Expert Interview Series: Katie Zeller About What You Need to Cook Fantastic French Cuisine

When is the last time you ate authentic French cuisine? Have you ever thought about trying to recreate it in your own kitchen? Be careful if you do! Kate Zeller, Author and Owner of the Thyme for Cooking blog,...

French cuisine

When is the last time you ate authentic French cuisine?

Have you ever thought about trying to recreate it in your own kitchen? Be careful if you do!

Kate Zeller, Author and Owner of the Thyme for Cooking blog, warns that French cooking is nuanced and technical. If you're going to give it a go, adhere to your recipes exactly until you have a better understanding of French ingredients and French techniques.

Cilantro spoke more with Kate about this.

Think about the serious cook - someone who is no stranger to the kitchen. If you wanted to challenge their skills but also provide an end result that they could be proud of, what French dish would you recommend they try?

One of the most misunderstood French dishes is Cassoulet. It's a peasant dish with a long history. It's not "baked beans" and it's not (nor can it be) vegetarian. It's a meat and bean stew that has pork sausage, duck confit and duck fat as essential ingredients along with white beans. Some versions also add lamb or mutton. Some use goose rather than duck.

Beef, chicken and fish are never used.

Properly done, it takes two or three days. My version, which I've adapted for the home cook, can be done in five or six hours after the beans are cooked. The beans require soaking and cooking. Canned beans are not an option.

Good Cassoulet isn't difficult, but it does require patience and a willingness to follow each step without taking shortcuts. When done right, it is thick, creamy, and so full of flavor that any cook would be proud.

What dessert should they try to make?

If you ask a French cook about their favorite dessert recipe, you'll likely get a blank look, followed by a discussion about the merits of local pastry chefs. They all do, however, make Cherry Clafoutis when the cherries are in season, as well as crêpes for Candlemas (Feb. 2).

One of my French friends also makes the local Bordeaux specialty canelé, which is a small, candle-shaped pastry with a custard-like center and a thick, caramelized crust.

Typically, the French will have yogurt for dessert or a bit of cheese. The fancy desserts are for special occasions.

What type of kitchen tools/utensils would be important to these dishes?

A good "cocotte," or heavy, covered casserole, is essential to a French kitchen. You should have several in various sizes. I have two larger ones for main course dishes plus several smaller sizes for first courses. I use a large, oval for the Cassoulet.

Canelé require special molds which used to be available only in copper, but now silicon is more common. Both the clafoutis and the crêpes need a good balloon whisk, with the crêpes requiring a flat crêpe pan. Clafoutis is made in a quiche dish.

What advice could you offer that would add to these recipes?

1. Don't make substitutions unless you understand how your change will work. A classic French Cherry Clafoutis does not use pitted cherries. The stones are left in and you have to be careful of your teeth. Leaving the pits in adds a certain almond-like flavor to the clafoutis. If you just removed the pits and didn't make adjustments to compensate, you would have a very bland dessert. Likewise, if you substitute olive oil for duck fat or chicken for duck, you simply wouldn't have a Cassoulet. Substitutions can change the dish into something completely different.

2. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Try something new. If it doesn't, work, turn it into something that does. If nothing else, purée it and make soup. French cooks are very practical.

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