Cool as a cucumber soup

How to master the art of the amuse bouche

Amuse-bouche ? Palate-tickler ? Mise en bouche ? Mouth-entertainer ? Or how about chef’s greeting, “appeteaser,” mouth-pleaser, or pre-appetizer ? Whatever you call it, the tiny bite you’ll eat at the beginning of a meal is usually found only in gastronomic restaurants. But why not chez toi ? Read on to find out how.

Even though the term has existed since 1946 – according to Le Dictionnaire historique de la langue française – the amuse-bouche was popularized in the 1960s and 70s French nouvelle cuisine movement. In the late 1990s, the amuse-bouche made a stellar comeback (rivaling that of Robert Downey Jr.’s in film), and now you’ll find them in almost every upscale restaurant on both sides of the Atlantic. (I ate the one shown here recently in Annecy, at La Ciboulette.)

Ta gueule !

In French restaurants, the professional term is simply “amuse” – but only in the back of the house (or kitchen). Just as Parisians only have time to kiss people once on each cheek – in the rest of France, it’s twice – restaurant workers don’t have time to say amuse-bouche – they just call out as they’re whizzing through the kitchen, “Where are the amuses for table 6 ?”

The pre-starter bite used to be known as the amuse-gueule, and in some restaurants it still is. But the word gueule is a little too familiar for a fine-dining environment. It basically refers to an animal’s mouth, or muzzle. I used to hear the word all the time when I taught culinary arts to teenage boys from the rougher parts of Paris, who’d use the phrase “Ta gueule !” to shut up one of their classmates. (It only occasionally worked.)

Too thought-provoking

You might also hear that colorful phrase in Mathieu Kassovitz’s movie La haine. Shortly after the movie was released in 1995, I was teaching college-level French to American students, and we watched the movie together. One student approached me after the screening, and I asked him if he liked it. He screwed up his face in indecision, answering, “I’m not sure… I guess it was a little too…. too thought-provoking or something.” God forbid we provoke thought in a French class !

So gueule isn’t appropriate language for fine restaurants, but if you go to them regularly, you’re probably a fine gueule, or a gourmet. If you partake in a side-splitting laugh, in French we’d say se fendre la gueule. And someone who makes a funny face ? Faire une drôle de gueule. Which is precisely the face the guy from my class was making after watching La haine.

The chef’s greeting

But back to the amuses : officially, an amuse-bouche is a bite-size hors d’oeuvre – I’ll be coming back to the hors d’oeuvre’s long history in a future post – served before the starter or appetizer. It’s not on the menu, so the chef decides what’s in it. The amuse prepares you for the meal to come because it allows you to sample the chef’s personal aesthetic, like an introduction to the rest, or the chef’s greeting.

The advantages of the amuse-bouche for a restaurateur are clear : since they’re offered for free, they help promote customer loyalty – we all feel special when we get a gift from the chef ! For the chef, the amuse is a way to show off fresh ingredients from the market that may be sold in small quantities, or on the other hand, to use up small quantities of ingredients s/he might already have on hand.

Mastering the art of the amuse

But if you want to make amuses-bouche at home, how can you master this art ? Here are a few advantages and tips.

1) Amuses-bouche are great for expressing creativity and setting up a sense of luxury, without the price tag. They’re like a little sketch pad, in the words of journalist Andy Battaglia. Amuses don’t cost much, so if you’re considering cooking with an expensive ingredient like foie gras or truffles, amuses are perfect for testing your techniques on a small scale.

2) Do you know why the kitchen staff likes amuses ? They’re time savers. Chefs prepare amuses-bouche in advance and use them strategically to keep diners happy while they’re preparing the starters/appetizers. You can do the same at home if you make them ahead.

3) Amuses are an excellent way to introduce unusual foods to guests (think sweetbreads or sea urchin).

4) So many “palettes” are available : crackers, toast points, shot glasses or other small cups or glasses, egg cups, Chinese-style spoons, or skewers. How about the foods themselves ? In summer, you can use vegetables cut into cylinders and hollowed out into cup shapes (like zucchini) or a single fingerling potato half, to “hold” other foods. In cooler seasons, puff pastry works well wrapped around boudin blanc, for example, or the traditional bacon-wrapped…anything !

5) Looking for specific ideas ? Underneath my Cool as a cucumber recipe below, you’ll find links for all sorts of inspiration. Happy amusing !

Cool as a cucumber soup

When I was living with my first French roommate, both of us happened to be reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. My version was in English, hers was in French, and we enjoyed comparing the translation to the original. One day, my roommate asked me, “What is this expression, frais comme un concombre ?” I laughed and described the term – someone who’s relaxed, laid-back, or in unofficial French : cool.

This smooth, pale-green soup is flecked with dill, and it’s just a little racy with garlic. It’s served cold, and it’s a great way to start a cool summer meal, either as a starter in any small decorative cup, or as an amuse-bouche in tiny shot-style glasses or verrines as shown here. Back when I still brought dishes over from the States, I would serve this in vintage Melmac Royale cups and saucers : the matte hues worked well as a contrast to the soup’s icy color.

special equipment : wand mixer, blender, or food processor

for the soup :
- 1 large garlic clove (or more to taste), green germ removed (if you find one – it’s indigestible)
- 2 medium cucumbers (about 22 ounces or 620g), washed and peeled
- 1 cup (245g) plain yogurt
- ⅓ cup (80g) heavy cream or sour cream
- 1 to 1½ teaspoons salt, or to taste
- freshly ground white pepper, to taste
- 6-7 sprigs of dill, or to taste, finely chopped (save a few tops for the décor)
- several half-rounds of lemon (optional), a splash of lemon juice (optional)

how to make it :
1. Blanch the garlic clove – double-blanching “softens” the too-harsh flavor of fresh garlic in the smooth soup. In a small casserole filled about halfway up with cold water, bring the two garlic halves to a boil. Strain immediately, and repeat this process. Cool the garlic by running it under cold water, and chop coarsely.
2. Thinly slice 5 rounds of cucumber from the middle of one of them, and reserve. Slice the rest of the cucumber in two lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds using a spoon. Then chop the cucumbers into thumbnail-size cubes.
3. Combine the garlic, cucumber, yogurt, and cream in the cup you use with your wand mixer, or in the bowl of a blender or food processor. Purée until smooth.
4. Add salt, pepper, and chopped dill, and stir to combine. Chill for 2 hours, and serve in small soup cups or in small (2-ounce) shot-size glasses. Decorate with half-rounds of cucumber or lemon and a sprig of dill, and a splash of lemon juice at the table.

makes four 5-ounce servings as a small starter or 10 2-ounce servings as an amuse-bouche

For inspiration, this quick Pinterest search, right, yielded no end of possibilities and options. You can find lots of ideas in this book by Rick Tramonto. If you’d like to have a look at some ideas in French for amuses-bouche, this web site has lots of fiches techniques, otherwise known as recipes !

Tags : soup , amuse-bouche , amuse-gueule , cucumbers , yogurt , dill , French restaurants , nouvelle cuisine , soup recipe , chilled soup


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Alisa Morovs 28 juillet 2016

I love this post ! I was amused in every definition of the word... and inspired too ! xx

Allison Zinder 2 août 2016

Thanks for reading, Alisa. So glad the article inspired you !

Ed Cobleigh 3 mai 2019

Last summer, my wife and dined at Café le Zimmer on Place Chatalet. We had a chilled green pea and whipped cream soup with cumin and pistachios. It change our lives forever. Do you have such a recipe ? I can’t find one anywhere.

Allison Zinder 28 août 2019

Bonjour Ed ! Thank you for your patience in my getting back to you after a long maternity leave.
I have contacted Café Le Zimmer and will contact you by e-mail when I hear back from the head chef. Hopefully he’ll be willing to share this life-changing recipe !

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