When I first moved to France almost 30 years ago, my idea of French cuisine tended toward the fancy, the fussy, the formal—dishes complicated to prepare and fastidious to serve. Then I married into a French family and discovered wonderful, traditional dishes that were quite the opposite: rustic one-pot meals using the humblest ingredients.
Pot-au-feu, which means “pot on the fire,” is the epitome of this kind of cooking. To make pot-au-feu, meat—usually a mix of different beef cuts—simmers gently in water along with an abundance of vegetables, generally hearty winter favorites like potatoes, leeks, carrots, and cabbage, until the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender. As the meat and vegetables cook, a flavorful broth, seasoned simply with some herbs, garlic, salt, and pepper, is also in the making. The result is quintessential comfort food along the lines of homemade chicken soup. But instead of the meat, vegetables, and broth being served together as a soup, the broth is served separately.
Get the recipe: Pot-Au-Feu
At our house, we serve that broth as a light first course along with some toasted bread slathered with marrow from the bones we like to add to the pot. Then we bring the platter of meat and vegetables to the table and let everyone help themselves. To kick up the flavor, we pass around the traditional accompaniments of tangy Dijon mustard, sharp cornichons, and flaky sea salt. It’s especially wonderful when the mustard mixes with some of the juice on the plate, creating a sauce of sorts.
The French are adamant about serving pot-au-feu family style, which means if you’re ever invited over for pot-au-feu, you’re considered part of the family. So gather some good friends together, open some wine, and put a pot on the fire. Bon appétit!
Add marrow bones for extra flavor
The French almost always add a marrow bone or two to pot-au-feu. Aside from adding flavor, marrow bones release gelatin into the broth, which gives it more body. If you use other gelatinous cuts, such as oxtails or shank, marrow bones aren’t crucial. If you do use them, though, you’re in for a treat: The cooked marrow, which slides out of the bone with a little coaxing, is wildly delicious; it tastes rich and meaty but has the consistency of soft butter. Try some smeared on the toast served with the pot-au-feu broth, topped with chopped parsley and sea salt.
Here are the details on using marrow bones in pot-au-feu:
• Use about 2 lb. beef marrow bones, crosscut by the butcher into 3- to 4-inch pieces.
• Season the marrow by sprinkling some salt over each end and patting it on to adhere.
• Add the bones for the final 30 to 60 minutes of cooking.
• Remove the bones from the pot-au-feu when you remove the meat.
• Push the marrow out of the bones with the end of a wooden spoon. Spread it on toasted baguette slices and serve.
A simple but rich beef broth begins the meal. Starting the meat in cold water helps keep the broth clear, while a little fat on the surface adds flavor.
Add marrow bones for extra flavor.