Saturday, September 09, 2006

Entrees and Menus: French Faux Amis

In American restaurant parlance, “entree” is the main dinner dish. Like the pecan-encrusted halibut on a bed of steamed whatevers, or the lemon grass-infused pork tenderloin with frou-frous, or even the Jim-Bob’s meatloaf and gravy. The “menu” is the full listing from which we order our appetizer, entree, dessert, and all. Both culinary terms are from France, the epicenter of cuisine (western, at least) and restaurant tradition.

But something stumbled in translation, maybe after too much wine, en route from Paris and Lyon to New York and San Francisco and New Orleans. When I first went to French-speaking countries, where I’ve spent a lot of time and consumed a lot of calories, I was confused in restaurants.

In French, “entrée” means what the word says. It’s the entrance into the meal, the appetizer or, more recently and more accurately in the US, the “starter”. In France, an “entrée” might be a pâté, a seafood tart, or raw oysters. In French the main dish is called exactly that, “le plat” or “le plat principal”.

If you ask a waiter in francophone country for the “menu” you get the fixed meal of the day, generally with a choice of main dish. What we call the menu is “la carte” in French (with “à la carte” correctly in English meaning an individual item ordered off the list).

A couple other French culinary notes before tackling an actual starter dish. An “hors d’oeuvre” (literally “outside the [main] work”) is the little finger food you nibble before going to sit at the dining table. Hors d’oeuvre often accompany a before-dinner drink, termed in French an “apéritif”. The business of preparing and serving food commercially in French is “restauration” (restoration or rehabilitation). The place where that takes place is, no kidding, the “restaurant”.

Here’s a nice summer-time (or any-time) starter course of California origin, whatever French or American term you want for it. (It could also serve as a light lunch.) I developed it based on a “salad” dish I had in Santa Monica at a friend’s favorite neighborhood deli, a place full of gorgeous and creative dishes. It’s a fruit-laced tuna concoction stuffed into tomatoes, but if the tuna is broken up a little finer and made slightly moister, this also spreads well on crackers or cucumber slices or into a sandwich.

Tomatoes Stuffed with Fruited Tuna Salad Tim (Serves 6 generously as an appetizer, or use for sandwiches)
2 (6-ounce) cans solid white tuna (in water rather than oil)
1/3 cup finely chopped (1/4-inch) Granny Smith apple, including the peel
2 tablespoons dried cranberries, coarsely chopped
2 green onions, green part included, sliced thinly
1 teaspoon horseradish
1-1/2 teaspoons vinegar or lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
A small pinch of grated nutmeg (optional, but delicious)
2 generous squirts of hot pepper sauce or a pinch of cayenne
2 tablespoons sour cream
3 tablespoons mayonnaise, more for a sandwich spread (‘real’ type is best)
Salt to taste
6 medium-large tomatoes for stuffing
Drain the tuna. Break it up coarsely (finer if for a spread) in a bowl, using a fork. Chop the apple and cranberries, slice the green onions, and add to the tuna. Add horseradish, vinegar or lemon juice, pepper, nutmeg if used, hot sauce or cayenne, sour cream, mayonnaise and a generous sprinkle of salt. Mix well. Taste and add salt if necessary, plus a little more vinegar or lemon juice if desired. Let sit to season for a half hour or more, and up to several days in the refrigerator. Mix again and taste, adjusting salt if needed. Stuff into hollowed out tomatoes for appetizer, salting inside the tomatoes lightly before stuffing. Or serve a scoop of the mixture on a lettuce leaf as the appetizer course. Alternatively serve with crackers, sliced French bread, toast points, or on cucumber slices as finger-food hors d’oeuvre. The mixture can also be used for croissant or regular bread sandwiches.

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