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They always sat in a white ceramic bowl, small and perfect in their imperfection, surrounded by the charcuterie platter and an assortment of dips and overflowing cheese plates. A few times a year, only the most special occasions, my mother would bring out the Maille cornichons—tiny pickles that, to a child’s eyes, defied nature and logic. They were the peak of elegance and adult refinement; I could have one, maybe two—the rest “are for guests only.” When her back was turned, I’d sneak a few more, savoring the sour crunch of these bite-sized delicacies. Even today as an adult, the sight of a bowl of cornichons, artfully laid out on a silk tablecloth or hardwood table at New Year’s Eve, or next to the champagne at an engagement party, adds an air of celebration I have yet to parallel.
A beloved French tradition, cornichons are made by plucking mini gherkin cucumbers before they reach full maturity, ensuring prime tartness. Firmer and smaller than any other type of pickle, today you can buy a range of generic cornichons from your local market or most Whole Food stores. But for me, there’s a ritual to the pop of the Maille jar, a sacredness to its elegant gold lettering and built-in “pickle-lifter,” ensuring not a single spear is beyond reach.
Since I know I’m not alone in my love for cornichons, to fete Bastille Day I reached out to some of our favorite chefs to learn why they also adore these tiny treasures.
"I like to make my own ‘special sauce’ for burgers, or even as a quick steak tartare sauce. Stir together two parts mayonnaise with one part ketchup, one part chopped cornichons, and 1/2 part Dijon," Mike Lata, chef/owner of Charleston's The Ordinary.
“I use cornichons in my egg salad with Dijon mustard and a little mayo. I also use them to garnish deviled eggs for parties,” Shawn Cirkiel, restaurateur and chef of Parkside Projects (Parkside, Backspace, Olive & June, and Jugo) in Austin.
"When I'm feeling French, I'll throw Maille cornichons and butter on a baguette with some of the ham we make at Turkey and the Wolf. They make for a delightful sandwich. My old lady loves them with a late night cheese plate," Mason Hereford, owner and chef of Turkey and the Wolf, New Orleans.
“Of course, cornichons are perfect to counter something fatty like a pate. My favorite way to use cornichons right now is in a dirty martini. Instead of olives, I use the cornichon brine to make the martinis,” Paul Denamiel, owner, and chef of Le Rivage, New York.
“I absolutely love cornichons! My favorite way to use them is in a simple, clean relish for roasted chicken. Maille cornichons, green olive, cucumber and celery with olive oil, fresh lemon, and mint. It’s the perfect compliment with a classic roast chicken, simple salad, a glass of white wine and hanging on the patio for lunch,” Jason Dady, restaurateur, and chef of Shuck Shack, Tre Trattoria, Tre Enoteca, Two Bros. BBQ Market, B & D Ice House, Alamo BBQ Company, San Antonio.
“Cornichons are such a versatile ingredient for chefs. But my favorite use is in a gribiche. It's a French sauce made by emulsifying hard boiled eggs with Dijon, cornichons, tons of fresh herbs, and olive oil. Throw all those ingredients in a food processor, add some salt, and let it rip until emulsified. If it's too thick, feel free to drizzle in additional olive oil. The cornichons add a beautiful depth of flavor to this sauce and bring acidity to the table.
I love to grill some bread, spread the cornichon gribiche on top, add some poached asparagus and additional sliced cornichon. It makes a wonderful tartine fit for any part of the day. Another fun way to use cornichons is in a salsa verde. Chop some of your favorite herbs (I often use parsley, oregano, cilantro), fine dice some cornichons, & garlic. Add to a bowl and stir in some olive oil and lemon zest. Instantly, you have a versatile sauce that you can use on grilled vegetables, fish, or meat. It tastes good on everything!” -Ethan Speizer, executive chef of Ashes & Diamonds Winery, Napa.
“Cornichons are just great. When not eating them on their own, I like to add them to sauces. Either a cold sauce or hot sauce it’s a great way to add a lot of flavor,” Mark Dommen, partner, and chef of One Market, San Francisco.
“We always use cornichons to make our gribiche really pop for grilled asparagus."-Eric Joppie, executive chef of Olympic Provisions NorthWest, Olympia, WA.
"Cornichons alongside grilled cheese sandwiches or chopped up in a tuna salad are my go to.” -Ben Jacobsen, founder, and CEO of Jacobsen Salt Co., Portland, OR.