(June 17) Rich creme brulee painted with a lavish swirl of glistening raspberries and sauce. Steaming crusty-hard French bread slathered with a dollop of seasoned, oven-roasted garlic. The flavors of France are as diverse as they are delicious. Couple that diversity with a “creme-de-la creme” culinary reputation and there’s no question why French food and cooking techniques are revered the world over.

Whether it’s a multicourse meal served in the most exclusive haute establishment or a casual plate at a street-side bistro, the French depend on quality ingredients.

The 22 regions that constitute France owe their culinary signatures to the freshest ingredients and produce available. Neighboring countries, cultures or bodies of water also influence regional menus and afford the French a sophisticated, varied palate no matter the style of cooking. Savor freshly caught mussels in Normandy, creamy Quiche Lorraine in Lorraine and hearty steak frites in Paris. Indulge in just-picked carrots, scallions, mushrooms, berries and other fruits throughout the countryside and in city markets.

Chef hats are off to Jean-Louis Pallidin, the French cook credited with inspiring culinary creativity and a passion for freshness in North American French cooking. Some restaurateurs admire Pallidin, who died in November, for fostering an awareness and demand among chefs and consumers for organic ingredients and produce.

“When Pallidin came to the United States, a lot of different restaurants would buy the same vegetables and serve them year after year,” says Vince Williams, chef-owner of La Chaumiere, Lyons, Colo. “But Pallidin came up with the concept of cooking with the seasons and using local produce.”

Pallidin created a link between growers and chefs that has become fundamental to French cuisine in the United States. “A lot of restaurants began to design their menus around the seasons,” Williams says.

Freshness is key in home kitchens as well. For years, such cooks as Julia Child have extolled the virtues of quality home cooking by exposing Americans via television to classic French dishes and techniques. Their efforts have elevated the tastes and appreciation of an entire generation for French food and fine dining. As a result, American consumers are eager to indulge in fine French foods and dishes.

Fresh connection

Most fruits and vegetables the French enjoy readily are available in the United States. The cuisine commonly features various greens, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus, green beans, peas, potatoes, carrots, onions, white beans (such as cannellini and navy) and lentils. Strawberries, raspberries, apples, bananas, apricots, oranges, plums and pears direct the flavor in pastries and hot and cold desserts.

“We serve classical French food, but it’s a little on the new age side,” says Brian Johnson, executive chef at Bistro Toujours, Deer Valley, Utah.

Johnson’s best-selling dish is sweet garlic glazed chicken — a pan-roasted breast served with brioche and stuffed with mushroom ragout. He serves the dish with sautéed asparagus and tops it with a garlic glaze sauce. Another favorite is seared foie gras served with a timbale of poached pear, bacon and melon compote and blood orange syrup.

Brie-stuffed artichokes are Bistro Toujours’ signature item, Johnson says. He steams the artichokes, stuffs them with brie cheese and shallots, bakes them in a wood-burning oven and serves them with whole grain mustard sauce. Other popular appetizers include a garlic confit that Johnson serves with a baguette. Fondues are popular, he notes, adding the most requested is fondue Savoyard featuring a toasted croustade, French cheeses and morel mushrooms.

Common vegetables Johnson uses include Yukon gold potatoes, carrots, celery and such herbs as rosemary, thyme and sage. Popular fruits include honeydew, cantaloupe, pineapple, pears, plums and apples featured in an apple tart. Bananas, huckleberries and chocolate top the three creme brulees Johnson creates.

The produce purveyors that supply The French Quarter, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., know that chef Jean-Marie Pajonk only accepts fresh and seasonal product. He does not use frozen produce. Rather, he prepares fresh carrots, zucchini and yellow squash to accompany his dishes, he says.

“Originally, we were a New Orleans-style restaurant, but we have put a little bit of a French twist on it. We have kept some of the New Orleans specialties, like gumbo, but we have shifted from the New Orleans style,” Pajonk says.

Favorite dishes include bouillabaisse, gumbo, rack of lamb and mussels. “We also make shrimp maison, which is jumbo shrimp sautéed with fresh carrots,” he says.

Ponjak relies on strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, kiwi, seedless grapes, apples and oranges for his traditional French dishes and desserts.

Taste of the classics

Patrons travel two or three hours to savor sweetbreads, a classical French specialty, at La Chaumiere, Williams says. He makes sweetbreads from veal and beef thymus glands that he poaches and sautés until crispy.

The menu at La Chaumiere changes seasonally featuring eight entrees with a different vegetable for each, he says. Asparagus and tomatoes are popular in the warmer months. He features a lineup of root vegetables, including carrots, rutabagas and parsnips, in the cooler months.

Restaurant favorites include cassoulet, snails, duck liver pate, baked brie, steak au poivre and smoked salmon with lemon and dill sauce. Williams embellishes many dishes with spinach and cabbage ragouts.

Diners at Chez Foley, Wayzata, Minn. enjoy the downtown lakeside bistro’s rosemary rack of lamb and a variety of stacked napoleons prepared under the direction of chef-owner Thomas Fritz.

“We like to paint the plates. We go for heights, widths, flavors and textures,” Fritz says. Entrees feature pork, beef, chicken, lamb and game. A favorite menu item features portabella mushrooms sautéed with lemon garlic, white wine and butter alongside a bed of spinach leaves. Another culinary winner is baked brie painted with a mixed sauce of blueberries, strawberries and raspberries served with a baguette.

Fritz entices vegetarian eaters with vegetarian pastas, vegetable napoleons and wraps. He fills the flour tortilla wraps with goat cheese, balsamic vinegar and such roasted vegetables as red bell peppers, portabella mushrooms, espana beans, celery, carrots and onions.

La Chaumiere’s Williams caters to the nearby vegetarian population in Boulder, Colo., with a steamed vegetable platter featuring seven to 10 items including broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. He serves the vegetables with warm vinaigrette and saffron rice.

Bistro Toujours’ Johnson also offers a limited vegetarian menu. Customers often request a vegetable parmentier made with caramelized onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, potato confit, cauliflower mousse and bread crumbs, he says.