Called "the perpetual stew" by the English, the dish was "an ever-changing broth enriched daily with whatever was available," according to Reay Tannhill in "Food in History." "The cauldron was rarely emptied out."
French chef Raymond Blanc described it with a little more love in a recent interview with the London Observer: "Pot-au feu, the quintessence of French family cuisine, is the most celebrated dish in France. It honors the tables of the rich and poor alike."
The problem for a home cook in the 21st century is that it took -- and takes -- a long time to make a traditional pot au feu. Alexandre Dumas, in his 1873 "Dictionary of Cuisine," stipulated that you had to simmer the beef for seven hours in the bouillon you'd simmered for seven hours the day before.
You can knock out my variation in about 40 minutes.
You start with root vegetables, chicken stock and flank steak garnished with wasabi instead of mustard. Happily, this is the season for root vegetables, so I enlisted three that play very nicely together: carrots, parsnips and turnips. (The two sweet ones tame the funky turnip, and you're welcome to toss some beets into the mix, too.)
What's great is that the root vegetables perfume the broth in a mere 15 to 18 minutes.
Meanwhile, you don't braise the steak, as you would in pot-au-feu. Instead, you saute it in a skillet and cook it to medium-rare. Then you thinly slice it and top it with the hot broth and some wasabi "cream."
This cream is wasabi combined with yogurt. If you don't have a can of dried wasabi powder at hand, Dijon mustard or bottled horseradish will certainly do. Beef loves any and all of these spicy members of the brassicaceae family.
Please note that powdered wasabi is not true wasabi. It is horseradish, powdered and dyed. But actual fresh wasabi, a very perishable rhizome, is hard to find and very expensive. And powdered wasabi does pack its own unique heat and flavor, so don't feel bad using that.
Its distinguished lineage notwithstanding, I think of pot au feu as a cross between a clear soup and a thin stew, a French version of Jewish chicken soup, only made with beef.
It's wonderfully homey and restorative, exactly the sort of dish I'd like to be served on a cold blustery day or when I was feeling a bit under the weather. Try it and see for yourself.
Steak in autumn broth with wasabi
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 medium carrots (about 6 ounces), peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
2 medium parsnips (about 10 ounces), peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
2 small turnips (about 8 ounces), peeled, quartered and sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 medium leek, white part only, halved lengthwise, sliced 1/2 inch thick and rinsed well
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 bay leaf (preferably Turkish)
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 pound flank steak
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1/3 cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon prepared wasabi
Chopped fresh chives or parsley, to garnish
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the broth, carrots, parsnips, turnips, leek, garlic, thyme sprig and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet over high, heat the oil. Season the steak with salt and pepper.
When the oil in the skillet is hot, reduce the heat to medium-high and add the steak. Saute until well browned on both sides and medium-rare at the center, 8 to 10 minutes total. Transfer the beef to a plate, cover loosely with foil, and let rest 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, thinly slice the beef against the grain.
In a small bowl, stir together the yogurt, wasabi and any juices from the beef plate. Season with salt and pepper. Discard the thyme sprig and bay leaf, then divide the vegetables and broth among 4 soup bowls. Arrange a quarter of the steak in the center of each bowl and top each portion with a spoonful of the wasabi cream and a sprinkle of chives.
Makes 4 servings. Per serving: 370 calories; 110 calories from fat (30 percent of total calories); 12 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 50 mg cholesterol; 27 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 10 g sugar; 38 g protein; 500 mg sodium.
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