French cuisine is perhaps the one kind of cooking where almost all of us feel uncomfortable off-roading it without a recipe. Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and other chefs of the last fifty years have put a more approachable face on the intimidatingly disciplined recipes and techniques associated with French cooking, but we still tend to approach it with cookbook in hand.
Can you cook French food without recipes? Can you learn to improvise using French flavors and techniques? Why yes you can, and in fact, that's what much of those French techniques are designed for in the first place. Here's a look at some classic French ingredients, flavors, and techniques that will help you understand your food a little better and dissect all those coq au vin recipes until you understand them inside and out.
French cooking tends to rely heavily on fresh herbs - a good note for Garden Month.
Flavors and Ingredients • Sea salt • Black pepper • Thyme • Parsley • Rosemary • Tarragon • Onions • Celery • Carrots • Garlic • Bouquet garni of herbs • Bay leaves • Wine • Butter • Cheese • Stock - beef, veal, and chicken • Eggs • Nutmeg • White pepper • Mushrooms • Pickles and cornichons
Meal Basics • Bread! - A good loaf of bread is essential at French meals • Lentils and white beans • Fresh greens • Potatoes • Meat, especially chicken, beef and lamb • Fish
Instruction in French cuisine tends to emphasize the technique - how to cut an onion, how to dice your vegetables, how to build a good pot of stock. This is not just quibbling over details; once you've mastered these basic steps they are like tools in your back pocket to construct a meal from your own imagination.