6 Ingredients You Should Always Have for French Cooking
And why you should never deprive yourself of the food you love.
Elizabeth Bard wants to show you a new side of French cooking. “I feel like French cuisine has a reputation for being fussy and complicated—5 course fare,” she says. But Bard, a journalist and author of culinary memoirs Lunch In Paris and Picnic In Provence, says she finds "exactly the opposite.”
In her newest book, Dinner Chez Moi: 50 French Secrets to Joyful Eating and Entertaining, Bard illustrates a simpler and more mindful cuisine. She spreads the gospel of the attitudes towards food she observed as an American expat in Paris: high quality ingredients, thoughtful eating and moderation without deprivation.
The French diet is changing, certainly—we recently covered a study that shows the French are eating more like Americans every day. But, for Bard, “the biggest difference is that the French still carve out a time and place for their food.” We are increasingly coming to see the benefit in this more intentional way of eating—when you’re not breakfasting during your commute, or mindlessly snacking at your desk, “your food has a definite time and place.” Says Bard, “there’s a distinctly French pleasure in being genuinely hungry for your next meal!”
So how can you start to eat more French? Bard says “some of the quickest French tricks for American eaters are matters of omission”—for example, skipping processed foods like soda and store-bought salad dressing. But still, she says “food remains an overwhelmingly positive thing in France.” Instead of forbidding whole genres of food, savor what you do eat and do more with less.
Here, she points out six ingredients that she always has in her fridge—small touches that the French use in a variety of dishes. Add these to your shopping list to start building a more French pantry:
“Everything better with bacon (I know I’ve read that somewhere…)...A spinach salad with pears, blue cheese and walnuts becomes a meal with lardons tossed in. I use lardons to power up a quick tomato sauce, sautéed zucchini or brussel sprouts. My 8 year old will eat anything with lardons; you might say it helps the vegetables go down.”
“I always have fresh thyme around for soups and stews, fresh mint for herbal tea, and cilantro and parsley to chop into whole grain salads, meatballs and omelets. In the summer I use basil to make pistou for soup and pasta. I buy bunches of herbs each week at the market (the thyme and mint are in my garden these days), and store them with the stems in water, like a bouquet of flowers, on the door of my fridge.”
“I always have plain yogurt around for both sweet and savory dishes. I use it in yogurt cake (my son’s favorite); it’s not too sweet, great for breakfast or a snack. In the summer I make a dip with yogurt, sumac, lemon juice, and chopped fresh mint—it also makes a great sauce for grilled meats. In the winter, when fresh fruits are scarce, plain yogurt with a dollop of jam is our go-to dessert.”
“Cheese is definitely its own food group in France! The French eat their cheese after the meal, which allows them to keep their main course portions small. I usually have Gruyere or Comte, a fruity cow’s milk cheese, for grating over pasta, a goat’s cheese, and some feta to add to salad in the summertime."
“I eat a lot of eggs (two for breakfast almost every day—which is not French at all…). If I’m really stuck for dinner, I can make an omelet with leftover sautéed veggies or make a quick quiche for a potluck. My husband is from Brittany, so we often make crepes if we have kids coming over on the weekends. I also make galettes (buckwheat crepes) stuffed with cheese, ham or spinach—and topped with a fried egg!”
“Anchovies are not everyone’s cup of tea—but for me they are just a yummy substitute for salt. I love them on pizza, pissaladière (the traditional Provencal onion tart), in pasta sauce, or marinated in vinegar and hot pepper for an hors d’oeuvre. Humble fish, like sardines and mackerel packed in oil, are also a staple of my French pantry. In the summertime, I eat them several times a week for a quick lunch.”
Dinner Chez Moi: 50 French Secrets to Joyful Eating and Entertaining by Elizabeth Bard, $17 on amazon.