A Taste of France Without Venturing Too Far

A Taste of France Without Venturing Too Far

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Time moves along, and suddenly it’s fall. The weather is fine, and trees are sporting multicolored leaves. A different kind of hunger sets in, and you’re longing for the food of autumn — deeper, more robust fare.

For me, composing a three-course menu is always fun. You want a balance of flavors and textures and a certain progression. Start the meal with something light and bright, go for deeper notes in the main course and end with something sweet, but not too sweet.

Inspiration can come from anywhere: a gander at the produce in the market, advice from a cookbook or two, a sudden craving. Sometimes I start with dessert and work backward. Or begin in the middle and then decide on the other courses.

This menu began with a memory.

I recalled a salad I’d had at a restaurant in Normandy, in northern France. That probably sounds grandiose, but I was living and working in Paris at the time, just getting out of town for the weekend to visit friends. We stopped for lunch at an unassuming little bistro, where there were only a few choices on the menu: salad or pâté to begin, duck confit or steak for the main (both with fried potatoes) and Camembert or an apple tart to finish. The place wasn’t at all fancy — this was basic, simple French fare.

But the salad called out to me, mostly because it seemed an unusual combination: beets and tomatoes. Both were dressed with a zippy vinaigrette, and they sat side-by-side on the plate, unadorned.

Fifteen years later, that salad became my starting point for this meal. Taking a bistro cue, I chose duck for the main course, but, instead of a leg, I went with a pan-roasted breast, served with a mixture of wild and cultivated mushrooms. Dessert would be a classic French lemon tart with a touch of lime.

This menu is developed with six in mind, but it could be scaled down to serve four. And honestly, we made it for our household of two and enjoyed the leftovers for a couple days. Or, save it for a gathering in the future.

This salad is very satisfying in its simplicity. Bright and fresh, the earthy beets and sweet tomatoes are bathed in a gutsy dressing and served alongside one another. Though the combination may seem unusual, it is a fairly traditional one in France, and it is delicious. For the best flavor, choose ripe, juicy tomatoes and cook your own beets. Don’t be tempted to use the ho-hum precooked vacuum packed type. To save time, feel free to cook the beets a day or two in advance.

Magret is the term used for the large breasts of a Muscovy duck, found at many butcher shops and supermarkets or easily bought online. Each weighs about 12 ounces, enough for two portions, and are best cooked rare or medium-rare, like a steak — and the cooking methods are similar for both. (If using smaller duck breasts, reduce the cooking time accordingly.) The sauce is flavored with dried wild mushrooms, and a mixture of sautéed mushrooms is enlivened with garlic and parsley. Mashed squash or sweet potato would make a nice accompaniment.

This is a classic French dessert — impressive, but easy to make, if you get ahead on the prep work. It’s essential to make the dough and lemon curd in advance, up to two days ahead; otherwise, it becomes too much of a project. The buttery, cookielike dough is pressed into the pan, not rolled with a pin. The golden yellow tart is beautifully balanced — not too sweet, not too puckery, and flecked with freshly grated lime zest.

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