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Vive la France! (Recipes for Success).

After years of culinary worship at the Italian altar and forays into more exotic fare, American diners are once again embracing French food, or at least they are beginning to relinquish their fear of it. For so long it seems, any discussion of classic French food was greeted with jeers and horrified looks as if the mere mention of the cuisine would slam the arteries shut and turn one into Jabba the Hutt. True, a diet composed mainly of French pastries can play havoc on the waistline, but even the French will tell you that desserts do not define their cuisine, nor do the French necessarily eat them every day. But when was it decided that ossobuco was healthier than Boeuf Bourguignonne, that coq au yin would kill you faster than pollo alia cacciatora, or for that matter, that a French omelette is more harmful than an Italian frittata? The whole question, of course, is absurd, but what has instigated this turnaround in our thinking towards one of the greatest culinary lexicons ever created, the Mother cuisine as it were of Western dining? The answer may be found in one quirky little word--bistro!

Back to the Source

When it comes to recreating foreign cuisines here in the United States, some are just easier to translate than others. French food--which has taken a beating lately politically, as well as nutritionally--is generally misunderstood despite the fact that it resembles our own more than we are willing to acknowledge. French haute cuisine, with its rich, buttery sauces and elaborate presentations, is certainly not what we would consider everyday fare, but then neither do the French. Rather, it is the simple, homey cooking of the bistros all over France that is in many ways a precursor to our own style of eating. Bistro food is based on the soulful cooking of the French countryside--peasant food, if you will. It is comfort food at its most refined and satisfying. It is also slow-cooked food, straightforward in its presentation, and prepared in such a way that a bistro chef can quickly churn out meals to his or her hungry clientele. The word bistro itself, according to most etymologists, came originally from hungry Russian soldiers fresh from the Crimean War who demanded in their Russian dialect, "Bistro! Bistro!," or "Quickly! Quickly!'

Whether or not that is the real genesis of the name (another theory has it based on bistouille, a northern colloquial term meaning "bad alcohol"), the concept of small, less formal, usually family-run restaurants became very popular throughout France, resulting in the establishment of thousands of bistros in Paris and most every other town in the country. From the late nineteenth century through the golden age of most of the twentieth, bistros came to epitomize simple, hearty food at prices far below those of the fancier bastions of haute cuisine. They were neighborhood establishments where one could get a quick but satisfying lunch or entertain one's friends in the evening. The menus seldom changed except for the daily specials, with the house specialties usually reflecting the chef's home province. Gradually, regional specialties from all over France became the standard menu items in bistros everywhere. Such dishes as coq au yin, steak frites, steak tartar, Boeuf Bourguignonne, and tart au potatoes were common features of the bistro menu. To add to the home-cooking experience, the proprietors were more often than not a husband-and-wife team, with one spouse running the kitchen and the other lording over the dining room.

The Bistro Takes America

French cooking has shaped and defined cooking in America as it has cuisines the world over. Increasingly, however, chefs and restaurateurs are replicating the more relaxed style of cooking inherent in French bistros, cooking that is more in line with the way people want to eat today. One such chef who has found success in translating French bistro cooking to America's West Coast is Kenneth Todd Kniess, chef/owner of Liaison in Berkeley, Calif. Kniess made a rapid rise through the hierarchy of chefdom, beginning as an assistant in his father's catering business, then went on to train at the Culinary Institute of America where his father had been before him, and on through a succession of apprenticeships in the Cayman Islands, New Orleans (sous chef in the renowned Sazerac Room at the Fairmount Hotel), and finally, to the prestigious dining room at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Fla., where he rose to chef de cuisine in a matter of months.

Fluent in the art of French cooking, Kniess eventually made his way west to the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco, which ultimately led to the Left Bank, a sprawling French bistro in Larkspur just north of San Francisco in Marin County. Here, Kniess honed his appreciation for the hearty, rustic fare that defines the bistro culture, and went on to open another branch of Left Bank in Menlo Park, Calif., before turning his sights to Berkeley in the East Bay, where he opened Liaison to critical and popular acclaim.

"The great thing about doing this in Berkeley," insists Chef Kniess, "is that people are more educated about food. There are real foodies over here, and they are well traveled, so you can do things here that would never sell in Marin or the South Bay, like for example, sweetbreads. We're doing dishes that define a culture, dishes such as coq au yin, steak au poivre, and Boeuf Bourguignonne (see his recipe on opposite page), or what I like to call 'French soul food.'"

Given the proximity to and the extraordinary quality of Northern California's meats, fruits, vegetables, and seafood, Kniess just might be serving better food than the bistros of Paris are today. Nevertheless, Kniess still makes pilgrimages to Paris to eat in bistros and three-star restaurants alike in an attempt to stay in touch with his muse.

"We're not trendy," reminds Kniess. "We're doing dishes that have been around for a long time. We have adapted some of the cooking to fit a modern diner's lifestyle. For example, we don't do as many cream sauces as you would find in Paris, but instead do more natural reductions. We don't use a roux (a basic thickening sauce typically made from butter and flour that is used to start countless sauces, soups, and stews)--it's just too heavy for most people today. Also, I take liberties by translating some dishes to incorporate local foods, like doing a tombo tuna with a ginger-carrot sauce. We also try to respect and pay homage to the seasons. In fact, seasonality is one of the chief differences between European and American cooking. Some dishes, such as Boeuf Bourguignonne, defy the seasons and are on the menu most of the time. This is, after all, comfort food."
Boeuf Bourguignonne (Serve 6.)

Braised Beef from Burgundy

This is Chef Todd Kniess' version of the
granddaddy of all beef stews, and the quintessential
Burgundian dish. Like its cousin, coq
au vin, this dish is enhanced by wine, and the
better the wine, well, the better. You don't
necessarily need expensive wine, but something
you would want to drink. The Burgundians,
after all, are as noted for their thriftiness
as for their culinary skills. Save the expensive
Burgundies for the table.

4 ounces olive oil
2 pounds beef chuck roast, cut into 2-inch pieces
Flour for dusting
3 onions, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
3 carrots, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups red wine, preferably Burgundy
2 quarts veal stock
2 bay leaves
1 bunch thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
3 ounces unsalted butter
1 pound crimini mushrooms
1 bunch Italian fiat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350[degrees] F. In a large
saucepot or Swiss braiser, heat the oil over
high heat to just about the smoking point.
Season the beef with salt and pepper, and
then dust with the flour. Be sure to cover the
beef on all sides with the flour and shake off
the excess. Place the coated pieces into the
hot oil one at a time. Sear the beef on all
sides until golden brown. Remove from the
pot and set aside to cool.

In the same pan, add the onions and carrots.
Reduce the heat to medium-high and
continue to cook the vegetables until they
begin to soften and start to turn brown,
approximately 30 minutes. Add the tomato
paste and continue to cook the mixture until
the paste starts to stick to the bottom of the
pan. It is very important to caramelize the
tomato paste. Add the wine and deglaze the
pan, scraping the bottom of the pan to
release everything that is stuck there. Add the
veal stock and bring to a boil. Add the bay
leaves, thyme, salt, and pepper. Add the
seared beef and cover the dish and place in
the oven. Braise the stew for 1 1/2 hours.
Remove from the oven and check the beef by
piercing it with a fork. The meat should be
soft and tender. Skim the excess grease off
the top of the stew.

In a saute pan, melt the butter until it just
starts to turn brown. Add the mushrooms and
saute until they are tender. Add the cooked
mushrooms to the stew and finish with
chopped parsley, adjusting the salt and pepper.
Serve with egg noodles or garlic mashed
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Title Annotation:appreciation of French cuisine and its influence on American cooking
Author:Mellgren, James
Publication:Gourmet Retailer
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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