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Originally published Sunday, March 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Cross-Country Culture: In the kitchen, America can speak French

Most French people, in fact, take great pride in whatever pays or region they call home. The pays, or land, is, after all, the source of terroir.

"In the English-speaking world," writes Anne Willan in her newest book, "The Country Cooking of France," "nobody wants to be called a peasant, though the word derives from pays, the French word for country and countryside." In France, she writes, "paysan is not a pejorative term."

Most French people, in fact, take great pride in whatever pays or region they call home. The pays, or land, is, after all, the source of terroir. And terroir, Willan notes, is the soil, climate and topography that "pinpoints what makes an ingredient grown in one place taste different from the same ingredient grown in another." The notion is at the very foundation of French cooking, and it helps explain why French cuisine is so fundamentally different from English cooking, and by association, so much American cooking, born in the English colonies.

In the 17th century, American cookbook authors, innkeepers and homemakers took great pains to divorce themselves from the Gallic tradition. One E. Smith, in a 1685 edition of "The Compleat Housewife," originally published in England but widely circulated in the colonies, notes, "To our disgrace, we have admired the French tongue and French messes." The "messes" were stews or dishes sauced with reductions of meat broth, a practice frowned upon by English cooks of that era.

Nonetheless, French culture in the colonies and in the 18th-century American states was expressed at the table. Benjamin Franklin praised France and French cooking. Before Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States, he served for four years as ambassador to France, and his passion for French food and culture characterized the way he ran both his home at Monticello and the White House.

Truth be told, as our New American regional cooking comes of age, our roots in that fertile soil are showing more and more. In the 20th century, James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child spent time in France and brought French sensibilities to their American cooking as well as to their influential food writing. Alice Waters, sometimes referred to as the founder of the New American Food Movement, got her culinary bearings in France, too. Here on the West Coast, the burgeoning of farmers markets, the so-called locovore movement and a passion for wild foods speak to the French tastes of our best cooks.

One indication of our local fondness for French might be the new Zagat guide to Seattle, which reviews restaurants "from the diner's point of view." It lists some 35 French restaurants. Some are venerable favorites like Rover's, Le Gourmand and Campagne, all of which received top food ratings of 26 or more points, and more than half a dozen, including Café Presse on Capitol Hill and Bakery Nouveau in West Seattle are new, opened in the last year. So here in Seattle, it would seem that our infatuation with French food is very much intact. Vive la belle cuisine!

Greg Atkinson is an instructor at the Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com.

Recipe: Quiche Chez Mois

Perhaps no other dish evokes the simplicity and charm of French cooking the way a quiche does. Skillfully blended flour, butter and water become a slightly crisp and very flavorful shell. Bacon, eggs and cheese make a savory filling.

For the crust

1 cup unbleached white flour

½ cup cold unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch bits

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½ teaspoon table salt

3 tablespoons ice-cold water

For the filling

8 ounces (about 8 thick slices) good-quality bacon, chilled

4 eggs

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 cup half-and-half

6 ounces (about 1 ½ cups) grated Gruyere or other cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and lightly butter a 10-inch ceramic tart pan or pie pan, or spray it with nonstick spray.

2. To make the pastry: Put the flour in the work bowl of a food processor, or in a mixing bowl. Work in the butter and salt. If using a food processor, process just until mixture resembles coarse crumbs, leaving some chunks of butter about the size of BBs; if no food processor is available, use a pastry blender or a fork to cut the butter into the flour. Sprinkle the cold water over the flour mixture and pulse the motor or work the mixture with a wooden spoon just until the dough comes together into a scrappy heap. Do not knead or overwork; it is not necessary to make the dough into a smooth ball.

3. On a floured surface, roll the pastry dough into a 12-inch circle and plant the circle in a pie pan. Line the pastry with a piece of baker's parchment or aluminum foil and fill it with rice or beans or special pie weights. Bake the pastry until the edges are lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

4. To make the filling: Cut the chilled bacon across the slices into ¼-inch strips. Cook the bacon in a skillet over medium-high heat until it renders its fat and becomes crisp. Lift the bacon out of the pan with a slotted spoon and drain the cooked bits on a plate lined with paper towels. In a small mixing bowl, whisk the eggs with the salt, pepper and nutmeg, then whisk in the half-and-half.

5. Take the tart pan out of the oven and remove the parchment with the rice or beans. (Save the rice or beans to be used again later.) Spread the cooked bacon over the bottom of the partly baked pastry and pile the grated cheese on top of the bacon. Pour the egg mixture over the cheese and put the tart pan back in the oven. Bake about 25 minutes, just until the custard is set and slightly puffed in the center.

Greg Atkinson, 2008

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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