The longer I live in France, the more trouble I'm going to have writing this blog in English. See, I moved to France right after college, which is when you really start to learn how to do things on your own. Cooking, of course, but also keeping the house clean (instead of just straitening up your room), choosing paint colors, furniture, fixing things that break (or calling the repairman), paying bills, filing pay slips, doing your taxes, etc. All that stuff I learned to do in French and some of it has specific vocabulary that I don't know in English. For example: where do you bring things that are too big for the trash? Is there a word for them? Here they're called les encombrants and you can call the city hall of your arrondissment in Paris, and schedule a pick-up in front of your building on a specific day.
What does that have to do with cooking? Well, yesterday I was complaining to the mom of one of the girls I babysit for that I had a fridge drawer full of root vegetables that was getting out of control: carrots, leeks, turnips, parsnips, potatoes, cabbage (okay, not a root vegetable, but you get the point). She said, "all you need is some meat and you have a pot-au-feu." I'm lucky because this is one of those recipes that everybody's French mother makes and thanks to babysitting, I now have two French mothers who teach me those kinds of things.
Anyway, she told me how much meat to buy and what kind and she suggested buying an os à la moelle to put in. I'd never bought any such thing (I'm a wuss at the butcher's), and so I can't tell you the name in English. All I can say is that it's bone with the marrow in it and the marrow gets all soft and flavorful when cooked in a pot-au-feu.
The French are extremely good at winter food and pot-au-feu is no exception. It's warming, hearty and uses more seasonal vegetables than you would know what to do with otherwise. Traditionally the broth is served as a first course, sometimes with noodles. Then the meat and vegetables are served in a large platter. If you don't want to separate them, you can also serve it in bowls as a sort of French beef stew (don't let any French people know I said to though). Or you can reserve the broth for another soup. Or all of the above. Pot-au-feu is also very tasty as leftovers since the more the flavors sit together the better it is. Go ahead and make more than you'll eat in one meal. If you get sick of it for leftovers, you can always make it into cottage pie.
1.5kg of beef (don't get me started on beef cuts. I don't have any of the vocab for that, but it can be a fattier or tougher cut because you're going to slow cook it for a very long time!)
2 parsnips (If you want to get technical I actually used parsley root, but they taste like parsnips to me. You can pretty much use whatever winter vegetables you have)
3 cloves garlic
1 bouquet garni (parsley, thyme and bay leaf)
1 os à la moelle
1 head of Chinese cabbage
500g of potatoes
P.S. It is very hard to get a decent photo of a finished pot-au-feu since, if you've done it right, everything's all mushy and falling apart. Despite what it looks like, it's delicious!
Rinse the beef in cold water and put in a large pot with the onions (peeled and halved) and cloves. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer on low heat for 1-2 hours, regularly skimming off impurities that rise to the top.
In the meantime, peel the garlic cloves and peel (or wash) and roughly chop the carrots, leeks, turnips, parsnips. Add to the meat with the bouquet garni. If not covered with liquid, add more water, bring to boil and then simmer 2 hours. Add the os à la moelle, and the cabbage and simmer 1 hour more. Boil the potatoes separately and stir them in once you're done cooking the pot-au-feu. Strain the meat and vegetables from the broth (if desired) and serve hot.
Traditionally served with sea salt, mustard and cornichons.