French cuisine has a reputation for costly ingredients and time-consuming techniques. Yet many favorite dishes have peasant-food origins, making use of cheap cuts of meat, abundant vegetable and herb gardens, and long cooking times to develop flavor. Bastille Day on July 14 is the perfect excuse to prepare a classic French menu, but these 15 French recipes can be attempted any time of year. They feature humble and inexpensive ingredients and range from simple to more complex.
The ultimate peasant food, cassoulet is primarily cheap and nourishing beans dotted with meat, vegetables, and herbs, and slow cooked to create layers of flavor. Traditionally, cooks used whatever meat was available, often duck and sausage made from the leftovers of pricier cuts. Vegetarian versions with mushrooms in lieu of the animal protein are just as tasty. This version is not hard or expensive but requires time and patience.
Recipe: Serious Eats
The base of this beloved dish is onions — and lots of them — which are super cheap at any time of year. Cooked slowly to a dark brown, the onions become oh so satisfying when topped with crusty bread and Gruyère cheese and then baked to a gooey finish. This soup is all about using the best onions available and completing each step with care. Make beef broth at home from leftover bones for the best flavor and lowest price.
Recipe: Serious Eats
A light soup that tastes of summer, pistou features loads of vegetables and a simple garlic and basil pesto. The intense pesto adds a pop of flavor to an otherwise tasty but uncomplicated vegetable soup. This recipe can be enjoyed at the start of a multicourse meal or as a light entrée when paired with bread and salad.
Recipe: Jamie Oliver
Another classic French dish that incorporates the abundance of summer gardens, ratatouille is a mélange of eggplant, tomato, zucchini, and herbs — peasant food at its best. Make sure to use only the freshest produce for maximum taste and texture. This basic recipe is straightforward yet leaves plenty of room for experimentation.
Recipe: The Kitchn
Potatoes, one of the cheapest ingredients at any time of year, get the royal treatment when seasoned with cream, a touch of cheese and herbs, and baked to perfection. A welcome addition at any table, from casual backyard barbecues to fancy dinner parties, this gratin dauphinoise recipe pairs nicely with a lighter side of vegetables or market lettuces to balance the potatoes' creamy richness.
Recipe: Genius Kitchen
Quiche belongs in every frugal cook's repertoire, thanks to its base of inexpensive eggs. A traditional French quiche is accented with small amounts of intensely flavorful bacon and Gruyère cheese. Assemble a quiche quickly and cheaply, and there's enough to feed a hungry family.
Recipe: American Egg Board
With an ingredients list as humble as milk, butter, flour, eggs, and cheese, home cooks probably have the fixings for gougères on hand. These delightful cheese puffs are worth the effort because fresh from the oven (after a few minutes of cooling) is the best kind of cheese puff there is. Follow this recipe and hit the thrifty target by substituting bits of leftover cheese.
The technique for making crèpes is not easy, but the ingredients are cheap — pantry staples including flour, eggs, and sugar. After a bit of practice, this preparation can be put to multiple uses time and again. Once the crèpes are ready, finish them off with sweet or savory fillings for a dish worthy of a Saturday night dinner party that costs about the same as Sunday morning pancakes.
Famously French, this budget-friendly dish uses the cheapest parts of a chicken — legs and thighs — plus vegetables, herbs, bacon, and wine, to create a finished product that is greater than the sum of its parts. The wine need not be expensive — any bottle of red in the $10 range will do — because it's the long, slow cooking that imparts the enticing flavor.
Recipe: Simply Recipes
This stew-like chicken concoction in a thick, vegetable-laden sauce with a side of country bread is a satisfying classic French dinner without being too heavy. The ingredients include chicken breasts and chopped vegetables, plus a bit of stock. As all the elements simmer away, deep layers of flavor rise to the fore.
Recipe: Cooking Light
These elegant pastries contain flour, eggs, butter, and sugar. The seashell-like shape and addition of citrus zest sets them apart from mere butter cakes. A silicone mold in the classic madeleine shape is a one-time investment that costs about $15 and promises years of sweet enjoyment.
An impressive dessert that contrasts crispy burnt sugar with creamy custard, crème brûlée is the classic example of matching technique with simple ingredients to create something wonderful. While the process is a bit labor intensive, the recipe calls for an inexpensive lineup of cream, eggs, and sugar.
Recipe: Martha Stewart
Essentially a French bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, this indulgent combination of ham, cheese, and a fried egg with toasted country bread is iconic. Topping a sandwich with a fried egg and giving it a fancy name elevates a cheesy delight into a dish worthy of chic Parisians. Vice's food site shows how to replicate it cheaply and easily at home.
Much of French cuisine is quite simple, and this traditional dessert is no different. It's nothing more than apples with a basic pastry crust of flour, sugar, and butter. Layering the apple slices into a beautiful pattern is an essential step for keeping this recipe authentically French — in spirit, at least.
Recipe: Ina Garten
A pot of cooked lentils is nutritious, cheap, and classically French. Lentilles du Puy calls for a lentil variety so special that its origin and quality is certified with a denomination of origin (called AOC in France). Simply prepared with bay leaf, black pepper, onion, and carrot, and mixed with a mustard vinaigrette, these little green lentils serve as a common side dish throughout the country.
Recipe: David Lebovitz