How the French make casseroles chic

Wini Moranville, author of The Bonne Femme Cookbook, explains how French women turn a dish as ordinary as stew into something extraordinary …

Braises and stews make for hearty, cold-weather meals, but let’s face it: Some can be more about warmth than “wow.”

French women, however, seem to have an innate knack for coaxing something stylish from the stew pot.

With a generous pour of wine here, a sprinkling of signature French herbs there, and other flavorful touches, such as prosciutto, olives, Dijon mustard, shallots and pearl onions, French women transform inexpensive cuts of meat into dashing, boldly-flavored meals. These days, they also bring worldly ingredients to their cooking, from balsamic vinegar to pomegranate juice to Moroccan spices.

In my book, The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day, classics like Coq au Vin and a simple Stew of Provence share the pages with some au courant takes on stews and braises. For example, Pomegranate juice lends a deep flavor and bright astringency to pot roast in Pomegranate Pot-au-Feu; sherry and roasted garlic add both sweetness and a mellow pungency to braised Rosemary-Prosciutto Chicken Breasts with Roasted Garlic and Sherry Sauce. And balsamic vinegar melds with a touch of orange in beef stew that’s easy enough for any night, but good enough for gathering over with friends.

In fact, French stews and braises are among my favorite dishes to make for company. Most all of the prep work is done in advance, so when your guests arrive, you can tend to more pressing needs, such as opening a bottle of sparkling wine or shaking up a great cocktail.


Here is one of my favorite French stews: Basque-Style Chicken. Tomatoes, onions, jambon de Bayonne, and piment d’Espelette are the hallmark ingredients of this lively, classic plat mijoté (simmered dish), which I discovered when traveling through France’s Basque region. Piment d’Espelette is a mild, smoky-sweet red pepper that gets ground into a paprika-like powder. If you can’t find it at a gourmet shop, a little paprika and a pinch of cayenne pepper make an admirable stand-in — especially with roasted red capsicums in the mix to add some sweetness. As for the jambon de Bayonne, that’s France’s answer to prosciutto di Parma. Simply use a good-quality prosciutto.

While some recipes have you stew the ingredients together, my version has you add the roasted red capsicums and the prosciutto toward the end of the recipe. That way, they stay fresh and vivid and make for a more striking, colorful and up-to-date version of the dish.

Basque-style chicken

8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs 
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 
1 medium-size onion, halved and sliced
6 garlic cloves, minced 
1/2 cup sweet vermouth 
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth 
1 14.5-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and puréed in a food processor 
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed 
1/2 teaspoon piment d’Espelette or 1/2 teaspoon Spanish paprika and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper 
1 7-ounce jar roasted red bell peppers, drained and thinly sliced (about 1 cup) 
1/4 cup diced prosciutto or jambon de Bayonne (about 1 ounce) 

1. Snip away and discard any excess skin from the chicken thighs. Season the thighs with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a Dutch oven or braiser over medium-high heat until it shimmers; add the chicken and cook, turning occasionally, until brown on all sides, 10 to 15 minutes (reduce the heat to medium if the chicken browns too quickly). Transfer the chicken to a plate. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan. 


2. Reduce the heat to medium and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, 4 to 5 minutes; add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds more. Remove the pan from the heat and add the vermouth and chicken broth, taking care not to let the liquid spatter. Return the pan to the heat and cook, stirring to loosen any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Return the chicken to the pan, skin side up, and add the puréed tomatoes, thyme, and piment d’Espelette. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat. Cover and simmer until the internal temperature of the chicken registers 180°F on an instant-read thermometer, 30 to 35 minutes. Add the sliced roasted red peppers about 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time. 

3. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a small skillet until it shimmers. Add the prosciutto and cook, stirring, until crisp, 1 to 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the prosciutto from the pan and drain on paper towels. 

4. With a slotted spoon, divide the chicken and peppers among four shallow bowls. Boil the pan sauce over medium-high heat to the desired consistency. Top the chicken with the sauce, sprinkle with the crisped prosciutto, and serve.


Fancy more? Click here for 9 Divine French recipes