Soon after I came to live in London, a project took me to Mulhouse, a town in Eastern France near the Swiss and German borders. In the 19th century it became a leading European textile centre and my destination was the Musee de l’Impression sur Etoffes de Mulhouse. With 6 million designs in its archives, it is among the most spectacular printed textile collections in the world.
What I remember most vividly from that trip, however, was lunch.
In the United States of the early 70’s the food of France was generally considered the best in the world, part of a huge general interest in French art and culture at that time. Julia Child’s seminal “Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume I” had appeared in 1961, followed in 1963 by her enormously successful television series “The French Chef” which ran nationally for the next ten years and won both the Peabody and Emmy awards. Volume II of “Mastering the Art of …” was published in 1971, and more television shows – and books – continued to flow out of Julia’s Cambridge, Massachusetts kitchen over the next decades.
So there was I in rural France, in Julia Child inspired heaven, sitting in the kind of traditional French restaurant that is now much harder to find (though I did have the most spectacular lunch not too many years ago, in just such a spot, in Avignon) with pristine white tablecloths, bustling waiters, and food of a kind I had never tasted before.
The dish of the day was Pot au Feu – basically boiled beef – served in a big piece, steaming, on a heavy white restaurant plate, with potatoes, carrots and chunks of cabbage, plus deep yellow, furiously hot French mustard and tiny bright green cucumber pickles or “cornichons” on the side.
Now I have come to understand over time that there are almost as many ways to make Pot au Feu as there are villages and towns in France, but this, for me at that time, was the real deal, and the standard for any pot au feu in the future.
(When work took me frequently to Paris many years later, I discovered, near Au Printemps, off the Boulevard Haussmann, a tiny restaurant with red checked tablecloths and the same simple Pot Au Feu as its specialty. I ate there as often as I could.)
Pot au Feu can be as simple or as complicated as you like; Julia’s in “Mastering the Art” serves 12-16 and includes, in a “stupendous family style boiled dinner” boiled beef with pork, chicken, sausage and vegetables.
Yours could contain just one kind of meat (beef) or several (ham hock, pork, etc), a trio of vegetables or a delicious variety, include marrow bones or not, and be served in courses – i.e. marrow bones on toast, followed by broth, then meat and vegetables – or all at once. Whatever you choose, simple or spectacular, accept that this is going to be a project, suitable to make on the weekend or perhaps an afternoon working at home. After the initial preparation, all it needs is to simmer quietly to itself for a couple of hours with an occasional stir. And it makes great leftovers.
My own, deliberately uncomplicated, very basic pot au feu is not unlike the pot roasts my mother made when I was growing up. A big piece of beef plus vegetables. The difference is that I like short ribs of beef for braising of this kind as the meat next to the bone is beautifully tender, with the right mix of fat and lean, and cuts into nice chunks on the bone for serving.
Now it is important to think of this as more of a dish of the day than a set in stone recipe. You can fiddle around with the ingredients, using more or less of any item (or adding others), depending on what you have on hand and what you are in the mood for. Love carrots? Have lots. If you think turnips fantastic (my late brother-in-law used to pull baby ones right from the ground, give them a rub on his sleeve and pop them, raw, into his mouth) be my guest. Just follow the basic method. (And PS: cabbage is not included because I don't like cabbage. Simple as that.)
A Very Basic Pot Au Feu for 2 (with leftovers)
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
2 lbs beef short ribs on the bone
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 large carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 lb waxy potatoes peeled and cut in chunks
1 medium sized leek, thinly sliced, white and pale green parts only
1 cup chicken or beef stock (or water)
1 bay leaf, fresh or dried
salt and freshly ground pepper
Note: you could add a couple of parsnips or turnips, if you like, peeled and cut into chunks
Heat oil in large pan over medium to high heat and brown ribs thoroughly all over. Move the ribs to a plate and pour off all but a few tablespoons of fat.
Add chopped onions and cook gently over a low heat until softened, but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add water or stock, bay leaf, salt and pepper and the browned ribs. Cover and simmer (the liquid should barely bubble) over low heat for about an hour.
Add sliced carrots and leeks and simmer gently for another 45 minutes, or until the meat is very tender and almost falling off the bone. Test with a fork.
I prefer to cook the potatoes separately to just the right degree of softness. Sometimes I crush them with a fork, but mostly serve them plain just as they come.
Cut beef ribs into portions, ideally each with a piece of bone. Serve with potatoes, and vegetables with a generous scoop of broth. Mustard is nice on the side, plus cornichons if you like them. Fresh parsley is a pretty garnish.