We all know the French eat well. But Madison author Ronnie Hess takes us much deeper into France’s food culture with her new book, “Eat Smart in France.”

We learn, for instance, that French often start their days with a steaming bowl of hot chocolate, with French bread, butter and jam on the side. They’re the world’s largest consumer of snails and they enjoy crayfish flan as an appetizer.

The book, which is the latest in the Eat Smart series by Madison’s Ginkgo Press, includes a brief history of French cuisine, descriptions of regional and national favorites, menu listings and a glossary of food terms, two bilingual dictionaries with helpful phrases, recipes from home cooks and chefs and hints on shopping at French food markets. The food establishments Hess visited during her research, with contact information, are also provided.

In the menu guide, Hess also notes her preferences: in her “heavenly” category is fondant au chocolat coulant pistache (“gooey chocolate cake filled with a pistachio and white chocolate sauce that oozes out of the cake when it is eaten”); her “extraordinary” ranking includes gateau Basque (“two-crust tart with custard in the middle, from the Basque region in southwestern France”) and quenelles de brochet (pike dumplings or balls of poached fish, often served with a crayfish sauce.) That dish is a specialty of Lyon and one of the hallmarks of classic French cuisine. “National favorites” include tarte Tatin (“upside-down apple pie”); while “regional cuisine” has ttoro (“Basque fish stew”). Others are rated as delicious, excellent, good choice, elegant, very popular or great. Others are listed without comment, like the fish and crayfish flan (see for yourself, the recipe is printed here and in the book).

Hess’ passion for French food dates to age 10, when a French classmate invited her to lunch one Sunday and she had her first taste of potato gratin and gateau Saint-Honore, a dessert of cream puffs, pastry and caramelized sugar. She recalls them as “two dishes that would change my outlook on life.” Later, she visited France with her parents, who’d met on a blind date in Paris, and worked as a CBS News reporter for several years. In Fond du Lac, she studied French cuisine at Madame Liane Kuony’s Postilion. Besides the help she received in her research from French sources, Hess found material at UW-Madison libraries and the Chazen Museum of Art.

Although the book is aimed at travelers who enjoy food, it’s also for armchair travelers who may occasionally want to turn their own dining room into a bistro.

Biscuits de Langoustine (Crayfish Flan, an appetizer for four)

10 ounces white fish

3 large eggs, beaten

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt

White pepper to taste

1 to 2 tablespoons butter (to grease ramekins)

4 crayfish (or shrimp or pieces of lobster tail)

Lettuce leaves (optional)

Lemon slices (optional)

Process the fish in a food processor until smooth (about 10 pulses). Combine the fish with eggs, cream, nutmeg salt and white pepper. Lightly butter four one-cup ramekins. Fill each about two-thirds with the fish mixture. Insert the crayfish (or shrimp or lobster) into each ramekin. Place ramekins in a baking dish. Make a bain-marie by pouring boiling water into the baking dish about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake about 45 minutes at 325 degrees until custard is set. Cool 5 to 10 minutes before unmolding. To unmold, run a knife around the edge, place a serving plate on top and invert it, giving it a good shake to release the custard. Serve lukewarm or chilled. Garnish plate with lettuce or lemon slices if desired.

Verrine de Creme d’Avocat (Avocado Cream)

This is served in small glasses as an accompaniment to smoked salmon, or it can stand by itself. Prepare just before serving to keep the attractive green color.

2 avocados, perfectly ripe

4 tablespoons creme fraiche

2-3 teaspoons lemon juice

Leafy top of a fennel bulb

Sea salt, to taste

Put avocados in a food processor until perfectly smooth. Add creme fraiche.

Add lemon juice and stir. Put avocado cream into pastry bag without a tip and pipe into small glasses, about 2 inches wide and three inches deep. Decorate with fennel and sprinkle with sea salt.

— Ronnie Hess recipe


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