Traditional French meals have at least three courses—a starter, main course, and dessert. These days people may only have two of these courses at any given meal, especially if it’s a casual affair, but appetizers are still an important part of many meals. They’re also an important part of French cuisine in general. If you’re looking to start a French meal off in style, there are plenty of tasty ways to do so.
This course on casual gourmet cooking can give you some recipe ideas to start off with.
An amuse-bouche is a type of smaller bite, typically something you would be eating with drinks before the actual meal, or aperitifs. Often these are finger foods, sometimes small enough to be single bites. A common starter of this type would be crudités, which consist of raw vegetables either sliced or whole. Along with broccoli or cauliflower, this could consist of asparagus spears, carrot or bell pepper slices, or celery stalks. Often these are served with dip.
Other appetizers of this type include canapés, bite-sized appetizers that are often processed food such as mousse topped with garnishes on a bit of toast or puff pastry, cut into shapes and laid out decoratively on trays. There is often an underlying spread of compound butter or cream cheese. Garnishes can include scallions, herbs, or caviar. A small, round puff pastry is called a vol-a-vent. For family meals, you might be worried about whether young children will be interested in some of these foods, but this Udemy course on preventing picky eating will help you encourage kids to try new things.
Amouse-bouche can also be served as a palate cleanser between a heavier appetizer course and a main course. In this case, they would be more likely to consist of something very light like a sorbet or demitasse of soup.
Often, amouse-bouche are used as an opportunity for the chef to show off his or her creativity, especially in restaurants where they’re typically offered to everyone at the table as part of the meal. Some popular choices can include large soup spoons and other Asian-style bites, even including sashimi. When served with drinks—again, especially in restaurants—a lot of options tend to be salty or spicy in order to encourage guests to drink more. If you’re concerned with nutrition and not just taste, this course on enjoyable healthy cooking can improve your meals by helping your learn to make treats that are as healthy as they are tasty.
As already mentioned, any starter course to a French meal tends to include drinks, which are just as important to the meal experience as the food. Most choices served are alcoholic, such as champagne, gin, or vermouth, and tend to be lighter and drier, including some white wines or types of sherry like amontillado, as opposed to sweeter sherries that tend to be served as after-dinner drinks, or digestifs. They can also be somewhat bitter, like Campari, which is a well-known specific brand of drink sometimes served with soda.
This is often part of the more relaxed, slower experience of French dining, and is intended to enhance the dining experience from the very beginning of the meal. Reading about wine pairing can give you ideas about what drinks to use with food.
French starters can also include less culturally specific choices, such as smoked or deviled eggs, which can be served a variety of garnishes like chopped vegetables bits or caviar in addition to spices. (Roe, in the form of caviar, is more typically used as a garnish than as the main substance of a starter, unlike in Russian cuisine, where it can be used substantially in any form.)
Some meals will include a spread of cold cuts, or buffet froid in French. This tends to differ somewhat from what Americans might think of as cold cuts, including mortadella and other sausages but also processed meats like pates and terrines (which tend to have a coarser texture than pates), or mousses, which can be shaped and served on their own or with a toast or similar starch base, in which case they might be left in a softer form rather than being set after processing.
Other common meat starters would include roulades and galantines. A roulade is made from deboned poultry that is laid out, topped with forcemeat (the ground, emulsified meat that forms the base of many processed meat products) and rolled into a pinwheel shape before being poached and chilled. A galantine is similar, but is pressed into a simpler cylinder, more like a sausage. Both are served cold.
Hors d’oeuvre can also include the type of cured meats that would more commonly be thought of as cold cuts among English speakers, which in this case would be known as charcuterie. This can include different types of meat, especially (but not limited to) pork, and any of a number of preparations, including emulsified sausages and salt-cured or fermented sausages.
While in North America the word entrée is typically used to mean a main dish, in French (along with other parts of the world) it suggests a more substantial course, especially in more traditional meals with a communal main course like a roast.
This can include the fish course that would have been served in a more extensive meal, or might consist of other types of meat, such as game or fowl. Typically it will be a lighter preparation of meat when served with a roast such as beef. When served between two different meat courses in a larger meal, these can be lighter, such as omelettes with vegetables, quiches, or crepes. They can also include soufflés or smaller sandwiches (croque monsieur can sometimes be classified here).
An entrée course can also be the same type of salad or soup that might be served as a first course in other types of cuisine. In general, these are intended to balance out the main course, so they can include a variety of cooking techniques and base ingredients, whether eggs, vegetables, or meat.
Authentic French recipes aren’t as likely to include much cheese, though, since in traditional French cuisine this is more likely reserved for the end of the meal, as a dessert course. For smaller meals that don’t include a later cheese course, though, you might include something like a baked brie here.
One type of traditional first course is a heavier stew or porridge, known as a potage (“potted dish”), made from meat and vegetables boiled down to a mushier consistency but including a wide range of foods.
This was a commonly eaten type dish in parts of northern Europe from the medieval period, including thick soups but also mashed fruits, jellied meats in aspic, or a type of boiled wheat dish known as a frumenty that could include a protein binder like milk or broth as well as a variety of spices and flavorings and was sometimes served with meat.
French dining can often be a slower, more deliberate experience than Americans and people in some other culture are used to, even if it’s a weekday lunch. Especially when paired with a good aperitif, a starter course can be a good way to ease into a meal of any size.
Whether paired with a main course, standing alone, or simply followed by a dessert or cheese course, a good appetizer excites your palate for the meal to come as well as being satisfying. If you’re inspired to seek out some French restaurants in your area, this beginner course on French for café’s can teach you to order your food in style.