There’s something about a real French bistro that makes you want to pull up a chair, tuck a napkin into your lap, and see what’s on the menu. Warm and inviting, a bistro is the ultimate neighborhood restaurant, a place where, if you were lucky enough to live around the corner, you could happily eat three or four nights a week, even though the menu might offer nothing more than a few entrées, a couple of salads, and a single house dessert. Bistro food is French home cooking at its best—simple but satisfying dishes, presented without fanfare or flourish, often lovingly prepared personally by the proprietor.
It would be impossible to name all the timeless classics that qualify as bistro fare—everything from steak frites and roast chicken to steamed mussels and braised rabbit—but three of my all-time favorites are braised lamb shanks, beef stew, and a chicken sauté with vinegar. These are the dishes I can’t resist when I spot them on a menu, and since my visits to France aren’t nearly frequent enough to satisfy my appetite for these wonderful meals, I’ve come up with my own versions. Like most bistro food, these recipes aren’t fussy; and best of all, they taste really authentic. So next time you get a craving for that bistro atmosphere, here’s what you do: Make one of these dishes, call up a few good friends, set a casual table, and put on an Edith Piaf or Jacques Brel CD, or just your favorite jazz music. And then enjoy the little French bistro you’ve created in the comfort of your own home.
Braised Lamb Shanks with Garlic & Vermouth
About the only place you’ll see whole lamb shanks on a French menu is in a bistro. Perhaps the primitive appearance of the meaty shanks is considered too boorish for fine dining, I don’t know. But what I do know is that nothing matches slow-cooked lamb shanks for tenderness and depth of flavor. The inspiration for my recipe comes from Richard Olney’s Simple French Food, where the shanks and garlic are cooked with nothing more than a bit of water. I’ve updated Olney’s version by adding dry white vermouth and a few bay leaves to give the braising liquid an elusive, herbaceous flavor that permeates the meat and intensifies the dish.
A few points: Lamb throws off a considerable amount of fat as it cooks, so be sure to take the time to thoroughly skim the sauce before serving. Better yet, braise the shanks a day or two before you plan to serve them, and store them and the braising liquid in the refrigerator. When it comes time to reheat and serve, simply lift the solidified fat from the surface of the sauce. The dish will have even more flavor after a day or two.
Chicken with Vinegar & Onions
In my experience, a poultry sauté is one of the most overlooked techniques in French cooking. It’s easier than pan-frying and more elegant than a stew. A sauté refers to dredging a cut-up bird (usually a small chicken) in flour before cooking it in a deep skillet with either butter or olive oil and very little, if any, added liquid. As the chicken cooks, it simmers in its own juices mingled with the fat, creating a very concentrated, rich sauce. Most cooks add some aromatics (onions, leeks, or shallots) and a bit of wine or vinegar to balance the richness.
In my version, I first sauté the onion, turning it sweet and tender before adding it to the sautéed chicken. I also love the combination of tarragon and chicken, but if you’re not a tarragon fan, you can substitute another delicate herb, such as parsley, chervil, or chives. I encourage you to try it with tarragon, though, because even those who are averse to the herb have told me they love it in this dish. I find that finishing the dish with a dab of crème fraîche brings all the flavors into focus.
Beef Stew with Red Wine & Carrots
Very simply, a daube (pronounced dohb) is a red-wine-based beef or lamb stew. This type of dish has countless flavor permutations, of course, but the most famous (and my favorite) is the Provençal daube, seasoned with local herbs and a bit of orange zest. The orange was originally the bitter Seville orange, but you can make a fine daube with a few strips of navel orange (add a strip of lemon, too, if you want to sharpen the flavor). I also like to add some sort of vegetable garnish to sweeten and brighten the stew. Here I’ve used carrots cut into hefty chunks so they hold their shape during the long cooking, but you could also use a combination of parsnips, baby onions, and celeriac.
When buying meat for a daube, your best bet is to select a small chuck roast and cut it yourself. Most butchers and meat markets cut their stew meat way too small for my preference. In my mind, a proper daube should be a knife-and-fork affair—meaning the chunks are larger than bite size.