02 May 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 11



74. Pot-au-feu, which in certain areas is called fatty soup, or fatty broth, is made with beef, which one boils for a long time in water with several sorts of vegetables.

75. The pieces of beef that one uses for pot-au-feu are: the tranche [round], the gîte à la noix [silverside], the culotte [rump], the paleron [chuck], the talon de collier [collar].

76. The proportion in which the meat and the water should be used is this: two liters of water for each pound of meat (500 grams).

77. By adding the bones of the meat, one makes the broth much better.

78. The vegetables that one cooks in the pot-au-feu to flavor it and to make it tastier are: carrots, turnips, leeks, and a bit of onion. One also adds a very small quantity of parsnip and of celery.

79. For 6 liters of water serving to make the pot-au-feu, one needs three large carrots or four medium-size, four to six leeks, as many quite tender turnips, a medium-size onion stuck with one clove, half of a parsnip and a little stalk of celery.

80. So that the broth will be clear and well-flavored and so that the boiled beef will be good, the meat must be placed in cold water.

81. A good pot-au-feu should have at least five hours of cooking time. The more it cooks, the better it is.

82. Pot-au-feu should boil very slowly and the pot should remain hermetically sealed.

83. One must take care to skim the pot-au-feu when it begins to boil. The scum that is produced diminishes the good quality and the limpidity of the broth.

Cooks are always tinkering with pot-au-feu.
This one includes beetroot.
When I tried this, the broth turned red. (Naturally.)



Pot-au-feu. — Soup of potato and leek.

Tante Victoire has been feeling very poorly, just as I wrote here the other day. Now she is better, but she is still weak. So Maman and I, we relieved her entirely of the care of her little household. We split our days between her house and ours, and it is I who am most often her sick-nurse and her cook.

This morning, I prepared for her two soft-boiled eggs and a cutlet. [In 19th-century France, this word was reserved for veal.] This evening, she will have a good broth and a cold roast-chicken wing.

To make the pot-au-feu, I got a lovely piece of silverside from the butcher, and I added to it a few bones in order to improve the quality of the broth.

While I tied the meat before placing it in the stewpot, a neighbor-woman, Madame Romain, came in to ask after our old friend’s health. After the customary compliments, she sat down, and all the while chatting with Tante Victoire, she watched me from the corner of her eye.

Without paying attention to her, I finished tying up my meat, I placed it at the bottom of the stewpot with the bones and I placed the whole thing on the fire.

“As for me,” Madame Romain said suddenly, “I put the meat in when the water is boiling already, I find that it cooks much faster that way.”

“You are wrong,” said Tante Victoire. “In placing the meat in hot water, you quickly toughen its exterior fibers. They tighten up and then prevent the juice of the meat to escape. It is impossible to obtain a good broth by this process. On the contrary, in placing the meat in cold water, the meat heats bit by bit, remains tender, permits the juices that it contains to escape — and that are either blood, which mixes with the water, forming the broth, or scum, made up of light and useless elements that rise to the surface of the water, which we remove and which we throw away.”

“I have noticed, in fact,” said Madame Romain, “that the meat placed in hot water leaves me with almost nothing to skim off, and that it makes a murky broth.”

“That is perfectly right,” said Tante Victoire, “and you will be able to notice, as well, that the meat placed in cold water leaves a great deal that must be skimmed away, especially if it is of inferior quality. The lovely piece that Madeleine has chosen will hardly create any scum at all. It would be the same with a piece of round or of rump. The chuck and the collar are pieces that are less delicate and make more scum, though they do make good broth, too.”

While the pot-au-feu was heating, I prepared the vegetables that I would have to add to it. I scraped the carrots, I very lightly peeled the turnips, I removed the skin of the outer leaves of the leeks, after having cut off the hair-like roots and almost all the green of the stem. In the same way, I peeled the parsnip, then, with the leeks and the little stalk of celery, I made a little bundle that I tied up. A piece of clove in a nice, very white onion, and there they were, all my vegetables, ready to be tossed into the stewpot.

As I began to get rid immediately of all the debris and vegetable peel, Tante Victoire, who from her armchair was watching me do this, stopped me with one word:

“No, no, Madeleine, don’t throw all that out,” she said to me. “There are among the debris some excellent leek greens that you must keep in order to make another soup. Don’t you see that those leaves, too green to be used in a pot-au-feu, will provide, when mixed with a few potatoes, a good broth?”

“Yes,” said Madame Romain, “and I even find that leek and potato soup, seasoned with fresh butter, is one of the best soups that one can make, above all in wintertime.”

“Assuredly,” said Tante Victoire, “and it is also one of the most economical.”

I listened to this, all the while skimming my broth which had begun to smile, as the cooks say, that is to say that it was boiling very lightly without making big bubbles; since my mother has taught me that if one lets the moment pass without skimming the broth, it’s impossible afterwards, because the scum gets caught up in the boiling froth.

“And how is it made then, this good leek and potato soup?” I asked of Tante Victoire.

“It is not difficult,” said my aunt. “The leeks being peeled and washed, one cuts them into small pieces, one places them in a saucepan with some butter. One lets them cook this way very gently. When they have cooked for half an hour, one adds cut-up potato and a bit of water. One takes care to keep hot water handy, which one adds bit by bit to this mixture, progressively, so that the potatoes get mashed and thicken while cooking. Thus one arrives at the desired quantity of soup. Add salt, pepper. At the end of an hour’s cooking time, the soup is ready, but it is better if one lets it cook longer. At the moment of serving, one takes care that the potatoes are reduced in a purée, and if one sees some chunks in the broth, one carefully removes them in order to mash them. Then one puts them back in the saucepan.

“Meanwhile, one has cut slices of bread and placed them in the tureen. On top of each slice one places a piece of fresh butter. One pours the broth over the bread; the butter melts; one mixes the broth with a spoon so that the butter doesn’t remain on the surface, and one serves.”

Sometimes the soup continues to smile when cool.
I particularly like this presentation.

“That’s another recipe that will come in handy, Tante Victoire,” I said while placing my vegetables in the stewpot where the pot-au-feu was bubbling. “No later than tomorrow I will ask Maman whether she would like for me to try it.”

I sealed the stewpot hermetically and I let the broth resume the boiling that had been interrupted by the addition of the vegetables.

“Take care,” said Tante Victoire, “don’t seal the stewpot all the way, until the liquid has reduced a bit, since in heating, there’s a risk of blowing the lid off or of boiling over.”

I removed the lid and I capped off, in a manner of saying, the stewpot, leaving a bit of space between the surface of the broth and the lid. Soon I could see that Tante Victoire had spoken truly: the broth began to boil so fiercely that a bit of it landed in the fire.

I was obliged to moderate the flame and to arrange everything so that the pot-au-feu could continue to cook gently and for a long time without danger.

When the broth had reduced a bit, I covered the stewpot tightly, but not before lightly salting the broth.

“And that should do it for five hours at least,” said Tante Victoire.

Five hours!” said Madame Romain. “In my home, the broth is ready in three hours!”

“Well, my good Madame Romain,” said Tante Victoire, “there’s no use condemning yourself to eat bad beef, from a bouillon made in three hours. In those conditions, it’s impossible that the broth be worth what it cost you, or that you derive the benefit you expected. That which makes the excellence and the quality of a pot-au-feu is precisely the very long time that it takes to cook. A simple vegetable soup would do you as much good and be less costly.”

“You think so?” said Madame Romain with an incredulous air.

“Certainly yes,” said Tante Victoire, “and I advise you to try it.”

“However,” said Madame Romain, “my pot-au-feu isn’t bad; it’s light, that’s true, but it’s rich, and to improve its flavor, I add caramel coloring or tablets of burnt onion.”

“What a terrible system,” said Tante Victoire. “Don’t think you’re improving the quality of the broth by coloring it. Good broth that is made with the right proportion of meat and water has a naturally golden color. Added coloring only masks the defects in the gravy. Truly good broth has no need to be artificially colored.”

Madame Romain left us, still a bit incredulous, and I believe, at heart, that Tante Victoire could see she wasn’t convinced. As a good cook with plenty of self-respect, she seemed to be quite angry.

“There now, you see,” she said to me, “what an idea: she thinks she makes her broth more succulent by coloring it! And what’s more, who knows what she colors it with?”

“She told you, Tante Victoire, with caramel or with tablets of burnt onion. As for me, I don’t even know what that is, one no more than the other, since my mother never colors her broth.”

“And she’s quite right,” said Tante Victoire. “But I’m going to explain to you what caramel is: it’s sugar that one lets melt and brown in a saucepan with very little water. As far as burnt onion, it’s made in special factories, in the form of a tablet or a little ball, or as a liquid destined to give color and flavor to broth and to sauces. I’ve also heard tell that some housewives in the countryside will bake the husks of peas or stringbeans in the oven, in summertime, in order to add a few to a pot-au-feu to color it lightly and to improve the flavor….”

The flavor! Truly, that’s the very word to remind me just in time that the flavor is one of the principal qualities of a pot-au-feu. The one that I just made would be good, very certainly, since a delicious aroma was escaping from under the lid and wafting through the kitchen.

The afternoon passed this way, as we chatted usefully about different subjects, all the while sewing or knitting.

When the moment had arrived to serve Tante Victoire her dinner, I tasted the broth, I salted it a bit more, I tasted it again; I removed the boiled beef which I drained with care and set aside on a flat dish. Then I cut several thin slices of bread, placed them in the soup plate, and poured broth over them, using a strainer.

“Now that’s the way to serve it,” said Tante Victoire. “I will tell your mother how much you have gained from her lessons.”

“And from yours, Tante Victoire,” I added, “since I learn many things whenever I am near you.”

“You don’t get too bored when you’re with me?”

“Ah! Surely no, dear aunt, and to prove it to you I shall come back tomorrow and the following days and every day until you are back on your feet, in order to be your little companion and your sick-nurse.”

“Good little girl!” said Tante Victoire in a voice full of emotion. “But off you go, you may leave me now. It is time for you to return home. Rest assured, I won’t be alone for very long. I have no lack of neighbor-women to stop by and chat with me for a while. Go, my dear little one, go, and tell your mother that I am happy to know she has a valiant and reasonable little daughter like you.”

I did not dare to carry this message to Maman…. I don’t yet feel as if I am beyond the reach of failure and reproach, and I find that Tante Victoire truly treats me with a great deal of indulgence.

[To copy and keep]

1. When I buy meat for pot-au-feu, I will be sure to add a few bones to my purchase, which will give me a much better broth.

2. I will always begin by cooking the meat in cold water.

3. I will skim the broth as soon as it begins to smile, and not when it has reached a steady boil.

4. I will hold onto the unused bits of leek, especially if they are not too green and if they are tender, and later I will make a soup of them with potatoes.

5. I will not hermetically seal the stewpot until, the vegetables being in the pot, the broth isn’t at too high a boil.

6. I will salt the broth lightly, when I place it on the fire, and I will salt it again before serving, but only after having tasted it.

7. I will prefer not to color the broth artificially, since, if it is well made, its color will always be golden and nice to look at.

8. I will pour the broth through a strainer, over the bread in the soup plate.

Next time: Madeleine learns the right way to soft-boil an egg and to grill a veal cutlet. Then it’s time to tidy up the kitchen — 1895–style.


Anonymous said...

So have you been to Roi du Pot au Feu yet on rue Vignon? As this is your second pot au feu posting you must take it seriously!

William V. Madison said...

Alas, I'm strictly observing a program of austerity these days, and never eat in any restaurant at all. But here's hoping the place remains in business long enough for me to visit, some day.