A number of years back, searching for some magnificent Holiday meal to serve my family back in Washington (State that is), I wanted to do something other than a turkey (we just had that for Thanksgiving, right?), the standard Christmas ham (my family and myself are non-pork eaters since my dad is Muslim), and the traditional Dickensian goose is hard to come by at the supermarket in my hometown. So I started doing some research, and came upon a number of recipes for “Pot-Au-Feu”, Francais for “Pot-Of/On/To-Fire”. Personally I’ll choose “On”, if only for it’s heavy metal-ness.
If you go look for it now most recipes will dictate that this dish is usually just boiled beef and vegetables. Yet when I was searching around as to the origins of this meal, I clearly remember running into a number of articles on-line that described the very interesting history of how the idea came about. Most descriptions had you throwing everything that you had animal-wise into a pot: a whole chicken, sausage, a large cut of beef, some parts of lamb. After those have simmered for a day (!), you chucked in carrots, celery, lots of leeks, potatoes or any number of root vegetables, onions, garlic, and just about anything you had lying around in your cellar.
Historically, most of what we think of as fine French cuisine can be traced back to the fact that in a country that experiences a good 5 months of winter, and was for hundreds of years under the feudal system, serfs and peasants had to make long range plans to take what nature and the barn provided for them during the fruitful months, and turn that into food that would sustain them during the lean times of the year. This involved quite a bit of processing and preserving of food, which over the years, most of Europe became quite adept at, and is reflected in the cuisine today across much of that continent in places where nothing grows between November and April. So when you pick up a French cookbook, and some of the recipes require 30 or 40 individual steps to accomplish the finished meal, realize that the source of all of these steps are rooted in this essential predicament. Consequently, what is now termed “haute cuisine” is really just an amalgam of hundreds of years of knowledge and the basic needs of a people accumulated into one meal.
And so begins our journey with “Pot-Au-Feu”. Most food historians trace its origins to a celebratory family meal around Christmas, that made use of any animals not fit for slaughter during the warmer months, and used whatever was left over from the fall / early winter harvest. All of this was thrown into a pot (on the fire), simmered until everything was cooked through and tender in a rich broth, then served with whatever starch was available. The leftovers could of course be stored in a cool area (the cellar or outside), and as you may or may not know, food stored in a salted, fatty broth keeps for much longer than by itself.
Of course, with this rich history in mind, and excited about the prospect of cooking a meal with 4 different kinds of meat, I set out on the road to make this our holiday dinner. At the time (Chistmas 2005), it was a success, and I aimed to repeat it this past Christmas of 2009 and record it’s preparation so that anyone could see the step by step process. But first…
A Discussion of Meat(s)
As I said, most recipes that you find on-line suggest a large cut of beef, preferably something well marbled with a decent cartilaginous content. What the fat and cartilage do is add richness to the broth as well as giving the broth some texture (in the form of rendered gelatin), turning it into more of a sauce than what you would find your chicken and noodles floating around in inside of a Campbell’s soup can. To this end, consider the following cuts of beef:
The shank should have the bone in (it’s basically the cows shin), should be surrounded by a little bit of fat, and also fairly well marbled. The bone provides gelatin to thicken the broth, and the meat surrounding it becomes meltingly tender after braising. If you’ve ever ordered osso buco in an Italian restaurant, this is what you get.
Also a great addition, considering, like the shank, they provide gelatin from the bones, as well as being well marbled to provide flavor to the broth. Short ribs come two ways: sliced thin in approximately 12″ pieces, with the meat and thin slices of bones intact, or thick, where you have about a 4 inch slice of bone with the surrounding meat attached to the bone in one piece. Either one works great, but with the thick version, you will want to trim the meat off the bone as there is a band of cartilage between that will remain after cooking.
See above 2 cuts.
Rump, Chuck, Shoulder, or Round
These are usually tough, lean cuts of meat that, if combined with one of the more fatty/cartilaginous cuts will make for a very tender braised roast that can be carved and served.
A brisket will (should) have a sheath of fat, and on top of that, a cartilaginous skin. Both will add flavor to the broth and which can be trimmed off after cooking.
These should be available from any butcher, or if you ask your meat man at the store, he should be able to pull some out of the back for you. ATTENTION! : Offer void in stupid crappy grocery stores of New York City! Yet, if you can get them, they will add flavor, marrow, and gelatin to thicken your broth. One additional step required is that you pull them out after they’ve braised for a couple hours, scoop the marrow out with a small spoon, and add both back to the braising liquid.
The only caveats here are that you don’t want to get any cut that is too expensive or lean. Remember, you’re basically boiling this stuff, so no filet mignon, porterhouse, or rib roasts. Oddly enough, the cut that I found for this Christmas was a sirloin roast from Wolf Neck Farms. For a well marbled, completely organic cut, it was only $5/lb, and comes from directly below the loin region, which meant it was extremely tender as well as being fatty yet sturdy enough to hold up to a long period of cooking. Not to mention grass fed, free range (pastured), and DAMN tasty, at reasonable working people prices. Screw $18/lb Whole Foods meat, and kiss my rump roast.
Pretty simple. Throw a whole one in that there pot.
This one can be tricky. Lamb is expensive. What you are going to find that is cheap, correctly proportioned to fit in the pot, and have the correct amount of cartilage and fat so as not to taint the entire broth so that it tastes to gamey, are
and Lamb Leg Chops
Or you can just go with lamb leg chunks if that’s what you can find. Key here is, as I’ve said, nothing too fatty, or the whole broth tastes like lamb and obscures all the other great things you’re going to put in this dish.
Put any veal cut you want in there, if you so choose. Just follow the rules for lamb.
Throw some sausages in there. Why not? They’ve got fat, flavor, and cook quickly. Just remember to throw them in only at the last stage of the meat boil, about 20 minutes before you think all the animal products will be done, then make sure they’re cooked through. Otherwise, if you leave them in longer, their casings might disintegrate, and you’ll end up with sausage/boiled hamburger soup. BTW, if you’re wondering about my familial Muslim/Sausage dilemma, I used turkey that had no casing.
A Note on Cookware and Size
A good part of planning for this endeavor (remember when we mentioned feudal serfs and long range plans?) is figuring out the right proportions. Of course, this is all going to depend on how many meats and vegetables you want to put in this thing, and how big of a pot you have. You will of course have to adjust your procedures and cooking times to accommodate both, so let me give you a general guideline of how I made this work this past holiday:
1 Two (2) Gallon Le Crueset pot
3 lb Wolf Neck Farms Organic Sirloin Roast
1 lb Wolf Neck Farms Organic Marrow Bones
3 lb Organic Roasting Chicken
1.5 lbs Lamb Shoulder Chops
1 lb Turkey Sausage
2 White onions, fine chopped for stock
1 Head garlic, fine chopped for stock
2 Carrots, fine chopped for stock
3 Celery stalks, fine chopped for stock
2 Leeks, cleaned, and fine chopped for stock
4 Leeks cleaned and sliced
3 Carrots, rough chop
5 Stalks celery, rough chop
5 Potatoes peeled and chopped
4 Turnips peeled, rough chop
2 Purple onions, rough chopped
1 Fennel bulb, sliced (optional)
The size of your pot is the deciding factor. You can see from the amount of sheer raw ingredients that we had, we needed to make a “Batch Plan”. Adjust as necessary, because I can’t figure out the logistics for you, but basically this was how the step-by-step went for us:
Salt and pepper all your meat.
Brown each piece in your large pot with a minimum of olive oil. You will get bits of brown stuff left over sticking to the bottom of your pan between batches. DO NOT CLEAN THIS OUT! This is “fond”, and not only is it extremely tasty, but will help lubricate your pot and caremelize onto your various meats between batches. I started out with roast you can see in the left-most side of the picture, then the chicken, which rendered a good amount of fat, then the lamb chops and the turkey sausage. Put all of this aside so that you can start your stock base.
This is where the herbal flavor base for the dish come from. The basics for the bouquet come from the Simon and Garfunkel song (and 1000 years of French culinary history):
Cheesecloth to tie it all up with
Luckily, we had fresh thyme growing underneath the snow in the garden out back.
Which nicely completed the bouquet
Constructing The Broth
At this point you should have a nice layer of fat and “fond” at the bottom of your pot. Take all the vegetables marked “for stock” in the list above, and saute them in the pot until they are nice and soft. They should actually reduce down by 2/3rds until you have a layer of browned vegetables at the bottom of the pan. At this point, salt and peppper the mix until it is highly seasoned. Throw the bouquet garnis in.
Then add your liquid. You have many options here. Water? Go ahead, just make sure your finished product is properly seasoned. White wine? Great. Red wine? “Boot uv ceaurxgese!” Stock? Yes, please, and any kind you like. Or any mixture of the above. The point is to fill that pot with liquid so that you can at least fit your largest piece of meat in and have it covered, and not have the liquid spill over while it simmers. Just make sure that the whole time all your meats are simmering, you spoon off the scum that form on top so that you don’t end up with a bitter, cloudy broth.
Constructing the Stew
Once I had my pot going, I started with the marrow bones and sirloin roast. I left the marrow bones in the entire time, but took the sirloin out and replaced with the chicken, then the lamb and sausage. After each was done, I moved them to a large bowl with some of the broth, covered with foil, and into an oven at 200 degrees. This kept them warm without drying out. After all the meats were done stewing (each took about 1 hour) I removed the marrow bones and scooped out the marrow.
The marrow went back into the broth, and then came the straining so that everything in the broth to this point would come together and be clarified . Straining was accomplished by putting more of the cheesecloth inside of a pasta strainer, pouring everything in the pot through it, and then using the backside of a ladle to push all the juice out of the vegetable matter that was caught by the cheesecloth/pasta strainer combo tool. The strained broth went back into the pot, and now it was time for the vegetables to go in that would be served alongside the meats. This was about an hour an a half before serving time.
The root vegetables went in first, potatoes, turnips, fennel, and carrots. Cooked until soft, we then added the leeks, then celery last so that it wasn’t too soggy. We also tied the whole cleaned leeks together so they wouldn’t come apart in the simmer.
Are you tired yet? I sure was. I had been at this for 6 hours at this point, and I was beginning to understand the peasant upbringing of this meal I was preparing. It made me realize that this was a dish forged out of necessity and utility, and that I was trying to recreate something that was made from what a peasant farmer might have had left over in their garden, cellar, or barn, around the holidays to celebrate a special occasion. Imagine if I had had to slaughter all of these animals myself, or farm all these vegetables in my small plot of land afforded me by my feudal lord. The digging of everything plant-wise from the ground just to make this one meal must of been a monumental effort. And this fact made me understand why this was invented as a “Holiday Meal”. Which goes along with the goal of putting this recipe out there: Put something nice onto your table. Put some work into doing it. And you get back an equal reward from your friends and family.
We finished off this monumental deal as such: we carved all the meat. We pulled all the vegetables out of the pot. We put the residual broth in a bowl, then dressed everything with it.
Then refer to the first picture in this post. We cooked a pot of rice to put everything over and lit some candles. Then everyone sat down to a hearty plate of rice topped with beef roast, braised chicken, lamb chops, turkey sausage, and vegetables: tender, lightly pan toasted with broth – leeks, potatoes, and vegetables. What finer holiday meal could you hope for? Especially one informed by 1,000 years of French culinary history, and the needs and desires of people who had far less access to the availability of sustenance that we enjoy today.
So be thankful of your friends, your family, and the fact that, as the winter skies darken earlier, and earlier, you can still sit down with all of them and enjoy a great meal.