Ringing in the New Year with Pot au Feu

Welcome to 2016! We hope your year is off to a tasty start and that there are platefuls of good eats in your future.

Ours started with meat. Lots and lots of meat. In a pot.

Pot-au-feu in French translates to Pot on the Fire and for hundreds of years this dish has graced many a French dinner table, feeding the rich and poor alike. This humble meal traditionally consisted of inexpensive cuts of meat that require longer cooking times to render them tender and plenty of root vegetables to fill up the plate. Today’s version is not quite as economical, but it’s worth every penny.

I adapted my version from Anthony Bourdain’s recipe, but varied the cuts of meat used and increased the quantities. In fact, I probably went a little overboard, but is there any such thing as too much meat? I don’t think so.

The process is basic: put meat in pot, cover with water, add vegetables, simmer until tender. But the finished dish results in a most satisfying meal…a plate of tender beef in various forms, accompanied by carrots, potatoes, and cabbage, bathed in a tasty and aromatic broth. Cornichons and course ground mustard impart a sharp tang, and a hunk of rustic bread ensures that nary a drop of broth is left behind. Hungry yet?

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To get this pot started I begin with the headliners…about 3 lbs of brisket, 6 beef short ribs, 2 beef shanks, 4 or 5 marrow bones (soup bones), and a hunk of something smoky and fatty. I had a good sized piece of Kirk’s home-cured bacon in the fridge, but you can use a ham hock, a link of good sausage, or whatever is handy. I ventured to my favorite local butcher/grocer to procure these cuts. Never have I seen finer short ribs than these. Give your local butcher a visit and that extra effort will be evident in the final dish.

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You cannot breath life into a flavorful broth with meat alone, but a few humble root vegetables and herbs will add plenty of earthy, verdant freshness. Carrots, celery, onions, parsley, thyme, bay leaves and cloves will serve to not only season the pot-au-feu, but will provide some of the side dish options when it’s time to eat.

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Place the meat in a very large pot, the one pictured is a 12 qt., but if you decide to reduce the quantities of meat, you could certainly go a little smaller. Cover with plenty of water and bring to a boil.

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Once the water has started to boil turn off the heat and remove the meat to a platter or pan. Wash the pot. Yes, you read that correctly. Wash the pot. You’ll get rid of all of that foamy mess and scum that starts to form when you boil meat. It adds very little flavor and can make the broth cloudy, which is not appealing. Part of the beauty of this simple dish is the lovely clear broth in which it’s served. You’ll be tempted to skip this step, but don’t. Sure, you might have to skim a little later, but you’ve taken care of the majority now and you’ll maintain the integrity of that golden pristine broth.

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Place the meat back into the clean pot, add all of the vegetables and cover with plenty of water. Don’t be stingy because we still have a few things to add. Bring it to a boil, lower it to a simmer, then sit back and relax for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Add additional water as needed, but pretty much just let it do it’s thing. About a 1/2 hour before it’s time to eat, season the pot with generous amounts of kosher salt and fresh coarse cracked pepper. This is an enormous pot so don’t hold back with the salt. It will take copious amounts to season this amount of broth, but once you get it there, you’ll pick up on all of the rich robust flavors imparted from the beef, the smokiness from the bacon, and the subtle earthy freshness from the vegetables.

At this point, also add potatoes ( I used baby reds and fingerlings) and a head of cabbage, cut into quarter wedges, to the pot.

***A word about salt. Salt has received a bad rap over the past few years and while folks with true health concerns should heed their salt consumption, let’s not forget what it can achieve in the kitchen. Salt has the ability to bring out the very best flavors of whatever ingredients are being used. We incorporate it when we cook, sauté, bake, boil, broil, grill, cure and smoke. Have you ever tasted a slice of bread or a cookie that was so flavorless and bland that you couldn’t eat it?  These are two of the greatest creations to come out of hot oven, why on earth would they ever be offensive to our tastebuds? Most likely, the salt was omitted. Trust me, it makes a difference. When used in the right amounts, salt will enhance the sweetness in baked goods, giving your palette a baseline to pleasantly pick up on the sugars, spices and flavorings that send our tongues into nirvana. Without salt, all of these delightful sensations are lost. Basically a waste of ingredients. Same with breads, vegetables, potatoes, meats, salads, etc. Yes, it’s possible to use too much salt and when that happens it will overwhelm all of the other flavors in the dish. This misstep is as equally disappointing as using too little. When a recipe omits an amount and instead opts for the phrase “to taste”, do just that. Taste it. Your tastebuds are your best measuring tools for dishes that require the seasoning to be added towards the end of the cooking process. ***

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Once the meat is tender, it’s time to eat. Remove the carrots, potatoes, and cabbage to a platter or bowl, slice the meat and strain the broth. A few spoonfuls of broth ladled over the platter will warm the meat and keep it moist.

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Cornichons and coarse ground mustard provide the perfect tangy garnish and create a sharp contrast to the rich meats. A hunk of buttered crusty bread completes the meal.

There will be LOTS of broth left over from this meaty feast. Strain all of it and freeze in quart-sized containers for use in soups, gravies, and sauces later on. Prime quality ingredients went into this dish, plus a good amount of time and effort, so discarding this golden elixir would be a crime.

Happy New Year!

Pot-au-feu, the recipe

2-3 lbs beef brisket

6 beef short ribs

2 beef shanks

4-5 marrow bones 

1 lb fatty/smoky meat (bacon, sausage link or ham hock)

2 onions, quartered

4-5 carrots

4 stalks celery

8 whole cloves

10 sprigs fresh thyme

10 sprigs fresh parsley

2 bay leaves

1 head of cabbage, quartered

8-10 small potatoes (baby red potatoes and/or fingerlings)

Fresh coarse cracked pepper (to taste)

Kosher salt (to taste)

Coarse ground mustard

Cornichons

  1. Place meat in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, place meats on a platter and wash the pot. Do not skip this.
  2. Wash and cut carrots and celery stalks in half. Peel and quarter onions, stud them with the whole cloves. Tie the parsley, thyme and bay leaves into a bundle with cooking twine.
  3. Place meats, vegetables and herbs into the cleaned pot and cover with plenty of water. Bring to a boil, drop heat and let simmer for 2 1/2 hours. Add water and skim as needed.
  4. Season broth with plenty of salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste. Add potatoes and cabbage, simmer for an additional 1/2 hour.
  5. Once meat is tender, slice and place on a serving platter. Remove carrots, potatoes, and cabbage to a bowl. Strain broth. Ladle broth over meat to warm.
  6. To serve, place a few slices of the meat and veggies in a shallow dish and ladle warm broth over the top. Serve with crusty bread, cornichons, and mustard.  
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