When someone poses the question ‘What is your favorite cuisine?’ I immediately launch into an inner struggle, ever vacillating between two possible responses. I am the central divide on a tug-of-war rope. On one side is the Italian team, offering up such indulgences as lasagna, cannolis, cheese and wine. On the other side is an equally strong competitor, team Francais, offering comforting stews, luscious cream pastries and, well, cheese and wine. Hmm, a very perplexing choice indeed.
Perhaps being half French yields the slight advantage of giving just the bit of edge to pull my response in favor of my heritage; the varied cuisines of France may win out by a fractional margin.
To be appreciated in French fare are the various influences, to which we may thank the surrounding nations that hug France’s borders. Most people think of French cooking as the sophisticated haute cuisine found in the capital city’s upscale Paris restaurants, and on one level there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, what’s not to love about rich creamy sauces and decadent desserts? Geographically however, France has embraced the benefit of taking the influencing flavors from its neighbors, incorporating these prime ingredients that each region has to offer, and offering a country of culinary styles that are varied enough to please any palate.
From the eastern Alsace region which borders Germany, we can enjoy such tasty eats as quiche, a savory single-crust tart with a cheese custard-like filling studded with bacon, ham or shellfish and often vegetables as well. Choucroute also hails from this region, a platter of cabbage cooked in wine along with several different sausages and/or cuts of pork, potatoes and carrots, seasoned with juniper berries and herbs. Some wonderful beers are crafted in this region as well; and speaking of beverages, nestled right in between Paris and the Alsace region of France is the origin of bubbling happiness from the Champagne region.
Traveling a bit further south along the eastern border, such delicacies from Switzerland grace the French table, including fondue, the perfect pairing of melted cheeses and crusty baguette.
To the south, France shares some of its border with Italy, and both nations engage in Mediterranean cookery that includes key ingredients such as olives, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, herbs, seafood and what many of us would call summer vegetables, such as zucchini, peppers and eggplant. Provence is the crowning mecca of this region, giving rise to ratatouille, a vegetable stew, as well as a seafood stew called bouillabaisse, aioli which is a garlicky mayonnaise best enjoyed as a dip for vegetables, and pistou which is actually the French form of pesto. Soupe au pistou is basically a soup of summer vegetables that is served with a topping of pistou.
Spain borders the southwest corner of France. From here we enjoy spicy sausages, tomatoes and peppers. One well-known comforting dish of this area is the cassoulet, featuring sausages and white beans.
The Burgundy region offers many of the dishes that our minds evoke when we think of French cooking, such as boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin and chicken Dijon, all of which are entrees cooked with wine, the stellar ingredient that is vastly produced in this area.
With the Atlantic Ocean washing over the western shores, oysters are an abundant indulgence in France. The west coast is also teeming with mushrooms and truffles. The western region of Normandy produces apples for cider and for Calvados, as well as Camembert cheese.
Finally as we move inward we traverse through Auvergne, home of some renowned cheeses including Bleu d’Auvergne; and the Brittany region where crepes are prepared in many a kitchen.
To summarize, each region of France has something special to showcase, a starring ingredient that is utilized in the kitchen to full advantage. Foods are chosen and prepared according to what the local market has to offer in its particular climate.
I now pass along to you a recipe for ratatouille. While many of us cannot take in the suggestion of this dish without visions of a certain cute animated rodent sharing the nomenclature dancing in our heads, this is one of the simplest French dishes to prepare. It is versatile, in that it can be served in a number of presentations, and it can be very flexible in its ingredients. Don't have a zucchini on hand, but have a couple of yellow squash in your fridge? No problem. Got a red bell pepper instead of a green one? Use that. As long as you have the requisite squash-eggplant-tomato-onion-bell pepper combination, it will be comforting and delicious. It is also very rustic in its preparation; vegetables can simply be coarsely chopped into chunks rather than taking the time to finely and uniformly cut the ingredients. The following is a slight variation on my mother's basic recipe for ratatouille. Some other variations and serving suggestions will follow, but always start with this base recipe.
1 coarsely chopped onion
4 chopped cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 eggplant, unpeeled, cut into large cubes
2-3 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 zucchini, sliced crosswise
1 large green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons fresh oregano, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh basil, chopped
First, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil in a Dutch oven. Then add the eggplant cubes and sauté. Once the eggplant begins to brown, add all remaining ingredients. Simmer for about one hour, uncovered, stirring occasionally. For a soupier texture, cover the pot while simmering. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serves 3-4.
The ratatouille can be served as is, alongside a main dish. Another option is to serve it over pasta.
Ratatouille can also be served as a main vegetarian dish in the following presentation:
Make the ratatouille. Saute four bags of fresh spinach until cooked. Arrange the spinach on three plates. Meanwhile, broil three portabello mushroom caps until they start to brown. Place one mushroom cap in the center of each plate, right on top of the bed of spinach. Ladle the ratatouille over the mushroom cap and spinach.
Here is another interesting twist:
Make the ratatouille. During the last 20 minutes of simmering, add one can of chick peas, drained and rinsed, and also half of a cup of kalamata olives. When ready to serve, ladle the ratatouille over couscous.
Before sautéing the onions and garlic, first brown six chicken drumsticks in the olive oil until browned on all sides. Remove. Saute the onions and garlic, then the eggplant. When adding all of the remaining ingredients, add the drumsticks as well, cover the pot and simmer until the juices from the chicken run clear when poked with a fork.
For a change, you could substitute six Italian sausages for the chicken drumsticks, following the same order of cooking as in the chicken recipe above. This would pair well served over pasta.
Cooking up a pot of ratatouille is an opportune way in which to use up the influx of harvested summer vegetables that begin taking over your counter at the end of the season.
While the cooking of France is diversified and delicious, if I had to be completely honest, I think that this virtual tug of war will be tied to the bitter end, as I will always equally embrace the tasty ingredients, enticing aromas, culinary cultures and oh so heavenly dishes that both the French and Italian tables alike have to offer.