29th October 2012

Pot au feu

By MaitreMarcel

The ‘cauldron on the fire’ is a French winter dish with a very long history. The name evokes a large cauldron with water hanging above a wood fire in which meat and winter vegetables are slowly cooked
The methods of cooking have changed but in modern France too, this hearty dish remains popular in autumn and winter and supermarkets sell special meat and vegetable packs.
The dish is neither a soup nor a stew, it is almost a one-pan meal as you are supposed to first drink some of the beef stock and then eat the vegetables and meat separately, with gherkins and mustard for instance.
The difficulty lies in cooking the meat. Normally, when you want to have a tasty stock you cook the meat above boiling temperature so that the juices and taste flows from the meat to the stock. But if you want to cook meat in liquid, you would keep the temperature below the boiling point so that the taste of the cooking liquid is imparted to the meat while the meat keeps its taste.
The solution of the cauldron on the fire was that the temperature remained relatively low – the wood fire was maintained but not high – while the cooking time was long. That still applies today; slow cooking. However, that can mean that the cooking liquid remains relatively watery and some people want to keep the remainder of the stock for storage in the freezer to use later.
A solution, as in this recipe, is to take two kinds of meat; a fibrous and relatively cheap cut for the stock and a tender piece to be cooked in the stock towards the end of the time.
The choice of vegetables is almost endless. Onion and leek are important for the taste of the stock.
The cooking time of vegetables varies with their tenderness and their role in the dish. I use a base of onion, the green part of leeks, winter carrot and turnip as a base in the stock, while celery, smaller coloured carrots and the white of leeks are added towards the end to keep “bite” when presented with the stock. The cooking time is for at least three hours but it can take much longer. It helps when you plan in advance and start making the stock on one day and continue a following day. Overnight, any fat in the stock will have set on the surface of the cooled-down stock and will be easy to remove, if wanted.


  • 1 kilo of fibrous beef, such as gite or plat de cotes (brisket)
  • 500 grammes of tender meat, paleron, (silverside)
  • 4 leeks
  • 2 ognions
  • 1 turnip
  • 6 varied carrots
  • 2 marrow bones with marrow
  • laurel, pepper corns, salt, cloves
  • optional – root celery, rutabaga


  1. Lay the plat de cotes in two litres of water and slowly bring to the boil. When scum arrives at the top, remove with a slotted spoon.
  2. Lower the heat and let simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile , peel the onions and put cloves in them, clean the leeks, leave them as long as the pan allows and tie them together in a bunch.
  4. Clean and cut the carrots and other vegetables. 
  5. Add the onions, parsnip, laurel and some salt to the pan.
  6. Simmer for another 30 mins before adding the leeks and carrots and continue for another 30 mins to one hour.
  7. Add the other meat to the pan, continue cooking and spoon off any new impurities.
  8. Lower the leeks in the pan and take them out again when tender (15 to 20 mins).
  9. Add the marrow bones and continue for 30 mins.
  10. At this stage, taste for salt and pepper and let it cool for at least 15 minutes if you tend to serve the same day or let it stand overnight.
  11. The following day, reheat slowly, take out the meat, bones and vegetables and cut it up.
  12. Remove herbs, cloves etc.
  13. Serve the meat, vegetables and stock separately