Pot au feu, which literally means 'pot on the fire' in English, is a beef stew cooked with a nice medley of veggies, spices and sausage. It is considered to be the embodiment of the French family cuisine.
Although there is no exact date as to when this hearty dish was invented by the French, it is believed that a similar dish must have been enjoyed for several years already in areas around the world where domestication of the cattle as well as the farming of vegetables started to take place. Moreover, the availability of the cooking pot, either clay or metallic, can also be a strong evidence that a similar dish was already in vogue during that period in certain places.
According to some historical accounts, the dish that French called pot au feu may be a derivative dish of a popular dish in the 17th and 18th centuries called pot pourri. The method used in cooking pot pourri had a striking similarity to pot au feu but consisted of even more vegetables as ingredients. There may have been a few more dishes which were thought to be similar to pot au feu using unusual ingredients and more spices resulting in a more complicated flavor.
A stockpot or any cooking vessel large enough to hold the ingredients is suitable to cook pot au feu. Pre-cut cheesecloth is also required to wrap the individual vegetables used in the preparation.
The modern pot au feu usually consists of different beef cuts or parts such as beef shank, beef chuck, beef ribs and beef marrow bones and cured meat such as bacon and sausage. To complete the dish, a slew of vegetables, herbs and spices are thrown in. The vegetable ingredients usually include carrots, potatoes, baguette, turnips, Savoy cabbage, celery, leeks and onions. For spices and herbs, some or all of the following may be included: bay leaves, black and pink peppercorns, bouquet garni, cloves, cinnamon stick and salt. Garnishing may include coarse sea salt, cornichons or gherkins, mustard and horseradish.
Since there are various versions of the recipe existing today, the method of preparation also varies slightly between regions and individuals. In one version, the shank, chuck, and ribs are bundled together by tying them with strings while the marrow bones are wrapped in the cheesecloth. These primary ingredients are placed in the stockpot, submerged in water and cooked on slow heat.
A bouquet garni containing cinnamon stick, peppercorn and bay leaves is also an integral part of the pot au feu recipe. This bundle of flavoring ingredients is added to the stockpot to immerse the aroma.
All the vegetables like celery, turnips, cabbage, leeks, carrots and potatoes and even meats are wrapped in individual pre-cut cheesecloth and added to the stockpot for cooking. The meats and vegetables are cooked until tender enough to bite. Care should be taken so as not to overcook the dish.
One after the other, all the packets of meat and vegetables are removed from the pot and placed on a clean tray. Cheeseclothes are carefully unwrapped and the vegetables and meats are arranged decoratively on a serving dish.
The remaining broth is also strained and served on the side of serving dish.
Tha marrow is generally scooped out from the bones and spread on the baguette or croutes or whatever is available. A simple garnish with chopped parsely may also complement the dish. Pot au feu is a complete meal, especially in winters.