Friday, February 23, 2018
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Traditional French stew — simplified

This is my untraditional weeknight version of the traditional French stew known as pot au feu, a dish that dates back to medieval times. I decided it was time for an update.

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. Happily, this is the season for root vegetables, so I enlisted three that play very nicely together: carrots, parsnips and turnips. 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 on 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 about using it.

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.

Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting Food Network shows. She currently stars in "Sara's Weeknight Meals" on PBS and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."

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