À la minute
Literally, à la minute means “this instant,” or, more practically when you’re in the kitchen, “at the last minute.” Anything that you do just before serving can be considered à la minute. The key to getting things done à la minute, is preparation: know what you’ve got to do and have everything you need to do it at hand. In other words, take the time to do a good mise en place.
À la mode
For Americans, this term translates to “ice cream on top,” as in pie à la mode. But for the French, it means “in fashion,” and the expression is often used to describe a trendy ingredient or dish. For example, anything flavored with rose is très à la mode these days.
I’m convinced that the French were the original everything-tastes-better-with-bacon people. If you were stuck in the middle of nowhere in France with only a gas-station convenience store to shop in, you’d probably be able to find bacon and maybe even lardons (lahr-dahn), short strips of bacon that are about 1/4 inch thick. French cooks often buy their bacon in large slabs, so that they can cut pieces of any thickness to match the dish they’re making. At home, I mostly use sliced bacon, but I cut lardons from slab bacon. Once they’re cut, I blanch the lardons for a minute in boiling water, then drain and pat them dry and sauté them. Lardons make a good topping for soups and salads and are a prime ingredient in Quiche Lorraine (page 157).
or Appellation d’Origine Controlée (Name of Origin Controlled): Agricultural products, wine included, that can only be produced in a specific geographic region using specific ingredients from that region can be awarded an AOC. So, for example, Champagne is an AOC wine, and the designation is printed on the label. If you have the same variety of grapes as those grown in the Champagne region and you vinify them the same way, but you’re not in Champagne, what you’ll have, in the eyes of French law, is a sparkling wine: true Champagne can only be made in Champagne. It’s all about terroir, or the land, and the difference that local conditions make. The AOC designation is meant to protect the integrity of local products as diverse as Roquefort and chickens from Bresse, and when a product has an AOC, it always sports the fact, since it’s a hard-won honor.
Like Cognac, whisky, and bourbon, Armagnac is a distilled (highly alcoholic) spirit. It is made from three types of white grapes, Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, and Colombard, and aged in oak casks in Gascony, the region in Southwest France best known as home to the Three Musketeers. Enjoyed most often, just as Cognac is, as a digestive after dinner, Armagnac is a wonderful spirit to cook with — see M. Jacques’s Chicken (Page 204-5) — and a good sip-along with rich desserts, especially the Coupétade (page 419-20), since it contains prunes, another specialty of the region and one that goes so well with Armagnac. Armagnac is not inexpensive (it sells from about $30 to well over $100), but stored upright (never on its side) away from light and heat, it will keep almost forever, even after you’ve opened it. You can replace Armagnac with Cognac or brandy in most recipes. The spirits are not the same, but they each add character to a dish.
Asparagus are culinary royalty in France, celebrated when they make their first appearance in spring and always treated very carefully and often very richly, since they pair so well with luxurious egg sauces like mayonnaise or hollandaise. Whether you’re buying green asparagus or the more unusual (and more expensive) white, look for spears that are firm to the touch (avoid those that are wrinkled) and have tightly closed tips. See page 128-9 for information on trimming and cooking asparagus.
Au pif (“oh-peef”)
I love this expression, which is slang and which, when applied to cooking (as it most often is), translates roughly as “cooking by feel” or “by instinct.” Pif can mean nose, but cooking au pif doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with nose or scent. It’s more about just having a feel for a dish and cooking it without a recipe. If you take a look at the story about Marie-Hélène’s Apple Cake (page 430-32), you’ll get a sense of what au pif can mean, since that’s the way she makes her cake. We’ve all got recipes that we cook au pif, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, like me, you count your au pif recipes among your favorites.
Batterie de cuisine
Pots and pans, rolling pins, knives, cookie cutters, spatulas, brushes, and all the assorted tools and gadgets that we reach for when we’re cooking and baking are our batterie de cuisine.
Beurre noisette (“burre nwa-sette”)
Beurre noisette translates as hazelnut butter, but the term is descriptive rather than actual, since no hazelnuts are involved; the butter is heated until it turns a nut brown and smells like hazelnuts and tastes ever so slightly like caramel. We call the same preparation brown butter. Heat brown butter a little more, and you get beurre noir (burr nwhar), or black butter (it shouldn’t turn truly black; rather it should be a deep brown). Beurre noir is most famously paired with skate.
This is a handheld slicer with an adjustable blade that allows you to thinly slice potatoes for a gratin or thickly slice truffles for a snack (if ever you find yourself with enough truffles on hand for snacking). Think of it as a more portable, less expensive (and, in some ways, less complicated) mandoline.
Blanching is a way of quickly precooking greens, removing their raw taste, and keeping the green color. It’s also a way of softening a vegetable or fruit so that it can be peeled — about tomatoes and peaches. To blanch something, drop it into a large quantity of boiling salted water and cook it briefly — depending on what you’re cooking and whether or not you’ll be cooking it again, you might keep the ingredient in the pot for as little as 30 seconds or for as long as a couple of minutes. Immediately after blanching, the ingredient is “shocked” — dunked into a bowl of ice water or rinsed under cold water, to stop the cooking and, in some cases, set the color. I was a reluctant blancher for much of my adult life. And then one day I took the extra few minutes needed to blanch basil before turning it into pesto, saw how it kept its vibrant color, and I became a convert.
Bonne idée (bohn-ee-day)
This means “good idea.” I use the term at the end of a recipe to introduce a variation, serving suggestion, or related preparation that you might find helpful, clever, delicious, or just plain bonne.
As strange as it sounds, the French use bouillon cubes (chicken, beef, and vegetables) at home all the time — even chefs turn to them when they’re cooking at home. Except when a recipe calls for adding a cube to a dish as flavoring (rather than to create a stock or soup), you can always use homemade stock or store-bought broth, a product that is not easily found in French supermarkets, instead.
A bouquet garni is an herb seasoning for slow-cooked dishes like soups and stews. While there is no set combination of herbs in a bouquet garni, the most frequently used ingredients are parsley, thyme, and bay leaf. If you’ve got celery in the dish, you might add a few celery leaves to the bouquet. And if you’ve got a leek in the dish, then it’s neat, efficient, and flavorful to use a washed leek green as the wrapper for the herbs: tuck the herbs into the green and tie them up with twine. If your bouquet also includes dried spices, such as peppercorns and coriander seeds, it’s best to make a sachet by placing the ingredients in a double thickness of cheesecloth, folding the cheesecloth into a packet or sachet to enclose all the little bits of herbs and spices, and securing the sachet with kitchen twine. If you’re a gadget collector, you might want to purchase a mesh ball on a long thin chain — it looks like an oversized tea infuser — to replace the leek or cheesecloth.
While some French pastry shops sell bread and some bread shops sell a few pastries, the most traditional place to buy bread is a boulangerie. If the bread maker, the boulanger, makes his own dough, kneads, shapes, and bakes it himself, there will be a sign that proclaims him an artisan bread maker. These days, many bakeries sell breads that are prepared elsewhere and just baked on the premises. These breads can be very tasty, but they are not considered artisan breads.