This fabulous French country dish did not make a grand comeback in the eighties and nineties—but we’re hoping it will over the next decade. People are a little intimidated by it, perhaps, because it raises so many questions about cooking and serving; it’s one of those French classics fraught with controversy. We say: relax! Boil up a hunk of beef with some vegetables, serve them together with the broth, and you’ve got about as satisfying a January meal as you’re going to find. Of course, we are particularly loyal to one cut of beef for this dish: the little-used beef shank, an enormous round of meat that simultaneously produces a delicious broth and provides fantastically tender fall-off-the-bone meat.
Note: When buying a beef shank, have your butcher cut the piece from the center of the shank because the ends tend to be very fatty. It may cost more, but you’ll end up with more meat.
4 large onions
4 celery stalks
4 large leeks, washed
½ stick (¼ cup) unsalted butter
½ pound slab bacon
1 piece of beef shank (about 6 pounds)
10 garlic cloves, smashed
2 teaspoons salt
4 yellow potatoes, peeled and cut in halves
4 medium turnips, peeled
1 large celery root, peeled and cut in 8 chunks
coarse salt in a small container
½ cup strong Dijon mustard
1 cup cornichons
½ cup grated horseradish in vinegar
1. Finely mince 2 of the onions, 2 of the carrots, and 2 of the celery stalks. Cut off the green parts of the 4 leeks, reserving the white parts, and mince the green parts finely. Put the butter in a large, heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the minced onions and cook for 5 minutes. Add the minced carrots and cook for 2 minutes longer. Add the minced celery and the minced green leeks, and cook over low heat until the vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Then add enough water to cover vegetables by 1 inch (this should take about 6 cups of water). Increase the heat to high and bring liquid to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Let cool, then strain through a sieve. Reserve stock and discard the vegetables.
2. In a very large, heavy-bottomed pot put the bacon slab fat side down over low heat. Cook until a large amount of the fat has been rendered, about 10 minutes. Remove the bacon and reserve. Pour most of the bacon fat out of the pot. Put the beef shank in the pot, and brown the beef on all sides over high heat.
3. When the beef shank is browned, return the reserved bacon to the pot, and add the garlic, the 2 teaspoons of salt, and the reserved vegetable stock. Add enough water to cover the beef shank (about 8 cups). Bring to a boil and cook for at least 2½ hours at a low simmer (the meat is ready when it easily falls from the bone).
4. Remove the meat from the pot and reserve it in a bowl. Bring the broth back to a boil. Add the potatoes to the pot along with the turnips and the remaining 2 celery stalks. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the celery root, the remaining 2 onions, quartered, the remaining 4 carrots, halved lengthwise, and the reserved white parts of the leeks, halved lengthwise. Boil for 5 minutes. Return the reserved meat to the pot. (The liquid should cover the meat and vegetables; if it doesn’t add more water.) Bring the broth back to a boil, and reduce heat to bring to a simmer. Cook 15 minutes more. Taste and add salt if necessary.
5. When ready to eat, place the beef shank on a very large platter. Arrange the onions, carrots, leeks, potatoes, and celery root around it. Make sure the broth is piping hot, and pour some into 8 soup bowls. Serve broth immediately, and pass around the meat and vegetable platter. Pass another plate that contains the coarse salt, mustard, cornichons, and horseradish.
Serving Note: There are many ways to serve a pot-au-feu. Some like to serve the bowls of broth with pieces of meat and vegetables arranged in them. Some like to serve dinner plates with pieces of meat and vegetables arranged on them, and serve the broth on the side. We like this arrangement; each guest is served a piping hot bowl of broth, which he or she can begin to savor as the communal platter of beef and vegetables is passed around. Then, each guest fills up his or her soup bowl with meat and vegetables from the platter. The garnishes may be put on the meat, or on a side plate. Serve with lots of crusty bread, butter, and a very fruity, very young red wine (like Beaujolais or a simple Côtes-du-Rhone).
This recipe is from The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook which I wrote in 1996