When it is cold and grey outside we need something comforting. Something that simmers for hours, that fills the house with a good smell, something convivial but not too rich after December over-indulgence. That something, to my mind, is Pot-au-Feu!
As Elizabeth David says in her classic book ‘French Provincial Cooking’, there is no mystery about making a pot-au-feu. It is one of those French dishes that have arisen out of the necessity to make the best use of economical local ingredients which have then turned into a festive and congenial way to feed a large gathering. These dishes often become imbued with folklore - then people begin to think you can only make them if certain secrets have been handed down through the generations.
Maybe the only mystery is that there is no correct version as far as ingredients go. This is basically boiled meat and vegetables. There is, perhaps, a correct method, or at least, some specific points to be made.
The first is that as the water, with the meat in it, comes to the boil, and it must do this slowly, the grey scum thrown off by the meat must be removed. This means that you must stand over the pot for about 20 minutes with a fine-mesh skimmer, removing scum as it accumulates, until what rises is whitish in colour. This is the only laborious part of the recipe.
The second point is that when the recipe says ‘simmer gently’ it really does mean very gently (the French word for this is mijoter). A bubble rising to the surface every few minutes is as fast as it should go - otherwise the meat will cook too quickly and will toughen, and the broth will become cloudy.
FOR 6 - 8 PEOPLE
1 marrow bone (if possible) 1.5 kg (3 lb) piece of beef (use one of the cheaper braising cuts, such as rolled blade or brisket, although the latter is rather fatty) 6 black peppercorns 2 or 3 turnips, peeled and diced 6 carrots, peeled and diced 6 leeks, sliced 1 stick of celery, sliced, optional 1 onion stuck with 2 cloves 2 garlic cloves 1 bay leaf 6 sprigs parsley 2 sprigs thyme salt
If you are able to get a marrow bone, have it cut up into manageable lengths, then tie them up in cheesecloth to prevent the marrow escaping. When the time comes to serve the dish, the marrow can be scraped out and spread on bread or toast (see below); it is rich and delicious. If no marrow bones are available, add some beef bones for flavour, removing them at the end. Put the beef joint and the bone into a casserole with cold water (just enough to cover, not too much or you will end up with a watery broth).
Start the cooking gently, gradually bringing the water to the boil. Skim carefully until the scum turns white. Cover the pot and let it simmer gently for at least 3 hours without interruption. About an hour before the end of the cooking, add a few peppercorns, the prepared vegetables, the garlic, the herbs tied up in cheesecloth, and salt to taste.
Serve the meat surrounded by the vegetables, with some of the broth in a separate bowl. A pot-au-feu is usually served with some coarse sea salt, mustard and pickled gherkins, or a fresh tomato sauce in summer.
A green salad goes well with this dish.
Notes: Another method is to plunge the meat into water that is already boiling hard, to seal the meat. The method given is better if you want the meat to give more flavour to the stock.
If you want to include cabbage, most people advise that it is best cooked separately in some of the broth which you remove from the pot. This is to avoid giving a cabbagy flavour to the rest of the broth which you may want to serve later as a soup.
Some families serve the broth with some of the vegetables in it as a soup course, keeping the meat warm and serving it with the rest of the vegetables and some potatoes afterwards. Others serve all the vegetables and meat together, with a little of the broth to moisten them, reserving most of the broth, to which they may add some pasta or rice, for soup at another meal.
If you are making a pot-au-feu for a relatively small number of people (6 to 8), using a small piece of meat, you may want to increase the number of vegetables, or cook it in a beef stock instead of water. Obviously, making the dish in large quantities intensifies the flavour of the broth.