Welcome to 2023! We hope your year is off to a tasty start and there are platefuls of good eats in your future. Ours started with Pot-au-feu. 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 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. Well, I probably went a little overboard, but is there any such thing as too much meat? I don’t think so.
Getting started with your Pot-au-feu
The process is basic: put meat in the pot, cover it with water, add vegetables, and 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 coarse ground mustard impart a sharp tang, and a hunk of rustic bread ensures that nary a drop of broth is left behind. Hungry yet?
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; that extra effort will be evident in the final dish.
You cannot breathe 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 not only serve to season the pot-au-feu but also provide some side dish options when it’s time to eat.
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.
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 eliminate all that foamy mess and scum that starts to form when you boil meat. It adds a minimal 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 pristine golden broth.
Adding veggies into your Pot-a-feu
Place the meat back into the clean pot, add all 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 just let it do its 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 broth, but once you get it there, you’ll pick up on all the rich, robust flavors imparted from the beef, the smokiness from the bacon, and the subtle earthy freshness from the vegetables.
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 can bring out the best flavors of whatever ingredients are used. We incorporate it when cooking, sauté, boiling, broiling, grilling, curing, and smoking. 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 a 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 please 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 bread, 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 seasoning to be added toward the end of the cooking process. ***
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.
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 it in quart-sized containers for later use in soups, gravies, and sauces. 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 of fresh thyme
- 10 sprigs of 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
- 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.
- Wash and cut carrots and celery stalks in half. Peel and quarter onions, and stud them with the whole cloves. Tie the parsley, thyme, and bay leave into a bundle with cooking twine.
- Place meats, vegetables, and herbs into the cleaned pot and cover with plenty of water. Bring to a boil, drop the heat, and let simmer for 2 1/2 hours. Add water and skim as needed.
- Season broth with plenty of salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste. Add potatoes and cabbage, and simmer for an additional 1/2 hour.
- Once the meat is tender, slice it and place it on a serving platter. Remove carrots, potatoes, and cabbage to a bowl. Strain broth. Ladle broth over meat to warm.
- 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.