• Stir It Up: A wintry stew with a French accent
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     | January 11,2013
     
    Alan Richardson Photo

    Come in from the cold to a classic French country dish made in a slow cooker. The photo is from “The Mediterranean Slow Cooker” by Michele Scicolone.

    People who write slow cooker cookbooks, and who sell slow cookers, would have you believe they are four-season appliances. But anyone who uses a slow cooker knows in her (or his) heart that it is a cold-weather appliance.

    In the spring, we crave the fresh, succulent first produce of the garden — peas, radishes, spinach and strawberries. In summer, it’s time for lighter fare such as salads, ripe tomatoes, corn on the cob and grilled fish or meat. None of these foods has any business in a slow cooker.

    But during fall and winter, the cooker shines. There is almost nothing more satisfying than coming in from the cold to a pot of simmering stew. If you work all day, that’s not likely to happen unless a) you have a personal chef, or b) you use your slow cooker. And if you don’t own a slow cooker, post-holiday sale season is the perfect time to get one. Some of the new “deluxe” models do everything but buy the groceries. They have dishwasher-safe parts, programmable heating elements and inserts that can be used on the stove to brown ingredients.

    Slow-cooker fans may already be familiar with Michele Scicolone, author of “The Italian Slow Cooker,” “The French Slow Cooker” and, now, “The Mediterranean Slow Cooker” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). In this book, Scicolone takes on a French classic: pot au feu.

    This dish, which translates as “pot on the fire,” is the simplest of boiled meat dinners and, at the same time, a complex tour de force of flavors. It was considered a country dish, one that would supply a family with meals for a week (meat and vegetables on the first night, then the broth with various additions — noodles, semolina, rice — and, finally, “potage a la fecula,” or broth thickened with cornstarch). Scicolone gives a nod to this tradition by suggesting that you serve the broth as a first course.

    French housewives used to spend quite a bit of time making pot au feu. One source I found said they tied potatoes on the end of bones with string to seal in the marrow; another suggests wrapping the bones in muslin (or cheesecloth).

    Beef was the main meat, but classic preparations call for the addition of chicken (or chicken giblets, duck or turkey), veal, pork or lamb. One recipe, in the famed French cooking encyclopedia “Larousse Gastronomique,” calls for adding to the pot a whole chicken — stuffed with fresh pork, ham, chicken liver, onion, garlic and parsley — along with “veal knuckle” and “salted pork knuckle.”

    Scicolone’s recipe is far less exotic but still has the satisfying appeal of French farmhouse cooking. It’s a winter dish, no doubt about it. Serve it with Dijon mustard, prepared horseradish and cornichons — those tiny sour pickles available, jarred, in many supermarkets. A baguette and some cheese will make this a classic French meal. Bon appetit!



    Pot Au Feu (Beef and Vegetables)

    Yield: 6 servings

    4 whole garlic cloves, peeled

    4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

    6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

    2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

    2 medium turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

    2 leeks (white and light green parts only), well washed, drained, trimmed and sliced into ½-inch pieces

    3 sprigs flatleaf parsley

    4 sprigs fresh thyme

    1 bay leaf

    2½ pounds boneless beef chuck or brisket, well trimmed

    2 pounds beef short ribs or shanks, well trimmed

    Salt

    10 whole black peppercorns

    Mustard, prepared horseradish and cornichons for serving



    Place garlic and vegetables in a large (5½- to 7-quart) slow cooker. Wrap parsley, thyme and bay leaf in kitchen twine to make a bundle that you can easily remove. Toss it into the cooker. Place the meat on top. Add salt to taste, peppercorns and just enough water to cover the meat and vegetables.

    Cover and cook on low 8 to 10 hours, or until the meat is very tender when pierced with a fork.

    Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Remove the meat and cut it into chunks. Arrange meat and vegetables in a serving bowl or platter. Cover and set aside.

    Remove and discard the bundle of herbs. Skim fat from the surface of the broth and taste for seasonings, adding more salt if needed. Pour some broth over the meat and vegetables. Place meat and vegetables in the warm oven.

    Serve remaining broth as a first course, followed by the meat and vegetables. Pass mustard, horseradish and cornichons at the table.

    Recipe from “The Mediterranean Slow Cooker” by Michele Scicolone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)



    Marialisa Calta is a syndicated food writer who lives in Calais.

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