French cuisine has gotten a bit of a bum rap when it comes to healthy eating.
“Foie gras is very rich,” admits Laurent Zirotti, ‘“yet you only eat it once a year.” Zirotti is the culinary half of the husband-wife team behind North Idaho’s Fleur de Sel restaurant.
Portions, ingredients, cooking methods, even the dining process itself are vastly different in France, notes Zirotti, who moved to the United States from southern France in the early ’80s with his wife Patricia.
True, Zirotti modified his marinated quail stuffed with decadent chicken-mushroom mousse for our readers (see recipe), and yes, butter, cream and rich sauces are a staple of classical French cooking. Yet restaurant cooking and home cooking are different, says Zirotti. French home cooking means less processed food, less meat, more seasonal ingredients.
“Four ounces of meat is a large portion” for a French meal, says Zirotti, whose love of food originated with his French mother and Italian grandmother.
“She has no cholesterol,” he says of his 82-year-old mother, whose hearty meals never lacked for rich flavors.
Zirotti remembers coming home from boarding school at age 10 — the food was awful, he says — relishing his mother’s cooking, and realizing the profound connection between food and feeling. By 14, Zirotti was old enough to work in the nearby Peugeot factory, but a single day on the job solidified his desire to break with family tradition. At 15, young Zirotti, the only one in his family who did not work for the French auto manufacturer, enrolled and was accepted in the prestigious Thonon-les-Bains Culinary Academy.
“I never looked back,” he says.
Another difference between American and French cuisine, says Zirotti, is how people eat; in France, it’s not uncommon to enjoy a leisurely, multi-course meal, often followed by a nap. Contrast that to American fast food, eating in front of the television or in the car.
Food, he says, is meant to be savored. That’s apropos to Fleur de Sel’s reputation as a destination restaurant. It’s not uncommon for diners to spend several hours there.
“What is healthy for the mind is healthy for the body,” says Zirotti.
Fleur de Sel’s menu features more vegetarian and vegan dishes than if he were cooking in France, says Zirotti. But 30-plus years in America — including several in San Francisco and Billings, Montana, where the Zirottis operated Enzo Mediterranean Bistro — have shaped his culinary viewpoint in many ways.
“I cook from my roots,” says Zirotti, originally from the Piedmont region. Yet he’s also inspired by new ingredients, food trends, dining out and recreating classic French dishes with his own twist.
When he’s not in the kitchen — which is rare — Zirotti enjoys sharing his love of French cooking with others, such as the dessert class he conducted this spring at Post Falls’ Jacklin Arts and Cultural Center.
“I wouldn’t mind ending my career teaching,” he says. Fortunately for Fleur de Sel fans, the end is nowhere in sight.
Warm Quinoa Salad with Grilled Chicken
Enjoy this light, healthy salad created by Fleur de Sel Chef Laurent Zirotti on a beautiful warm day.
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 red onion, chopped
1/2 pound asparagus, cut into 1/2 inch sections
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/2 patty pan, zucchini or crook neck squash, cut in quarters
1 tablespoon capers
1/2 cup grape tomatoes
Corn cut fresh from two cobs
1/2 pound baby kale, torn into pieces
1/2 cup garbanzo beans, rinsed
Pour olive oil in sauce pan. Turn heat to medium. Add vegetables to pan as you cut them. Stir as you go. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook until vegetables are translucent and kale is wilted, about five minutes after last ingredient is in the pan. Set aside to cool.
1 cup quinoa
2 cups water or low sodium chicken broth
Bring quinoa and water/broth to boil in covered pan.
Turn heat down and simmer on low for 15 minutes until liquid is absorbed. Remove pan from heat and let rest, covered, for five minutes. When the cooked vegetable mix and quinoa have cooled to room temperature, mix together gently in a large bowl.
Juice from 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
pinch of black pepper
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Mix ingredients together in lidded jar. Vinaigrette will separate easily; shake well every time before use.
Marinated Chicken Breast
Juice and zest from 1 lemon
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon (dried) Herbes de Provence, plus extra for sprinkling on chicken during grilling
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
Salt and pepper
4 chicken breasts, skins removed (preferably organic)
Whisk marinade ingredients together. Marinate chicken for ½ day in refrigerator covered. Heat grill to high. Cook chicken breast, seasoning it with some Herbes de Provence, black pepper and salt (sea salt is ideal). Remove chicken to clean plate and let rest.
Toss the salad with freshly shaken vinaigrette and season to your liking. Place cooked chicken on top with a sprig of fresh herb or a twist of lemon. Serve warm. Serves four. To make this dish vegan, replace chicken broth with vegetable stock, and replace chicken with tofu.