When you find yourself cozying up by a fire with your feet in socks and a blanket over your lap, there’s no better time for a comforting meal of pot au feu to warm your belly. I know this because I grew up eating this dish, long before I even knew what it was called. It’s the kind of meal that haute cuisine scrunches its nose at, but secretly devours with fervor and delight. Pot au feu, literally meaning “pot on the fire,” is a French beef stew made with meat, potatoes, carrots, and any other vegetables you can get your hands on. It’s uncomplicated and incredibly satisfying, making it a revered dish in France.
Traditionally, pot au feu was a dish for the poor. It utilizes less expensive cuts of meat that are slow-cooked until tender. Now, the dish is made everywhere from small villages in France to trendy cafes in Paris. In fact, on my most recent trip, I saw a plump, old man thoroughly enjoying a cocotte (a mini pot) of the stew in a popular Parisian cafe. It was an amusing sight with his cheeks rosy and his belly between him and the table; he was going to town digging his spoon into that pot au feu. But I would have been doing the same had I not just finished my own fabulous meal. The cold December weather had no doubt made the pot au feu most tempting, and if you pair that with an eager appetite, then you’d probably be sitting right next to that jolly old man, ravenously eating your stew too!
There’s no definitive recipe for pot au feu other than the general guideline of meat, potatoes, and vegetables. Traditionally, the meat portion entails bone marrow because it provides a lot of flavor to the stew, but other than that, you sort of have free range. If you want to toss a turnip into the mix, feel free to do so. If you want to add leeks, you can also do that. I make my pot au feu the way my mother always has, because it’s simple and positively scrumptious. It’s a basic combination of beef shank (including the bone), potato chunks, and cut-up carrots. She doesn’t use beef broth, but instead flavors the water broth with her secret ingredient: tomato paste! The paste is added in during the last 20 or so minutes of cooking, and imparts incredible flavor to the the stew. I absolutely love eating this dish with big slices of crusty French bread, which I dip into the stew broth as well. I think I love this dish so much because even though it’s not that sophisticated, you’re never bored while consuming it. You get a bite of the tender beef, then some starchy potatoes, as well as a sweet bit of carrot, keeping things varied in both texture and flavor. I can’t think of a better meal for a cold winter day than a bowl full of pot au feu.
- 1.25 lb beef shank with the bone
- 1/2 a large onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1.5 tbsp olive oil
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp ground pepper
- 2 carrots, cut-up
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 small potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- splash of lemon juice (a couple teaspoons)
- Heat olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat. Sauté onion and garlic until translucent.
- Add the beef (and bone) to the pot, along with enough water to cover the beef - about 3 cups of water. Add the salt and pepper. Cover the pot with a lid and bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low (erring on the side of low).
- After 30 minutes, add the carrots and bay leaves.
- After another hour, check the beef with a fork to check if it’s tender yet. If not, continue cooking and checking the beef in 10 minute increments.
- Once the beef is tender, add the potatoes, tomato paste, and splash of lemon juice. Cook the potatoes for another 20 minutes, until the potatoes are fork-tender.
- Remove the bay leaves and serve the stew with some crusty French bread.