truffle sitting atop the tournedo assembly, garnish with a light sprinkling of chopped chives or one elegant leaf of parsley and serve immediately. I like to serve simple buttered asparagus spears as a side. The crouton absorbs the juices from the steak and no starch side is necessary.

                          And then there is always boeuf Bourguignon or coq au vin, both of which improve in flavor greatly when made a day or two ahead. Whatever you decide on, have a Great party!

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: Caroline1

                            And where do you live? I can fly in for dinner anytime, lol! ;)

                              1. re: E_M

                                LOL! You and mcel215 are funny. Come on! But be warned: I think my pantry is down to my last small jar of small truffles! <sigh>

                            1. re: Caroline1

                              When you write about some of these dishes, I always think of Daddy saying he wished he'd been born rich instead of so doggone good-looking :)

                              1. re: c oliver

                                Ooooh! If you really want to do over-the-top with the tournedos Rossini, you can vary the recipe a bit and top the truffle slice with one perfectly fluted mushroom robed in 24k gold leaf for some real dazzle! It's called gilding the lily, or tournedo in this case. '-)