“The quintessence of French family cuisine, it is the most celebrated dish in France. It honours the tables of the rich and poor alike” Raymond Blanc
Pot-au-feu (French pronunciation: [pɔ.to.fø]), which translated means “pot on the fire”, is a true icon of French cooking and one of the most popular classics. In a nutshell, it’s a stew (although sometimes referred to as a soup), traditionally made with cuts of beef – but you’ll see regional variations and more modern takes using other meat or poultry.
Described by my French mum as “a special, homely, family, rustic meal that can serve large families and be eaten in different ways during the week“, I couldn’t think of a better name for my food business. My cooking is centred around turning every meal into an experience of delicious home cooked food – and pot-au-feu certainly is that.
There’s a whole host of recipes available on the internet, and many mainstream chefs and food writers have included this classic in one of their recipe books. Elizabeth David has a 6-page entry in French Provincial Cooking, probably the book for which she’ll be most remembered; Anthony Bourdain, in his Les Halles Cookbook, describes the dish as “socialist soul food meant to make Frenchmen cry“; and the legendary three Michelin star chef, “perhaps the greatest chef London has ever known” (The Guardian), Pierre Koffmann, chose to include the dish in his award-winning cookbook Classic Koffmann – 50 years a chef.
I love making pot-au-feu. It’s such a special, versatile dish that’s fun to make and can be adapted in so many ways – the meat you chose, the way you serve it and the fact that it can make several dishes – a soup, a stew, a light lunch and more. And there’s normally some wonderful leftovers that can be turned into a whole host of other dishes.
The recipe (serves 6)
This week, I made pot-au-feu for Sunday lunch with my partner and my mum. I decided to base this week’s meal on a recipe by Bruno Loubet – an award winning Michelin star chef, known for his French classic meat dishes, and who’s worked with the best French chefs including Pierre Koffmann and Raymond Blanc.
This recipe uses three different cuts of meat “that bring something different to the dish in terms of texture and depth of flavour. One cut that is on the bone with good layers of fat (rib), a piece of gelatinous meat like the shin or cheek and a lean piece like the brisket”.
Armed with that brief, my partner headed off to Canham & Sons butchers in Hove, who, as always did a great job of providing our cuts of meat. He went for beef brisket (600g), beef shin (600g) and oxtail (600g) and managed to get several large marrow bones to use in the stew.
Ideally, when serving the pot-au-feu, you want ‘hunks’ of meat that you slice up at the table. So, given the brisket and shins were flat, I spent a little time rolling and trussing them using butchers string.
The first stage of making this dish is to get the meat on the boil. It’s a simple process of putting the meat in large pot, adding around 3 litres of water, bringing to the boil, adding the marrow bones…and lowering to a simmer. But, although simple, there’s one vital thing you’ll need to do in order to get as clear a broth as possible – skimming the scum. Basically, by doing this, you’re removing the impurities. Once you’ve done this the first time, do keep an eye through the cooking as you’ll find more scum appears.
After about 10 minutes, remove the marrow bones, extract the marrow using a small spoon or knife, pop the marrow in the fridge for later…and then put the bones back into the pot.
Cut the onions in half and dry fry them in a pan, flat side down, until they’re dark brown – almost black. This helps give the broth a lovely dark colour and adds an extra layer of taste.Then stud the onions with a couple of cloves.
Next make your bouquet garni of bay leaf, parsley and thyme. Loubet has a lovely touch here by tying the bouquet together with the green part of the leek – very pretty.
Add all the prepped vegetables (3 leeks in 5 cm chunks, 4 carrots cut into thirds, 3 celery sticks in 5cm chunks), the bouquet garni, 4 peeled garlic cloves and 4 cracked black peppercorns.
Leave to simmer (make sure it doesn’t come to the boil as that will ruin the clarity of the broth) for 3 hours keeping an eye out for any additional scum rising to the top. Loubet suggests adding potatoes for the last 30 minutes. I prefer not to as they tend to break up a little and spoil the consistency of the broth. Instead, I boil up potatoes separately then add them last minute. I realise this means they don’t get a chance to absorb the lovely flavours of the broth – but once on the plate, mashing them into the broth has the same effect for me.
To serve, cut the meat and place on a large, warm serving platter with the vegetables. Then strain the broth into a hot terrine to serve alongside the meat. Some people use the broth for a soup starter – sometimes adding vermicelli. I prefer to serve all together – there’s plenty of broth left for a delicious pot-au-feu soup the next day.
Pot-au-feu is normally served with a variety of sides such as bread, cornichons and dijon mustard, with black and white pepper and coarse salt available for people to season as they like. And of course the delicious marrow on toast. I used a baguette – slicing it, rubbing it with fresh garlic, spreading the marrow on each piece, then popping in the oven at 170C for about 20 seconds to warm it through (no longer as it will melt and become oily).
One final touch I added is parsley salad. I stumbled across this when reading about Anthony Bourdain’s alleged ‘last meal’. This is delicious served with the marrow on toast and I’d highly recommend knocking some of this up to accompany the toast. Simply chop a bunch of flat leaf parsley, combine with 2-3 thinly sliced shallots and 2 tablespoons of capers and dress with 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and the juice of one lemon.
This is one of the best, most authentic and simplest pot-au-feu recipes I’ve found. I haven’t changed too much in here other than avoiding popping the potatoes in the stew and adding the parsley salad as a side. So as a base recipe that you can adapt as you like, it works really well.
The recipe serves 6 – if there are fewer of you, then I’d highly recommend making the full quantity as the leftovers can make several delicious quick lunches.
With ‘spicy red’ being the recommended wine to accompany pot-au-feu, we went for a 2015 Chateauneuf-du-Pape we managed to find at a reduced price in Waitrose.