French Cooking Tricks that Will Simplify Dinner

"French women don't fuss," says Wini Moranville, author ofThe Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food that French Women Cook Every Day--happy news indeed for anyone who has ever admired the French flair for cooking as much as their easy way with scarves and stripes. "Bonne femme" means "good wife," but it's also an expression used to describe the fresh, simple, economical food cooked every day in French homes by men and women alike. After more than 20 years of extended stays in France in every part of the country from Paris to coastal towns in the South, Moranville has gleaned cooking lessons of economy, simplicity and ease that are every bit as applicable stateside as in a French kitchen. (As for scarves and stripes, we'll let you know when we decode that sexy-gamine Amelie thing.)

[Related: How to deal with a picky eater, French-style]

Embrace the Best Shortcuts
"You don't have to cook everything from scratch," says Moranville; French women rely on convenience foods just like many of us. The difference? They seek out the best of the bunch. "Here in Iowa there's this great bread baker who'll sell his pizza crust. Unless you really want to knead dough, why would you make it yourself?" Wherever you call home, Moranville suggests seeking out the foods of local artisans to round out what you're cooking. At the store, upgrade to the best quality options you can afford. A high-quality chicken broth will result in a more delicious dinner.

Memorize this Weeknight Mantra: Sauté, Deglaze, Serve
"Sure, French chefs can take days to make a great classic sauce, but the everyday French cook does not." After you sauté the night's meat or fish, deglaze the pan by adding a little wine and broth and scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan (they'll infuse the sauce with flavor). From there, the variations are endless. Some ideas:

  • Pork: capers, mustard, and herbes de provence

  • Chicken: red grapes and balsamic vinegar; lemon and garlic

  • Beef: brandy and mustard

  • Lamb: olives and garlic

  • Fish: herbs and vinegar

Buy Good Ingredients and Get Out of the Way
"It's a rule of thumb for good cooks the world over, but the French, too, adhere to the idea that if you have great ingredients, you don't have to mess with them a lot to make them shine." Plus, there's money to be saved. "[The French will] buy what's local and in-season so that they're paying for the product, not the petrol."

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Be Flexible When You Shop
Instead of heading to the market with an exacting shopping list, go with an open mind. "Look for the best deal of the day. Whatever is looking great--at a great price--makes its way to the table. You buy it, then figure out what to do with it--and usually, you cook it quite simply." Should your ingredients need a little supplementing, the next trick will come in handy...

Keep Your Pantry Stocked
The French love to stock up on low-priced larder basics like grains at their hyper-markets as much as we do. Be sure to also keep these easy flavor-boosters on hand to elevate the simplest preparations.

  • Wine: "I can't believe how often the French cook with wine. It doesn't have to be a great wine, but it should be a good-enough wine. Get an $8 bottle of drinkable Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay and keep it on hand." Bonus: kitchen happy hour for the cook.

  • Dijon Mustard: Add to vinaigrettes and sauces, of course, but dijon mustard can also serve as a sauce for a pork chop or grilled steak in a pinch.

  • Shallots: "I've never seen a French kitchen that doesn't have a small basket of shallots in it." Shallots add a mellow onion-garlic flavor to sauces and salads.

  • Butter: "The French use butter often, but they don't plunk whole bricks of it in everything they make." A little of butter's rich flavor goes a long way, whether you're sautéing or finishing a sauce.

  • Parsley: This herb is used often in French cooking to add a fresh green note to any dish.

[Related: How to shop the farmers' market]

Keep a Trick Up Your Sleeve
"Whenever I don't know what I'm going to cook that night, I just start chopping up some persillade." Don't be thrown by the name. Persillade is simply a mixture of minced garlic and parsley. Throw it onto to grilled fish and meats, potatoes, green beans, rice and noodles. Add persillade in the final moments of cooking--30 seconds will allow its flavors to bloom.

Use Everything
One underrated aspect of economy in the kitchen is to use up every bit of what we buy and prepare. "Nothing ever goes to waste in France. Little bits of this and that will be thrown into a soup or salad. That last sip of wine in a bottle will be added to a sauce." On this summer's trip to France, Moranville was a served a green salad studded withcooked eggplant, sweet peppers, and onions. It was leftover ratatouille the host had added. "They added so much to the salad--except extra work or cost."

When you've been flexible at the market and come home with a basket overflowing with fresh produce, this recipe fromThe Bonne Femme Cookbookis the one to make. Adapt it to suit whatever vegetables are in season.

Market Day Tagliatelle with Goat Cheese
Makes 4 Servings

8 ounces dried tagliatelle or fettucine
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cups fresh vegetables, cut into pieces
1 cup halved cherry or grape tomatoes
½ cup dry white wine
2 scallions (white portion and some tender green tops), sliced (about ¼ cup)
2 tablespoons snipped fresh parsley, chives, or chervil, or a combination
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 ounces soft-ripened goat cheese, crumbled or cubed

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the tagliatelle according to the package instructions.
2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat; add the vegetables and cook until barely tender-crisp, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, wine, and scallions. Cook at an active simmer until the liquid is nearly evaporated, about 5 minutes; stir in the fresh herbs. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Combine the drained pasta, goat cheese, and vegetables in a large bowl. Toss until everything is combined and the cheese partially melts (a few warm, solid chunks are desirable). Divide among four wide, shallow bowls and serve.

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