Hey, Stéphane, you lucky Californian, do you know that while you were on business in sunny Barcelona the outside temperature dropped several times below 0 (F) in Chicago. The perfect kind of weather to stay home and to prepare a slow-cooked dish for dinner. That’s why I fixed some ‘’cuisses de canard braisées aux échalottes’’ (braised duck legs in shallots and white wine), unfortunately not as tender as they should have been, some very tasty ‘’veau marengo’’ and ‘’ fricassée de poulet aux capres et aux olives’’ (chicken braised in tomatoes, capers, olives and white wine). I just wanted to imagine for a couple of hours that I was in one of my favorite Parisian bistrots (or bistros) with some good friends enjoying the winter sport that I prefer: Preparing and eating good food and drinking good wine. While my duck legs were simmering in my brand-new ‘’cocotte Le Creuset’’, I was drinking a glass of that Tempranillo from Gundlach-Bundschu, perfect with duck legs, that you brought at Christmas from California , and it helped me to reflect about your last question regarding ‘’winter French bistro dishes’’. So as usual I started making lists in my head. Here are the results of my thoughts on that important matter When I fly back to Paris, as soon as I am boarding the Air France airport bus to the city, my first thought is about what I want to eat for my first French lunch (or dinner depending on the time of my arrival downtown Paris) and where I want to go to eat that first ‘’ welcome back’’ treat to myself. And invariably, especially during the winter season, my first choice is a traditional bistro where I will be sure to find the kind of French “comfort food” dishes that I like so much, rather than a fancy starred establishment.
I usually want my first winter meal in Paris to include any of the following typical ‘’bistrot’’ or ‘’brasserie’’ dishes:
“Choucroute garnie à l’alsacienne” (an Alsatian specialty consisting of seasoned slowly cooked sauerkraut in Alsatian white wine (preferably Riesling) with various types of sausage, cured meats and hams, and served with boiled potatoes) ‘’Lapin à la moutarde’’ (a rabbit stew in a mustardy cream sauce served with fresh pasta) ‘’ Veau Marengo’’ (another slowly cooked stew of veal, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and sometimes green olives in a white wine sauce, generally served with buttered fettuccini or rice). I cooked this dish for you the last time you came to Chicago by yourself in January. ‘’ Daube de boeuf Provençale’’ (a very fragrant stew of marinated beef braised in red wine with herbs, onions, garlic, carrots, bacon, and olives and flavored with brandy and orange zest served with young small potatoes or pasta). Some people cook it with added mushrooms and tomatoes. And it is always better the next few days when reheated. ‘’Boeuf Bouguignon’’ (a beef stew slowly cooked in red Burgundy wine) ‘’Cassoulet’’ either from Castelnaudary or from Toulouse (a very rich and hearty casserole of white beans with duck confit if it is the Castelnaudary formula, or lamb if it is prepared in the Toulouse fashion, pork shoulder, pork sausages, garlic sausage, pork rind, garlic crumb, onions, garlic, herbs, cloves, sometimes tomatoes (if from Toulouse). This dish is normally cooked and presented in a ”cassole”, an earthenware crock that gave its name to the dish. I prefer the Castelnaudary version. ‘’Petit salé aux lentilles’’ (salt pork baked with lentils) ‘’Gigot d’agneau de 7 heures’’ (very slowly braised leg of lamb, supposedly for 7 hours, with carrots and tomatoes) ‘’Cuisses de canard confit aux pommes sarladaises’’ (roasted duck confit legs served with sliced potatoes sautéed in duck fat with garlic) ‘’Coq au vin’’ (a very old recipe from Burgundy- rooster, or a roasting chicken, marinated in pinot noir red wine with onions, carrots, celery, pepper, garlic and herbs and cooked with mushrooms and bacon) ‘’Epaule d’agneau aux flageolets’’ (roasted lamb shoulder with flageolet beans) or .. a good ‘’Moroccan Tagine’’, and why not a "Vietnamese lunch’’ including ‘’nems’’ (very small crunchy egg rolls served with lettuce and fresh mint leaves that you dip into a nioc-mam-based sauce) and lemongrass chicken. As you can see there is not much seafood in that list. I eat fish only when I am invited in a fancy seafood restaurant, never in a bistrot. And as you know I do not like shellfish, like mussels (even though they are very commonly served in Parisian bistros in a fragrant ‘’marinière’’ broth), or oysters and clams that are more popular in brasseries than in bistrots. The only fish-based bistro dish that I like is ‘’Brandade de morue’’ (salt cod gently cooked in milk then pureed with olive oil, sometimes with young potatoes, and optionally with a touch of garlic) .It is delicious as an appetizer when served with garlic toasts. Brandade is one of the few food specialties that was created in my native town of Nîmes. And, only occasionally, I do not mind ordering when they are very well prepared, once again as an appetizer, ‘’Harengs marinés pommes à l’huile’’ (herrings marinated in onions, carrots, spices and white wine, served with lukewarm sliced young potatoes in an oil dressing). As far as appetizers are concerned, some of my favorites first courses would be: ‘’Terrine de canard aux pistaches’’ (duck country terrine with pistachios) ‘’Terrine de lapin aux noisettes’’ (rabbit terrine with hazelnuts), ‘’Saucisson chaud en croûte’’,(warm pork sausage baked in a crust of pastry dough) ‘’Poireaux vinaigrette’’ (leeks served lukewarm with a mustardy vinaigrette sauce) ‘’Poêlée de girolles ou de cèpes aux échalottes ’’ (chanterelle or porcini mushrooms sautéed with shallots) And my super-favorite: ‘’Aligot’’, a very rich, smooth but very filling dish from the area of Aveyron in Auvergne, made of melted fresh Tomme (cheese) d’Auvergne mixed with mashed potatoes, cream, butter and garlic. The meal should end with a very good “plateau de fromages’’ (cheese tray) including necessarily some of my favorites: Camembert, Cantal, Roquefort, Tomme de Savoie, and Banon. For desserts, I would choose either a ‘’Tarte Tatin’’ (caramelized pear Tart), or a ‘’Sorbet au cassis’’ (black currant sorbet).
There are many bistrots in Paris that serve several variations of these dishes.
I cannot guarantee that the following places are still as good as they were the last time I was there, in some case a few years back, but nevertheless here are a few suggestions: For tasty terrines I would go to: LA BICHE AU BOIS 45 avenue Ledru-Rollin, in the 12th arrondissement (near Gare de Lyon) or CHEZ LA VIEILLE also known as ‘’ADRIENNE’’, 1 rue Bailleul, in the 1th. But ASTIER, 44 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud in the 11th, has also some very flavorful terrines. (but see my precautionary comments about this restaurant farther down) For ‘’Aligot’’ I would go without any hesitation to the great l’AMBASSADE d’AUVERGNE, 22 Rue du Grenier Saint-Lazarre, in the 3rd, or at l’AUBERGE AVEYRONNAISE, 40 rue Lamé, in the 12th. If you do not mind a slightly weird decor and ambiance, try CHANTAIRELLE 17, rue Laplace, in the 5th for other authentic and very tasty specialties from Auvergne. For a ‘’Lapin à la moutarde’’, I would choose MONSIEUR LAPIN, 11 rue Raymond Losserand, in the 15th, a restaurant whose decor and specialties are entirely devoted to the rabbit , or ASTIER. For a good ‘’Gigot d’agneau de 7 heures’’, you could try the quaint LE SQUARE TROUSSEAU 1 rue Antoine Vollon, in the 12th, but it has been one of WADJA’s best specialties for years, 10 Rue de la Grande Chaumière, in the 6th. There are many places in Paris where you can eat a decent ‘’Cassoulet’’. Try LA TABLE d’AUDE, 8 rue de Vaugirard in the 6th, or D’CHEZ EUX 2 Avenue de Lowendal, in the 7th, or IL ETAIT UNE FOIS DANS LE SUD-OUEST 8 rue Gustave Flaubert, in the 17th. For a traditional ‘’Coq au Vin’’ in a delightful retro decor try ‘’AU MOULIN A VENT’’, 20 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, in the 5th. La BICHE AU BOIS also has a very decent one For ‘’Cuisses de canard confit avec pommes sarladaises’’ The best, but most expensive choice would be the ‘’Michelin-starred’’ AU TROU GASCON 40, rue Taine, in the 12th. But you can find some very edible and cheaper versions at LA FONTAINE de MARS, 129 Rue Saint-Dominique, in the 7the (same precautionary comments as for Astier) or at L’AMBASSADE DU SUD-OUEST, 46 Avenue de la Bourdonnais, in the 7th. I also remember a very pleasant confit at ‘’LES VIGNES DU PANTHEON’’, rue des Fossés Saint-Jaques, in the 5th. A good ‘’Epaule d’agneau’’ can sometimes be found at a very good bistro owned by a Basque chef, LE TROQUET, 21 Rue François Bonvin, in the 15th. Some of these dishes are also very good when they are on the menu at LE BUISSON ARDENT, 25 Rue Jussieu, in the 5th and sometimes at THOUMIEUX, 79 Rue Saint-Dominique in the 7th, a very charming and old-fashioned place. For an authentic ‘’Choucroute garnie à l’Alsacienne’’, as well as other Alsatian specialties and great wines, my all-time favorite is l’ALSACO, 10 Rue Condorcet, in the 9th. The owner's behavior is sometimes unpredictable, but he has the best sources in Alsace for good quality products and wines. The best ‘’ Plateau de fromages’’ included in a prix fixe menu is at ASTIER.
- You may be surprised that I mention ASTIER quite often, but for many years it was my favorite address in Paris for “comfort food”. You may also remember that on September 11, 2001, when you finally landed on your American Airlines flight from San Francisco, I called you on your cell phone to make sure that you were all right and to let you know that my flight from Paris to Hanover, Germany, where I should have been that night, was canceled. Since your business dinner with your contacts in Paris was also canceled, we found ourselves by chance in Paris at the same time that day. We were both exhausted, physically and emotionally by the traveling and the horror of the news of the day. So I suggested to have dinner at ASTIER to try to lift our spirits and relax a bit. It had been a terrible day but I am a bit ashamed to admit that it was a memorable meal. But unfortunately ASTIER was acquired by new owners in 2006 and what I read leads me to believe that the place is not as spectacular and convivial that it had been for so many years.
Finally, if the idea of eating a non-French meal in Paris does not turn you off, go for a Moroccan ‘’Couscous Royal ’’ or a good ‘’Tagine with candied lemon’’ at ESSAOUIRA, 135 Rue du Ranelagh in the 16th, and for a nice vietnamese lunch at LE PALANQUIN, Rue Princesse, in the 6th or at LE BAMBOU, 70 rue Baudricourt, in the 13th.
Now, let’s talk about two really typical French rustic dishes that are the perfect comfort food on a wintry night: Poule au Pot and Pot au Feu
They are in fact cousins having a common link: Meat and vegetables in a broth that you let simmer in a “pot” on the “fire” (feu) for a relatively long time.
1. POULE AU POT (Chicken in the Pot).
As you know I am not much of a royalist but this dish always reminds me of my only favorite French king, HENRY IV (1553-1610), nicknamed ‘’ Le bon roi Henri’’ or ‘’ Le Vert Galant’’ (since he was not only a bon vivant who love good food and good wines but also an attractive and sensual fellow who was quite successful with beautiful young ladies) . Before becoming King of France in 1589, he was called Henri roi de Navarre since he was from the French Southwest area of BEARN, that includes the ‘’Pays Basque’’, a region that was at the time part of a pretty large kingdom on both sides (Spanish and French) of the Pyrénées mountains. It is also a region that keeps beautiful and colorful culinary traditions.
I like HENRI IV for several reasons: He was the only king who was very close to the French people and always tried to better their living conditions, especially the peasants and the underprivileged. He was the only protestant (Huguenot) king we ever had and did a lot to preserve the rights of the ‘’Calvinists’’ to practice their religion in those troubled and violent times of religious wars. But unfortunately he was forced to abjure his religion and become a catholic to save civil peace in France and later was assassinated by a fanatic catholic. His two most famous quotes are: ‘’ Paris is well worth one mass’’ to explain why he decided to abjure the protestant religion; and ‘’ My wish, if God let me live long enough, is that that every French ploughman (peasant using a plough) in my kingdom, even the poorest, can put a chicken in the pot every Sunday.’’
Some people still think that the ‘’poule au pot ‘’ originated in the Béarn area. Perhaps; But in any cases ‘’la Poule au Pot’’ is not a recipe created by Henri IV.
- In fact this dish has a long tradition in France that goes back to the end of the Middle-ages period. In those days people used heavy cauldrons that they put directly on open fire, either in the fireplace or outside in the farm yard. They would put everything and anything they could find in terms of vegetables and meats in a large amount of water in the cauldron and let the whole mix simmer for a long time. So, at the beginning, the pot-au-feu had more or less the same formula as the poule au pot.
It is very difficult nowadays to find an older hen that normally should constitute the main component according to the traditional French recipes. So most cooks use a roasting chicken instead. Some French people, as well as the few restaurants cooks who still propose this dish on their menus, stuff the chicken with a mixture of ground or finely diced Bayonne ham, bread crumbs soaked in a little milk, minced onion and garlic, chopped chicken liver, 1 beaten egg, chopped parsley and a couple of spices like nutmeg. But most cooks just simply use the whole chicken without any stuffing. In the basic recipe, which is the way your mom prepares her own delicious but simple version, first you fill a large cooking pot or kettle with about 6 quarts of cold water. Add the chicken with its legs tied up (trussed if the cavity of the chicken is stuffed, but your mom does not stuff her chicken), One or two large peeled onions studded with one clove, one finely sliced large leek with some of the green portion remaining, thoroughly cleaned and rinsed, 1 large sliced peeled carrot, about ten sprigs of parsley roughly chopped, 10 black peppercorns and 5 peeled whole cloves of garlic. Add one bay leaf and three teaspoons of dry thyme. Most people also add a stalk or rib of celery but your mother does not since I do not like celery.
You want to bring the whole thing to a boil and then reduce the flame so that it gently simmers, uncovered, for one hour. Then you add 5 to 6 leeks cut to an 8 inch length, cleaned, trimmed, cross-split vertically in the green portion and tied in a bundle with a piece of string, 4 medium turnips, peeled and quartered, 8 carrots peeled, trimmed and quartered crosswise, 1 Tb of coarse salt and some freshly ground pepper from the mill. You let the whole thing continue to simmer for 30 to 45 minutes depending on the size of the chicken. Make sure that there is always enough water in the pot to cover the ingredients and that it simmers gently but never boils.
Serve and carve the chicken in a large ceramic plate, surrounded by the vegetables. The meat sometimes literally falls from the bone but the pieces should remain firm but moist and tender. The broth can be reduced separately in a smaller pot and served in a separate bowl or tureen.
At home we eat steamed cous-cous along with the vegetables and the poule au pot, but most people eat small peeled young boiled potatoes, either cooked in the broth with the chicken for 20 minutes at the end of the cooking cycle, or boiled separately. Some people serve this dish with noodles cooked for 5 or 6 minutes in the broth. Make sure that a small bowl or cup of coarse salt or even better ‘’ fleur de sel’’, from Camargue or Brittany, is placed on the table so that the guests can put a little bit of it on the side of their plate.
- I would recommend drinking either a MERCUREY (red burgundy from the Côte Chalonaise area), a red SANCERRE (from Central France) or a COTES DE CASTILLON (red Bordeaux).
2. POT-AU-FEU (Pot in the Fire)
This is another dish that has been in existence in various forms, probably since the end of the 18th century during the revolution. But its real origins are similar to those of the poule au pot, the iron cauldron in which peasants boiled various pieces of meats and vegetables that they added, day after day, in more or less the same broth..
Some French food historians think that it was the “king of chefs”, Marie-Antoine Carême, (1784-1833) who published the first recipe for what is now known as Pot-au-feu a few years after the revolution when an emerging French ‘’middle-class’’ started to cook more elaborate meals at home. Carême is recognized as the chef who changed the French cuisine at the begining of the 19th century, created what could be called nowadays the concept of ‘’Haute cuisine’’ and codified its principles. In any cases he is believed to have written the first real French cookbook.
Modern French chefs, over the last 35 years have developed a tendency to create all kinds of variations of ‘’pot-au-feu’’, the most popular being ‘’pot-au-feu de la mer’’ (seafood pot-au-feu) and ‘’pot-au-feu de cochon’’ (pot-au-feu of pig meat). One of the most celebrated and influential chefs of the new generation that came into the spotlight in the early seventies and invented what would be called "La Nouvelle Cuisine’’ was Michel Guérard. He became famous with his concept of ‘’cuisine minçeur’’ (cooking method allowing you to stay fit and trim while eating very well) in his famous restaurant of LES PRES d’EUGENIE in Eugénie-Les-Bains in Southwest France, near the Spanish border. But before that he had made a name for himself in a small bistrot that he had launched in 1965 in Asnières sur Seine, an obscure suburb of Paris. He called that place, where he created the bases of a new lighter approach to traditional ‘’cuisine ménagère’’, LE POT AU FEU.
It was perhaps in memory of his parents who, during World War II, were butchers in Normandy, and explained why Guérard’s first love was meat. LE POT AU FEU, after two difficult first years of operation, became one of the most acclaimed and fashionable restaurants of the Paris area and was rewarded 2 stars by Michelin in 1970. Another big star of the new French cooking school, Joël Robuchon, created a famous ‘’ Pot-au-feu aux 5 viandes’’ (5 meats pot-au-feu) that incorporated beef, veal, lamb, chicken and duck.
The ultimate pot-au-feu ?
But the most celebrated and imitated pot-au-feu was derived from a set of guidelines from an ‘’imaginary” gastronome, DODIN-BOUFFANT, born from the litterary creativity of a Swiss author from Geneva, Marcel Rouff who, in 1924 wrote a book, “LA VIE ET LA PASSION DE DODIN-BOUFFANT”. This book describes the life and the food creativity of this man who never existed but might have been inspired by CURNONSKY, the famous gastronome and food critic who was a personal friend of Rouff. This pot-au-feu was served in ”quatre services” (four courses) and included sausage, beef, veal shank, fowl, and foie gras. Several well-known Parisian chefs from the late sixties and early seventies created adaptations of this famous dish and used their own creativity and special techniques to modernize it. Among them were RAYMOND OLIVER , who was the super-chef of LE GRAND VEFOUR for 36 years, and JACQUES MANIERE, who launched the techniques of “La Cuisine Vapeur” (Cooking with steam) in the late seventies early eighties. MANIERE, when I lived in Paris from 1963 to 1970, was the chef of two marvelous restaurants in the 5th arrondissement that I loved: AU PACTOLE and later a place called precisely....DODIN-BOUFFANT.
More recently in late 2005 and early 2006, the chef of the restaurant of the famous HOTEL MEURICE, one of the most refined and luxurious hotels in Paris that has a magnificent dining-room and a great young chef Yannick Alleno, re-created what he called “ Le Grand Pot-au-feu DODIN- BOUFFANT”. It was a very audacious and filling affair served first in four and later in five courses for at least two persons, that the restaurant had on the menu at a cost of 150 euros per person. If you went there with a companion and ordered adequate good Burgundy wines, the total cost for two might be over 550 euros ($715) Another well-known 19th century “gastronome”, BRILLAT-SAVARIN , to whom Rouff dedicated his book on Dodin-Bouffant, had also a recipe for the perfect Pot-au-feu. And it inspired many chefs of the 20th century.
What about a more traditional pot-au-feu?
Many restaurants in different French regions use all kinds of different pieces and cuts from various animals, and sometimes mix them together. I have nothing against well-known regional variations like the ‘’potée’’ from either Lorraine or Auvergne where various pork-based ingredients are more prevalent than beef, and where the main vegetable is cabbage, since they can be as comforting and flavorful. In fact there are hundreds of recipes and formulas to produce a pot-au-feu. But I will limit myself to the traditional old-fashioned approach: The all-beef pot-au-feu...
Now, if you are a French person living in the U.S. and wishing to reproduce the same kind of flavor from the same kind of beef cuts that you were used to in France when preparing a traditional pot-au-feu, you will face a major obstacle as soon as you enter the butcher shop. As you know, the French cut their beef carcasses in a very different way than American meatpackers do over here. Besides how are you going to translate in American the equivalent of the traditional French pieces that you need for a pot-au-feu? Assuming of course that you know a real butcher who cuts his own pieces of beef and that you do not have to rely solely on the meat department of a supermarket, where everything is prepackaged and where the choices are limited to steaks, ground beef, roasts, and perhaps beef stew. So let me tell you what cuts are used in France and what are their approximate American equivalents. I had to research that question recently for a very specific reason. I was at KIKI’s BISTRO in Chicago, like every Friday for lunch, and a few tables away from mine, there was a high school French teacher who was eating pot-au-feu with around 10 of her students. Obviously, she did not know howto define in French the different pieces of beef that were in their plates, so she asked the waiter. He came to see me for help and I went to her table to explain that I knew the translation of two of the pieces but that I had to do some research in my books at home after talking to the chef to know exactly what kind of American cuts he was using. I e-mailed her my reply along with a recipe in English the following day.
In France most restaurants would use three different cuts of beef to make a pot-au-feu. The most popular pieces would probably be
Pointe de culotte = Rump pot roast (many think that this piece is as essential a component as the ribs or Paleron or macreuse = Shoulder or Chuck pot roast Plat de côtes (sometimes called plates côtes) = Short ribs (fat trimmed) Gîte à la noix = Bottom Round But some other cooks s would also use : Milieu de poitrine = Brisket and possibly Tranche Grasse = Sirloin tip A piece of boned beef shank is also a good option. Most cooks would also add a few pieces of oxtail, sometimes to replace the ribs, and, of course, several small marrow bones, that you want to keep in some cheesecloth while cooking so that the marrow does not dissolve into the broth. The essential rule is to have 3 different types of meat, one with some fat in it, one with some bones and tendons producing some gelatin, and a leaner and more meaty cut. You will tie the ribs and and the pot roast with some string.
You will use two sets of vegetables and herbs: One that will cook in the broth with the bones and the first part of the meat: Onions (studded with cloves), leeks, carrots, celery ribs, possibly parsnips, garlic, parsley, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns. The other one that you will add several hours later and that you will eat with the meat: carrots, leeks, turnips.
- Since there are lots of different options depending on the types of meats and the number of servings to prepare the pot-au-feu, I will not give you a specific recipe here. You can find some good ones on the following sites: http://frenchfood.about.com/ that offers both a traditional and a simplified version of the dish http://www.epicurious.com/ http://www.foodnetwork.com/ And of course you can always count on “Mastering the art of French Cooking” by Julia Child. And " French Regional Cooking" by Ann Willan provides also a very good recipe.
- And just for the fun of it read the "pot shots" chapter in the very interesting and funny book by a well-known food critic , Jeffrey Steingarten: "It must have been something I ate".
Some red wines that you may want to drink with your pot-au-feu:
A red Saumur-Champigny, a Moulin à Vent (from the Beaujolais), a red Côtes de Duras, or in more robust tone a good Saint-Emilion. But a red Chassagne-Montrachet or a Santenay (both from Burgundy) would also fit the bill quite nicely.
And if you are in PARIS in the heart of winter, here a few addresses to eat a traditional pot-au-feu:
CHEZ LA VIEILLE (Adrienne) 1 rue Bailleul, in the 1st LA TOUR DE MONTLHERY (CHEZ DENISE) 5 rue des Prouvaires, in the 1st LE QUINCY 28 avenue Ledru-Rollin, in the 12th RESTAURANT DE LA TOUR 6 Rue Desaix, in the 7th.
But in no way should you go to LE ROI DU POT AU FEU, for some 30 years the Parisian reference, that nowadays is just a ‘’tourist trap’’. Bon Appétit...