Origin of a Dish
In the Kitchen with Thierry Rautureau
STORY AND PHOTS BY MATT MORNICK
Only one dish is on Thierry Rautureau’s mind when he returns to his family homestead 30 miles south of Nantes, France. Pot-au-feu. With alacrity, the Chef in the Hat recounts eating the meat and vegetable stew for the first time at age 3, proving what scientist suspect: Taste ties directly to memory.
“Pot-au-feu is special,” says Thierry, chef owner of Loulay Kitchen & Bar and Luc restaurants. “It is delicious, warm, and it feels good, especially during winter. I remember coming down to the kitchen before dinner. Steam would collect on the windows. A wood fire burned in the chimney where the beef and vegetables boiled in a large black kettle.
“I came from an economically poor family. We couldn’t afford meat with every meal. We ate vegetables because, like many communities in the countryside, we grew our food. When we had a nice cut of meat, my grandmother or mother prepared it for everyone to enjoy.
“Years later, when I was 8 or 9, I remember my friends would want to play after school. And I couldn’t. My mom would be working. I would go home to a note where she left instructions to help prepare dinner.
“I’d clean a sandy pile of vegetables brought up from the root cellar, break up the stark-green stalks of leeks, peel carrots and turnips, and quarter onions. I would bring the meat — which was in cold water — to a boil and skim the scum. I would listen for shoes scuffling against the gravel in front of the house. Then, my mother would walk in to the started pot-au-feu. From time to time, my parents’ friends joined. They would start playing cards at 5 o’clock, and by 8 o’clock, everyone would say, ‘Let’s eat!’
“My mother would remove the cooked beef and vegetables, then cook down the broth and add a bit of vermicelli. Everyone would start with this soup and have a little salad and cheese. The meat and vegetables were garnished with sea salt, a spicy mustard, and a couple cornichons. It was — and still is — perfection.”
The concept of pot-au-feu seems simple — so simple that you would expect the dish to have been around for as long as people have been cooking over an open re. Indeed, the iron pot, or cauldron, probably was the original stockpot or pot-au-feu back in the Middle Ages, providing an ever-changing broth enriched daily with written pot-au-feu recipes began to appear.
Stockpot meals are less common in the modern kitchen. Hours-long dinners take a back burner to the 15-minute whipped-out recipe. Yet slowing down and enjoying the blend of pot-au-feu’s favors and the enduring nostalgia should not be overlooked. Meals of this sort make memories.
So pull out a crockpot — the modern day cauldron. Invite family and friends over for board games and wine, and let pot-au-feu brighten a dreary winter day.
Thierry suggests starting with a good piece of meat that benefits from long cooking over low heat, something with fat but not too much. Get good, firm vegetables. If they are soft, they’ve been out of the ground too long. Seattle’s farmers markets in October have wonderful vegetables this time of year.
8 servings | Total cooking time about 2 hours
2 pounds of beef brisket or culotte
4 carrots, peeled and cut in half
2 yellow onions, peeled and cut in half, studded with 5 cloves
2 turnips, peeled and cut in quarters
2 rutabagas, peeled and cut in quarters
2 Yellow Finn potatoes, peeled and cut in half
2 leeks, cut in half
1 head of green cabbage, cut in quarters
Place the meat in a big pot, cover with 4 quarts of water, and bring to a simmer. Add the carrots, onions, turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes and cook until tender, about 20-25 minutes. Drop in the leeks and cabbage and cook for about 5 minutes. Remove all the vegetables and set aside. Continue cooking the meat until fork tender, about an hour and a half. Take the meat out of the broth and slice on a deep platter. Arrange the vegetables around the platter. Pour some of the hot broth over the meat and veggies.
Bring the leftover broth to a boil and drop in a cup of dry vermicelli pasta (cut in 2-inch pieces) and boil for 3 minutes. Serve hot as a starter course.
Serve the meat and vegetables as an entree with Dijon mustard, cornichons, and sea salt.