Cookbook review: 'The Bonne Femme Cookbook'

Shrimp roasted with garlic, scallions, and tarragon atop French green lentils is just one of many quintessentially French meals in 'The Bonne Femme Cookbook' by Wini Moranville.

Blue Kitchen
Shrimp roasted with garlic, scallions, and tarragon atop French green lentils.
'The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day,' by Wini Moranville ($25.95, The Harvard Common Press, 432 pp)

For all the complex, multi-stepped recipes that give French cuisine its daunting reputation, everyday French home cooking is filled with countless utterly simple dishes as perfect and impressive in their own way as the hautest restaurant cuisine.

Wini Moranville’s new book, "The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day," proves this with recipe after recipe. La bonne femme is French for “the good wife,” the introduction tells us, but in French cuisine, “it refers to a style of cooking – namely, the fresh, honest, and simple cuisine served at home, no matter who does the actual cooking, femme, mari (husband), or partenaire domestique (significant other).” 

Dorie Greenspan says, “It’s les bonnes femmes who keep the culinary traditions of France alive. Cooking the simple classics and the daily meals that form the canon of the cuisine.” And, she adds, “Wini has given us everything we need to do the same, whether our table is in Paris or Peoria.”

Flipping through our review copy of "The Bonne Femme Cookbook," I could see exactly what Greenspan means. One recipe after another caught my eye, both as something wonderful to eat and something totally doable in the kitchen, honest and non-fussy. I’ve said in the past that if we get one really good recipe out of a cookbook, it’s earned its place on our bookshelves. I can already tell that we’ll be cooking many dishes from this one.

As we slide seriously toward winter, the recipe I decided to make first was of course a summery salad, with room temperature cooked lentils, Belgian endive, watercress, butter lettuce and a mustardy vinaigrette, topped with warm roasted shrimp. I winterized it, though, serving the lentils hot and dispensing with the vinaigrette and most of the greenery (I kept the Belgian endive for its nice bitter edge). The result was a warm, satisfying, season-appropriate dish. No one flavor took over, but occasionally, a bit of tarragon or the crisp greenness of a scallion matchstick would make its presence known, then meld with the other flavors in the dish.

We’ve proselytized for lentils on these pages in the past – most recently when Marion made Turkish Style Red Lentil Soup with Chard. Besides being healthy and quick cooking, they’re just plain good to eat. To cook the French green lentils (Lentilles du Puy) that form the base of this dish, I sautéed some garlic in olive oil, then added the lentils, some water and some salt to the pot and simmered everything. That was it – no stock, no herbs, no onions or other root vegetables. I expected nothing much when I sampled a forkful for doneness from the pot, but they were already delicious.

Roasted Shrimp and Green Lentils
 Serves 2 generously
 Adapted from "The Bonne Femme Cookbook"

2 cups lentils (preferably French green lentils)
 2 tablespoons olive oil
 3 cloves garlic, minced, divided
 4 cups water
 salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
 3/4 pound large shrimp, shelled and deveined
 1-1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon leaves
 3 scallions, divided
 1 large head Belgian endive

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Rinse, drain and pick over the lentils. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan over a medium flame. Sauté half the garlic until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Stir in lentils and add water to the pan. Season with salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until lentils are firm but tender, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, roast the shrimp. Toss shrimp with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in an 8-inch square glass baking dish. Slice the white portion and some of the green top of 1 scallion thinly and add to shrimp, along with tarragon and remaining garlic. Season with salt and pepper and toss to combine. Roast shrimp until just cooked through and opaque, about 8 to 10 minutes.

While lentils and shrimp are cooking, slice the 2 remaining scallions into matchsticks, using the white portions and some of the green tops. Trim the root end of the Belgian endive and halve lengthwise. Cut out tough core and slice the endive crosswise into 1/2-inch slices.

When lentils are done, drain and return to the pot. Stir in the sliced endive and adjust seasonings. Divide lentils between two shallow serving bowls and top with scallion matchsticks. Using a slotted spoon, divide shrimp between serving bowls, spooning over lentils. Serve immediately.

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