How to Make Fancy Food Fast

Whip up easy weeknight dishes with the deep and rich flavor of classic French cooking

It sounds impossible (and perhaps impossibly French), but one can cook like the French no matter how much time they have or where they live. Though classic French cooking brings to mind intricate and rich sauces, multicourse meals — particularly lengthy ones — there are many aspects of this classic cuisine that can be adopted for the home cook who’s looking for a quick weeknight meal.

In fact, someone wrote an entire book based on this concept. Wini Moranville’s The Bonne Femme Cookbook is filled with simple starters, luscious soups, and skillet-cooked meals that will help any cook succeed in making French food at home. She focuses on one technique that is particularly suited for weeknight cooking — the sauté, glaze, and serve method. It sounds simple, but this might be the most brilliant and yet underused technique by home cooks. It allows cooks to vary their protein, flavor profiles, and sauces all while essentially doing the exact same thing.

The reputation of French food — that it is complicated, time-consuming, and heavy (with lots of butter and cream) — may be true of some aspects of the cuisine, but French cooking at home is more about utilizing fresh and accessible ingredients, and Moranville focuses on the spirit of the way French women cook. With a pantry stocked with staples, a delicious and flavorful weeknight meal can be made by just purchasing a fresh piece of meat or fish.

Here, Moranville provides simple tips and the basics of this wonderful technique that will make you a better cook. A better French cook, in fact.

 

The Method

For the sauté, glaze, serve method mentioned above, Moranville feels that it’s a missing link for a lot of people who think about French food. "I don’t think they realize how easy it is," she says. As she explains it, French people will sauté meat and use what’s left in the pan will create to its own sauce with just a few extra additions.

In this technique, a protein (meat or fish) is sautéed, and the brown bits that are left in the bottom of the pan are scraped up with the addition of liquid and "some kind of flourish" to the pan. In her book, she offers 39 recipes with different flourishes for this one basic cooking method.

 

How It Works

Much like a stir-fry, once the mise en place and all of the ingredients are in place, dinner comes together quite quickly. When the meat is finished, it is put aside to rest for about five minutes, which is the time it will take to put the sauce together (this will also allow the juices to redistribute in the meat).

Simply throw in some shallots, she says, pour in wine and chicken broth, and scrape up the brown bits with a whisk because that’s where all the flavor is. Bring the heat to a boil and cook it down until you have an intense sauce. Sometimes she swirls a little bit of butter into the sauce after it's been reduced to thicken it and add a little more flavor.

 

Best Types of Protein

For this technique, Moranville recommends using tender, quick-cooking cuts of meat, noting that this is not the time for pork shoulder. The best cuts are chicken breasts, pork chops, filet mignon, steaks, lamb chops, and fish. She recommends trout, as it works well with this method of cooking, is inexpensive, and available year-round. Salmon also works well, she says, as does any white fish like haddock, grouper, or halibut.

 

The Basic Ingredients

French cooking at home is not about inaccessible ingredients, Moranville says, and her recipes are filled with the ingredients that French people love — wine, shallots, and fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, herbs de Provence, lavender, tarragon, chervil, parsley, and chive. "So many of the dishes have these vibrant flavors that stand out, especially when you don’t mask them with a lot of butter."

In terms of pantry staples, if you stock up on these basics, purchasing fresh herbs or protein will be the only thing to accomplish before cooking. (You can also freeze chicken breast and defrost before cooking.) Moranville says that she always has shallots, onions, and garlic on hand because those are used a lot, either for this type of cooking or in side dishes. Dried and fresh herbs are also important, as are Dijon mustard and wine, which add a lot of flavor. She uses vermouth often because it has "so many different flavors in it." Butter is also important, even though not a lot is used. She also recommends having a variety of vinegars like red, white wine, balsamic, and sherry on hand so that you can play around with different flavors.

Chicken and beef broth are musts. Moranville recommends the Better than Bouillon brand, but you can, of course, make your own. Purchasing broth is fine if there isn’t time, but it tends to be a little salty so watch how much salt you add into the dish. 

Click here to see the Chicken Calvados recipe pictured above.

The Flourishes

To finish the dish, Moranville always keeps lemons on hand as well as fresh parsley. She explains that sometimes, in France, butchers will give you a little parsley with your meat package because they know how much the French love it. The French use both curly and flat parsley to finish a dish because it gives it that "last little flourish of freshness." She also recommends olives and capers as last flourishes to a dish.

 

Wine for Cooking

Moranville uses whatever wine is leftover from another meal, which typically happens to be dry white wine, like a sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, or even a dry riesling or pinot grigio. The key is that you don’t really want a wine with a huge personality, but generally most wines will work. Even leftover champagne!

 

Too Reduced? Find Out How to Revive It

If the reduction was accidentally left alone for two minutes too long, don’t fret, because there are simple tricks to revive it. As Moranville says, "It happens all the time to the best of us." Simply add equal parts chicken broth and wine, and, if the fat has really diminished too much, add a little bit of butter.

If the pan drippings burn before liquid is added to it, Moranville recommends scraping them off (you don’t want that flavor in the sauce) and adding a little butter to the pan to start the sauce.

 

Side Dishes to Round Out the Meal

For the average weeknight, Moranville recommends having a salad with a few, strong ingredients. For example, the endive salad pictured at left or one with butterhead lettuce and comté cheese. "Having a starring ingredient means that you don’t have to put a lot in your salad," which helps cut down on time, she says. 

Generally, Moranville says, the French will serve a little starch and vegetable on the side, but the portions aren't as big as we typically use.  A little pasta or rice work as well with these dishes (just start the rice or noodles before you begin cooking your main dish, so that everything finishes in time).

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