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Suggest great classic French recipes to learn?

So, I've been cooking for years, and have gotten quite good, though I spent the large majority of that time being a vegetarian, which concentrated my learning mostly on Asian cuisines. Now that I've begun cooking with meat, I know my way around a good braise, make a mean stock, etc. so I think it's time to finally tackle some serious classical french cuisine, which I know squat about outside of the main sauces...

Problem is, I don't know where I should start. Can you guys suggest dishes I could make that really embody the essence of french cuisine? I think a list of 10 serious things to cook would give me one hell of an entry into the cuisine - I'm already planning duck confit and cassoulet...

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  1. There's this book: French: The Secrets of Classic Cooking Made Easy by Carole Clements and Elizabeth Wolf-Cohen. I think it is published by a UK publisher. Anyway, I purchased this gem about 7 years ago--when I first started seeing "The Frenchman". I got it at Borders on the clearance rack for 6.00. SIX BUCKS and I am now on my second copy. Yes. The first copy became so dog-earred and filled with my sloppy spills that I had to search for a second copy. No kiddin'. Recipes are very simple. Very simple. This book taught me more about simple french cooking than Julia Child did. I'm not lying.
    Anyway, some simple dishes I've learned to make are pate's and terrines. Beef Bourg....., Chicken and grapes, I recently tried a Pot Au Feu (mostly Bourdain's recipe) that turned out great. Simple roast chicken (don't laugh--the French have a great way with a simple roast chicken). I've also learned to cook a mean whole fish thanks to his aunt who lives in Paris.
    If you want to learn how to make the best creme caramel or clafoutis, this mentioned book is for you. The desserts are simple--easy peasy and most excellent! It really is very easy stuff.
    Have fun!

    3 Replies
    1. re: jarona

      Looks like those 2 have published French cookbooks under a variety of names and publishers. I have their Hermes House picture book titled 'French, delicious classic cuisine made easy'.

      1. re: paulj

        You know paulj, I think it's the same book with a different title. I just checked it out on amazon and it looks like it could very well be the same book. What do you think of it--cause I love that book. It is so darn simple--but the results have been really great.

        1. re: jarona

          I have a dozen of the HH picture books, so am clearly sold on their editing style. There are a couple of other volumes that use more than this French one (Italy, Spain, Singapore), but I've gotten some good ideas from it. And the recipes (and presentation) are quite accessible, allowing me to quickly choose whether to try it or not.

          Tonight I made 'guinea hen with cabbage' - using a large chicken, leeks that I'd already cooked up, and half a head of cabbage. There are other preparations where the chicken stands out more, but this had some great vegetables, and a tasty broth. It would have been even better with a lean game bird. I was also inspired to make scalloped potatoes from this book, not that I need a recipe for that.

          If you want to spend more money on a cookbook, Dorie Greenspan has a large volume. I've done a stuffed pumpkin from that. In fact it's the recipe reviewed on Amazon

          I'd like to take a look at one of Laura Calder's books.

    2. A list of 10 classics off the top of my head...
      1. Coq au vin
      2. Boeuf bourguignon
      3. Onion soup gratin
      4. Bouillabaisse
      5. Moules mariniere
      6. Sole meunière
      7. Quiche lorraine
      8. Omelette with herbs
      9. Celeri remoulade
      10. Salade nicoise

      1. Cassoulet is a great place to start. In addition to those jaronaand benbenberi mentioned, here are some other suggestions:

        Pate en Croute
        Souffle au Fromage
        Coquilles St.-Jacques
        Rillettes de Caneton
        Choucroute Garnie
        Tarte Tatin
        Iles Flottantes

        1 Reply
        1. re: JoanN

          I heartily second Tarte Tatin...just be very careful when inverting it onto the plate! I hate Iles Flottants, but that's just me.

          Choucroute Garnie is a big favorite at our house. A great, hearty recipe especially at this time of year.


          Croque Monsieur AND Croque MADAME

          Poulet au Vinaigre and Poule au Pot

          Cotriade (I have started to put some chunks of a good Spanish chorizo sausage in mine.)

          Chicken or duck liver pate

          I also suggest a book that may be out of print, but also may be at local libraries - it's The Hundred Glories of French Cooking by Robert Courtine. All the well-known faves are there and it's quite a lovely book. I think I got it at the Strand years ago. How I love that bookstore. I mean, all that we have left out here in Berkeley/Oakland is Moe's on Telegraph Avenue. It seems to be thriving. All the rest are gone - Cody's, Black Oak, along with the record stores. Sigh.

        2. If I had to pick just 10 recipes they would be

          Coq au vin
          Beouf Bourguignon
          Confit de Canard
          Tarte tatin
          French Onion Soup
          Saddle of rabbit stuffed with prunes
          Croque Monsieur

          If you ask me tomorrow the list may be entirely different.

          1. Definitely, as long as you have a handle on the Mother sauces you are on your way!! Now, pick up a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol. I and give it a good look; see what appeals. Definitely Coq au vin, Chicken Chasseur, Duckling a l'orange, a good pate and/or farce, or forcemeat, quenelles. It would be good to learn from memory a good pate a choux and another uncomplicated pastry. Filet of sole; sauce moutarde, Escalopines de veaux. Tripes a la mode de Caen, if you like tripe. And what a fun adventure for you!! Bon Apetit!!

            1. If you have not been cooking with meat, there are a lot of great French dishes people have lready recommended here. But if I might say so, one category of "dishes" might be sauces. Sauces are key to French cooking, including integral sauces, which are made with meat fonds, stocks and pan juices.

              One thing you can do, is get "Sauces" by James Peterson, that's a great reference for integral sauces. It actually is more of a rigorous cookbook for sauce based dishes rather than a book about sauces alone.

              As an added benefit, the latest edition of Sauces contains information about medieval French sauce ingredients, like verjus, that seem to be making a comeback in contemporary French cooking. Some of the 20th century cookbooks, good as they may be, wouldn't reflect this.

              Also, instead of focusing on Beef Bourguignon, which isn't as iconic of a French dish in France as it is represents iconic French to Americans, you might want to learn about the larger subject of French braises, e.g daubes.

              9 Replies
              1. re: AsperGirl

                I absolutely agree with everything here, and I'd encourage the OP to get a cookbook that's representative of everyday French cooking. I love Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but remember that Julia Child was classically trained to make restaurant dishes. I've enjoyed cooking out of a book that's more like the French version of Joy of Cooking. In French it's called Je Sais Cuisiner, but I believe there's an English version called I Know How to Cook. I prefer Julia Child's The Way to Cook for everyday cooking.

                Cheftwo, I'd also encourage you to use lavender as a spice, play around with mushrooms, and start using more cream and butter. Try eating some rabbit, it's amazingly delicious. Since you have a more Asian background, you may be familiar with cooking organ meats. You may consider making pates, as well as things like beef liver with mustard pan sauce. Onions as a main component as a meal are quite French (I love a good onion tart, yum). Some people might talk about fancy breads and pastries, but the French usually purchase these from the bakery. The French don't really snack, and often have fruit or fruit based deserts.

                Remember that Alice Waters was inspired to eat local and high quality after returned from France, and Judith Jones was excited to publish Julia Child precisely because she couldn't get food of that quality in the US. So focus on quality, and be prepared to spend a bit more money on ingredients.

                Finally, French cuisine is all about techniques. Knowing how to make the mother sauces, and a good daube, and how to property cook meat will take you a long way.

                1. re: caseyjo

                  I think you'll find that lavender is used extremely rarely in the kitchen in France -- it doesn't even appear in Herbes de Provence outside a tourist shop. (and before I get flamed again for this -- that's just observation, with no opinion rendered whatsoever -- if you look at the labels for HdP bought in a French supermarket, it doesn't contain lavender...if you read the labels for HdP bought in a souvenir shop, it will always contain lavender.)

                  An important thing, too, is whether you're looking for restaurant French cooking, or farmhouse French cooking like Mami used to make. They're two different worlds -- both delicious, but 180 degrees apart as far as ingredients and techniques. Patricia Wells writes excellent farmhouse cookbooks, and her Bistro Cooking delves into the restaurant side of things, sticking to the simpler hearty fare of cafes and bistros.

                  1. re: sunshine842

                    No lavender in my (British) supermarket own label HdP. Does have thyme, marjoram, rosemary, oregano, savory, basil & tarragon.

                    1. re: Harters

                      From www.herbesdeprovence.org, which is the website of the AIHP (Association Interprofessionnelle des Herbes de Provence):

                      "Le mélange Herbes de Provence (Thym, romarin, sarriette, origan et basilic) obtient en 2003 le Label Rouge, garantissant ainsi au consommateur une qualité du produit de très haut niveau."

                      )The Herbes de Provence mixture (thyme, rosemary, savoury, oregano, and basil) obtained the Label Rouge in 2003, which guarantees to the consumer a product of very high quality.

                      The Label Rouge is a quality designation given to products raised and produced in traditional ways -- it's a fairly strenuous designation process, so it's something to crow about when your product receives it.

                      1. re: sunshine842

                        IIRC, there's a chicken that's Label Rouge. Stunningly good with a price that makes you wince.

                        1. re: Harters

                          LOTS of things have a Label Rouge -- pork, charcuterie, etc., etc. -- here's the website: http://www.labelrouge.fr/ (all in French). If you watch the prices and the specials you can buy LR chickens on sale at or near the own-brand prices. (some of the grands magasins have own-brand LR chickens


                          If I'm using the chicken in a casserole of some kind where there are a lot of other flavors, I don't use the LR.

                          But if I'm making coq au vin or roasting a bird where the chicken is the cornerstone of the dish, then the extra money is well worth it -- the taste difference is enormous.

                      2. re: Harters

                        Ok, now I gotta go check my HdP.

                        be right back.it's Jacques Pepin's and I know I've listed the ingredients somewhere before...thyme-fennel-oregano-savory-lavender-margoram

                        it does smell like heaven and I do keep it for when I want those flavors. I can't stand fennel but when I squish it between my fingers I mostly smell lavender and thyme.

                      3. re: sunshine842

                        Strange, that's something new I've learned today! Mine contains it, but I'll have to try some without as well.

                        1. re: caseyjo

                          one of the clerks at Penzey's found out I live in France, so breathlessly gave me a jar of their HdP to smell -- it has so much lavender in it that it was all I could smell.

                          She was pretty unhappy with me when I told her that HdP in France doesn't have lavender.

                          I LOVE the smell of lavender - I wear lavender oil as perfume very often, and use lavender scented products in my home. I DESPISE lavender in my food.

                  2. Ratatouille is a terrific place to start. I like Julia Childs version in The Way To Cook but there are many versions and it can be a real locavore experience in the harvest months. Also recommend potatoes au gratin in Julia Childs Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Both are vegetarian recipes. If you can do sauces I would suggest Torenados with 3 sauces for a meat dish.

                    1. All of the above are excellent suggestions. I will also chime in on the ingredients thought.

                      Roast a goose every 4 to 5 months and you should have adequate fat in the fridge.

                      Immerse yourself in heavy (whipping) cream.

                      French ground pepper has always seemed more peppery than fresh ground US peppercorns.

                      Fresh herbs.

                      With the passing of the World War 2 generation, rabbit is once again becoming respectable.

                      Cook with decent wines. Not Trader Joe or Wally World plonk.

                      Splurge. Buy a truffle.

                      France is a coastal country. The Med,the North Sea, and the Atlantic. Dive right in to fin fish, shell fish, and all things poached. Land snails are served a wide variety of ways, not just in garlic butter.

                      Butter. Start with Danish, progress to Irish, graduate to Normandy.

                      Each region has their own way of doing things. Provence, Normandy, Alsace. Worlds apart in culinary roots. No surprise as they use to be seperate countries.

                      If you want french bread, go to France.

                      The small town eateries are very seasonal. Something to emulate.

                      Wild game is sought after in season. As are mushrooms.

                      Sip the cognac. Cook with brandy.

                      And my final thought, follow the recipe assiduously the first time. If not the second. Then feel free to tweak it to your taste.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                        "graduate to Normandy" Great line. I recently used Beurre d'Isigny in a cookie recipe I'd made a number of times before. I was shocked at the difference in flavor. It's too expensive for me to use on a daily basis, but from now on it's my butter of choice when the flavor of the butter itself is an important component of the finished dish or sauce.

                        1. re: JoanN

                          Lucky lady. The 5 star of exported Normandy butters.