With winter now in mid stride, I'm working my way through that thick file of cold weather food recipes in search of comfort food. One of the recipes I have never cooked is a pot au feu -- a classic dish in French country cooking.
I confess the reason for this was a prejudice: I thought how could this dish be any good if it's just meat and veg in a pot without much additional seasoning? Of course, I knew this couldn't be rational or right since Jacques Pepin and Julia Child have a recipe for this in their book, Cooking At Home, (actually, it's a variation with a whole chicken) and nothing has ever turned out badly from that wonderful collection. Also, a new cooking magazine I found here in Paris called Règal: Tous les Plaisirs de La Table (October/November 2004) featured a pot-au-feu and made it just look so good and so chic.
But what really set the ball rolling was some clever supermarché merchandising. As they often do for seasonal dishes, our local "Champion" on Ave Pierre Demours put together a nicely pre-packaged ensemble for a Pot au Feu consisting of two large chunks of high grade stewing beef and two marrow bones. While normally I like to buy my meat from our local boucherie, when it comes to exploring different and strange cuts of meat and dishes, it's nice to have it put together for you at least for the first time. It's also a less intimidating point of entry, the faceless anonymity of a supermarket encounter where one can take her time staring at the strange shrink-wrapped morsels and ponder their significant in French foodlandia, versus confronting the boucher who might ask awkward questions where new vocabulary might be needed and other people might be present. Sometimes such daily humiliations just can't be born, so we find short cuts. And that's what I did here, together with some just-in-time web research. In any event, once I got everything home, it was dead-easy and the results very satisfying. My prejudice couldn't have been more wrong. And the "Toby Litmus Test" (TLT)? Well, he enjoyed it very much, especially with the added fun of playing with all of the condiments that go with it. And I was doubly happy because we had plenty of leftovers, which we turned into soup and other things throughout the week.
So what is a Pot-au-Feu [poh-toh-FEUH]? Literally in French it means a "pot on the fire" and traditionally it's cooked in an earthenware or cast-iron pot. We use our indispensable, well-loved Creuset (Thanks, mother dearest). Since this started out as a peasants' dish, the ingredients can vary but they usually include: meat (beef or chicken, with the addition of marrowbones, veal, pork, or mutton) and vegetables (traditionally carrots, turnips, celery, onions, and leeks) that are slowly cooked in water or consommé. We use our home-made brown stock instead of water, and believe that makes a huge difference. But use whatever you have handy. The whole point, and beauty, of this dish is that it's meant to be easy and economical.
Two Ways to Serve It
The dish is served family style and is accompanied by mustard or horseradish and cornichons.
The easiest approach is to serve everything at once on a platter, which is how Jacques Pepin likes to have it, with the rich and meaty broth ladled into individual soup bowls for people to sip, thus lubricating the "mouth feel" of the flavors and to wet the plated meats and vegetables. This is what we did.
Or, alternatively, as the chic magazine showed, the meal can be dressed up a bit and divided into two courses making it suitable for a causal dinner party by a fireplace. The first course, for instance, can feature the delicious marrowbones (Les Os à Moelle) which have been slow cooked in the broth. Just gingerly fish these out, put them under a broiler for a few minutes to brown if desired, and serve them with rock salt, grilled bread, and a Parsley and Apple Salad, which all work together remarkably well. I first tasted this combo at the wonderful eatery, St. John's in London, a restaurant that is reintroducing "nose-to-tail" cooking to the world (their recipe is found here) which I'm all for because it promotes the old idea that if we eat animals nothing should be wasted. I never fancied marrowbones before, but love them now, so you should try this too! You'll need some kind of implement -- a lobster fork will do -- to push out the gooey good bits which you spread onto your bread. Of course, if marrowbones put you off (a vegetarian's nightmare, I should think, but then a veggie wouldn't be interested in this dish in the first place) the other option is to serve just the broth as a starter soup with crisp croutons or bread.
Other tips? Do make sure your meet is good quality and fresh, and not the stuff the supermarket is trying to get rid of. It's worth it going to a butcher to ensure this, and to get the broth-enhancing bones and cuts like beef cheeks or beef ribs. Also, a few drops of soy sauce can bolster the broth if it's a little lackluster, a surprising little trick, but it works.
Serves 7-8 People
5 L of water or stock
1.5 kg of high quality stewing meat with bones (either a mix of veal, beef, pork, chicken or just one kind. We used just beef.)
4+ marrowbones (if you are serving this as first course get as many as there are people)
1 onion studded with 2 cloves
5 medium carrots whole
6 potatoes quartered
4 leeks whole cut in half
4 cloves, roughly chopped of garlic
I medium head of green cabbage (Savoy is the best) cut in sections
1 Bunch of Parsley
1 bouquet garni (thyme, bay leaf, rosemary, parlsey, tied together with kitchen string)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Bring the water/stock and meat to a gentle boil and then simmer for 60 minutes. Then add the vegetables (with as many "whole" as possible) for another 40 minutes. If the meat is not falling-off-the-bone tender by then and the stock still weak, remove the vegetables to a platter and keep warm. Then cook the meat and broth for another 40-60 minutes or until done. Season and taste. Serve as desired, either family style or in multiple courses as mentioned above.
1 lg. bunch of Flat-leafed Parsley
3 Tb. of capers
2 Shallots finely diced
2 Granny Smith Apples
Olive Oil to taste
1 Tp. Lemon zest
Squeeze of Lemon
Salt and Pepper
Finely chop the parsley and apples and mix with the rest of the ingredients. Serve with the marrowbones and/or soup as a side dish.