With so many decadent and elegant dishes, it’s no surprise French cuisine has long been a celebrated food genre. Thanks to super-popular Franco-American and French-trained chefs like Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, some traditional French recipes and comfort foods have become a part of American cuisine.
While many American foodies have probably tasted a baguette or a croissant or a crêpe, French cuisine includes a plethora of delicious dishes that are slightly less recognizable to overseas diners.
If you’re planning a trip to France (or just want to bring French flavors to your home kitchen), seek out these 17 must-eat French foods.
The croque monsieur takes grilled ham and cheese to a whole new level.
- Wikimedia Commons
Invented in Paris in the early 20th century, the croque monsieur uses thinly-sliced ham and grated cheese (the French favor Gruyère, Emmenthal, or Comté cheese) layered between two slices of soft white bread, fried in butter, then sprinkled with more cheese and baked in the oven.
The result? A gooey, crunchy, cheese-slathered sandwich that can put your typical grilled cheese to shame. To turn your croque monsieur into a brunch-ready croque madame, just put a fried egg on top. To try it for yourself, check out this croque monsieur recipe from Serious Eats.
Escargot makes for a fabulous appetizer.
- Flickr/Connie Ma
When properly prepared, escargot should be tender (not chewy) and baked in herbed butter until the snails absorb the flavors. Although considered a delicacy, escargot remains popular in France as an hors-d’oeuvre.
Although edible snails can be tough to find in US grocery stores, they can be ordered from Amazon.
The French precursor to the Cobb salad, Salade Lyonnaise is deliciously simple.
When you think of a green salad loaded with cooked egg and crispy bacon, the Cobb salad probably springs quickly to mind. The French, however, have a bacon-y, egg-y salad all their own, with far fewer bells and whistles than the American lunchtime go-to.
Salade Lyonnaise uses frisée as its base in this recipe from Saveur, which then gets tossed with crispy lardons (bacon bits) and a Dijon mustard vinaigrette. Finally, the salad’s topped with a runny poached egg. The egg yolk brings a creamy texture, which cooperates beautifully with the salty pork essence of the bacon and the tang of the vinaigrette.
Can’t decide between a salad and a sandwich for lunch? Pan bagnat combines the best of both worlds.
- Flickr/arthur caranta
Salade Niçoise, a salad with tomatoes, boiled eggs, olives, anchovies, and tuna shows up frequently on lunch menus in the US.
But the sandwich version of this Nice-created dish, known in French cafes as pan bagnat, hasn’t yet hit it big in the US.
Bon Appetit points out that Pan bagnat involves layering classic Niçoise ingredients onto a baguette, pressing it on a skillet to warm it through, and then letting it rest before eating to allow the juices of the olives, anchovies, and Dijon mustard to seep into the crusty bread.
Ratatouille is a classic French veggie stew.
- Flickr / Arnold Gatilao
With its heavy reliance on butter, cheese, cream, and meat, French cuisine often presents a major challenge for vegans. An excellent example of a flavorful Gallic entree free of animal products, however, can be found in the Provençal staple called ratatouille.
This stew contains numerous seasonal vegetables easily grown and found in the south of France, like eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, red bell peppers, and fresh leafy herbs. The veggies are softened in olive oil, then stewed with herbs until they reach a soft-but-not-mushy consistency.
The ratatouille comes out with rich, well-rounded flavor, and it’s the perfect partner for a crunchy loaf of baguette. This Tasting Table recipe teaches you to make a classic version of this cold-weather hit.
If you like your vegetable stew with a spicy kick, try piperade.
Invented in the Basque region (right on the Spain-France border), piperade falls under the same umbrella as ratatouille: it’s a vegetable-based dish made by cooking veggies in olive oil or duck fat and then stewing them in their own juices until they meld into a tender and delicious mess. But while ratatouille considers eggplant its leading player, piperade focuses on peppers.
Red peppers are the traditional base of piperade, but you can feel free to swap in some hot peppers if you want to up the spice level. Piperade also contains smoked Spanish paprika to boost the savory nature of the dish, but if you can’t find it, cayenne will bring the extra heat. Check out this Washington Post recipe for a step-by-step overview.
Pesto fans will love its starring role in the French version of minestrone, soupe au pistou.
Like ratatouille, soupe au pistou originates in Provence, and it’s another example of a fantastic vegetarian-friendly dish in the French culinary canon. In its original form, the soup includes pancetta, but if you’re dining with vegans, adjustments can definitely be made to the recipe.
This French soupe au pistou recipe from Food & Wine bears many similarities to Italy’s minestrone soup, containing key ingredients like tomatoes, white beans, and ditalini pasta. At the end of the cooking process, chefs stir a cup of pistou (the French equivalent to pesto) into the soup, infusing the whole pot with herbaceous goodness.
Live the luxe life with a plate of rillettes.
- iStock / trickster_mg
Spreadable pastes made from meat show up frequently in French cuisine, from pȃté to foie gras. Seasoned with herbs and cooked in its own fat, the meat of choice (pork is most popular in central France, where the dish originated, but you can also make duck rillettes, goose rillettes, or rabbit rillettes, among others) is mashed and served alongside crackers or baguette slices as a savory treat.
This rustic pork rillette recipe from Bon Appétit gives you a great place to start, but feel free to experiment with different meats and different herb blends.
Winter is coming, and cassoulet will keep you warm.
- Shutterstock / bonchan
Considering cassoulet’s hearty texture and comfort-food flavor profile, it’s a bit surprising that the dish originated in southern France. In spite of its warm-weather provenance, cassoulet is a hearty slow-cooked casserole containing white beans, duck or goose confit, pork sausage, and your choice of meat (pork and mutton tends to be especially popular in French versions).
It’s a bit time-consuming and labor-intensive, but if you’re game for a cooking project that’ll leave you with some ideal sustenance for a snowy weekend, try this recipe from Epicurious.
Seafood more your style? Bouillabaisse may be the stew for you.
- Oxana Medvedeva/iStock
Another comforting stew from southern coastal France, traditional bouillabaisse uses the region’s native seafood – like rockfish, mussels, and octopus – in a chunky and substantial dish that tastes of the ocean.
Of course, you’re welcome to switch out the fish for whatever you like best; as long as you have a great fish stock and enough different types of seafood to provide an interesting contrast, you’re good to go. Julia Child’s bouillabaisse recipe will start you off on the right foot.
Mussels with fries (or moules-frites) are actually a Belgian invention, but moules marinières are totally French.
- Flickr / Jennifer
Moules-frites (aka mussels with fries) are ubiquitous at French brasseries, but the dish actually claims origins in the neighboring nation of Belgium.
But the most well-known take on the recipe – both in France and internationally – is one that France claims as its very own: moules marinières.
This culinary masterpiece begins with a pot of mussels, to which you add garlic, herbs, dry white wine, and plenty of butter. Serve the mussels in their flavorful broth, and don’t forget to have plenty of baguette handy for sopping up the juices.
Slow cooking makes joues de boeuf extra tasty.
Braising meat in liquid over low heat yields tender and flavorful results, and the French know exactly how to make use of this fact.
Slow-cooked beef is the star of boeuf bourguignon, a French stew made famous in America by super-fan Julia Child, and it also provides the focal point for joues de boeuf, a dish of braised beef cheeks, hearty root veggies, and dry red wine. This recipe from Epicurious will show you how it’s done.
Savory tarts, like the egg-and-leek pastry known as flamiche, are popular in France.
You’re probably familiar with quiche, the beloved brunch standard that’s basically a pie made of fluffy eggs. As it turns out, French cuisine features many variations on this winning formula, such as flamiche, or French leek pie.
Hailing from Northern France, the flamiche benefits from a flaky crust (loaded with butter) and a filling that’s heavier than the leeks than on the egg. Unlike a quiche, the flamiche’s crust covers the whole pie, so you get bits of pastry in every bite.
Also known as blood sausage, boudin noir is one of the oldest charcuterie items still served in France.
- Flickr / Alpha
Blood sausage, a style of cured meat is exactly what it sounds like- ground pork mixed with pig’s blood. It appears in the cuisines of numerous cultures, and the French call their rendition boudin noir.
This dish dates back many centuries, and historians believe it to be the oldest charcuterie item still eaten today. To make it, the meat and blood are traditionally mixed with cream, onions, apples, and aromatics before sliding into sausage casings. The blood offers a metallic tang that works as a pleasant counterpoint to the richness of the cream and pork, and many French brasseries serve boudin noir with cooked apples to accentuate those flavor notes.
To find boudin noir, you’ll want to check international or high-end butchers, and once you have the links, this Huffington Post list includes 10 suggestions for how to use them.
Mashed potatoes are delicious in any incarnation, but when the French add cheese to them to make Aligot, it’s hard to beat.
Soft, silky, and loaded with butter, mashed potatoes are a fundamental side dish in most countries. But, as they do with so many other foods, the French go the extra mile with their version of the dish, mixing local cheeses into pots of whipped potatoes to make Pommes Aligot.
You’ll want to use a melty cheese like Tomme de Languiole (the traditional cheese for this recipe), Gruyère, or mozzarella, all of which will result in a totally Instagrammable cheese pull.
Chocolat chaud may make you swear off powdered hot cocoa.
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A packet of hot cocoa mix flecked with marshmallow bits can certainly warm you up on a frigid winter day, but if you really want to amp up your drinking-chocolate experience, the French version is well worth a try.
Chocolat chaud requires melting semi-sweet chocolate in hot milk over the stove, resulting in a thicker, richer, and more luxurious drink than you’d typically get from the powdered stuff.
Wine may be Bordeaux’s claim to fame, but the region also brought us the delightful custard-filled pastry bites known as canelés.
An eggy, buttery, rum-soaked mini dessert found throughout French pâtisseries, the canelé boasts a gorgeous color courtesy of caramelized rum and vanilla and a soft, yielding, custardy interior.
It pairs perfectly with an espresso or a café au lait … or, if you want to pay tribute to the canelé Bordelaise heritage, a glass of red wine.
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