POT-AU-FEU (French Beef Stew)

What do you think of when you think of French cuisine?  Most people will imagine rich cheeses, baguettes and wine.  Steak Tartare or French onion soup.  Or maybe teeny, tiny blobs of food on a huge plate, like French Laundry.

This week’s recipe is THE classic French supper.  This is the dish that Gervaise Macquart, the tragic laundress of Emile Zola’s famous novel L’Assommoir, prepared for her working-class family every evening.

Pot-au-feu, generally translated as “stew,” literally means Fire Pot.  It is listed as the first soup recipe in La Cuisine, because, as R. Blondeau writes, “In the place of honor at the beginning is the Pot-au-feu, because, without exception, it is the best well-known and most popular of all the soups.  We would also add that it is the national dish of France.”

“First, the meat must be chosen carefully:  Beef shoulder (le plat-de-cote), top or silverside of the back leg of beef (Le gite a la noix), steak (la tranche), upper shoulder blade beef roast (le paleron), and the top rump of beef (la culotte de boeuf) are best.  Always include marrow bones, and, if you like, a piece of oxtail.”

This part is a little complicated because there are twice as many French beef cuts than American ones, and they are different.  I am not an expert on either French or American beef cuts, but I did my best to research each one and try to figure out an equivalent.  I’ve included the French names, so you can do your own looking into it if you’d like.  There are some butchers here in the States that sell French cuts of meat.

This is another “simmer for seven hours” recipe, but perhaps it will be of comfort that I only spent about fifteen minutes getting it ready to cook by itself all day.  I peeled the vegetables while I was waiting for the meat, water, and salt to boil.  It isn’t a dish that needs a lot of attention, so it was very popular – most people had to work, and didn’t have a lot of time to cook.

LE POT-AU-FEU (direct translation)

Pour some water into an earthen pot, filling it about a third of the way.  Put in your meat – about 750 grams of meat per 2 liters of water, with a palmful of coarse salt.  Cook over a moderate fire.
Just before boiling, skim the foam off, but not more than once.  Once the water has come to a boil, add the following vegetables, which have been peeled and carefully washed:  Three or four large carrots, two turnips, a small piece of parsnip, four leeks of medium to good size, and a small branch of celery.
You must tie up the leeks so they don’t get scattered around the pot during cooking.   You may also add a large onion, studded with two cloves, and a bouquet of herbs:  Parsley, thyme, and bay leaf, a clove of garlic, and some crushed peppercorns.
Allow to simmer over a low fire, without stopping, for six or seven hours.   When you are ready to serve, taste the broth, and add more salt or pepper if necessary.
If your broth is pale, you can color it slightly with half an onion browned, or some caramel.  To serve, line a soup dish with thin slices of bread, toasted or untoasted, and pour the broth over, after having de-fatted the broth beforehand.
An excellent way to serve a broth without too much fat is to dip the ladle in the place where the boiling bubbles up:  the fat is, in effect, chased to the edges of the pot-au-feu, and the broth is as thin as you could wish.
Serve on a plate, at the same times as the soup, the cooked vegetables from the pot-au-feu.  That way everyone can serve themselves, choosing what they like.

You may also add to the pot-au-feu giblets, indeed a whole old hen; the presence of these meats does not spoil the broth – on the contrary.

POT-AU-FEU (a modern version)

2 lbs of stew meat (see above)
coarse salt
2 quarts or so of water

3-4 large carrots, peeled and trimmed

2 turnips, peeled and trimmed

1 parsnip, peeled and trimmed

4 leeks of medium to large size, tied up with kitchen string

1 small branch of celery

1 large onion, peeled but not sliced

2 whole cloves

a bouquet of parsley, thyme and bay leaf

a clove of garlic, peeled

5-10 crushed peppercorns

slices of good-quality bread

1.  Pour the water into a good-sized stock pot, and place the meat in with a large pinch of the salt.  Set to boil on medium heat.  Just before boiling, skim the foam from the top (only one time – this is different from many stock recipes I’ve ready, which call for frequent skimming).

2.  Once the water boils, add the carrots, turnips, parsnip, leeks, and celery.  Poke the two cloves into the whole onion, and add that as well, nestling it down among the meat.  Also add the bouquet of herbs, garlic clove and peppercorns.

3.  Allow to simmer very slowly over a low flame for six or seven hours.

4.  To serve, taste the broth and add more salt or pepper if necessary.  Then line a soup tureen or other high-sided dish with thin slices of bread, toasted or untoasted.  Ladle the broth out from the middle of the pot, where the boiling bubbles up (so you get broth and not the fat on top).

5.  Serve the meat and vegetables on a plate at the same time as the bread and broth so that everyone can serve themselves what they like.

Notes:  The meat and broth were wonderful.  The vegetables took on the flavor of the broth, and it was very easy to prepare.  Honestly, you just can’t go wrong by putting good meat, fresh vegetables and herbs on to boil for a long time.  I didn’t have any kitchen string on hand, and I should note that the leeks will indeed fall apart if they are not tied up!

My kids liked that everything was served separately, but they didn’t like the broth-soaked bread.  We don’t usually eat bread, and if we do, never soaked in broth.  If you don’t like the bread this way, you can always serve it on the side instead.  It is very common in France to use a bit of bread to soak up the juices of a meal and totally clean the plate with it, or to use a piece to push food onto your fork.

{These French recipes are from a cookbook titled La Cuisine:  Guide Practique de la Ménagère by Chef R. Blondeau.  This book was passed down to me from my great-grandmother, who was from Alsace, a North-eastern region on the Rhine river plain in France.  It was published in 1930 as a guide for household cooks.

I am translating the recipes from French, testing them out with home-grown or raised food, and re-writing them in a modern format}

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