Pot-au-Feu: The Ultimate French Comfort Food
“It’s a stew. But @#$%! It’s good.”
Chef Ludo Lefebvre is back with another episode of Ludo à la Maison, and this time, he’s sharing a classic dish that goes against some preconceptions about French cooking: “Guess what? We don’t use butter. It’s a French dish with no butter.”
Pot-au-feu, literally “pot on the fire,” is one of the most basic—and possibly the most beloved—dishes in the French canon. According to Ludo, this meat stew traditionally involves a fixed set of ingredients: “Beef, potato, leeks, carrot, and sometimes,some turnips. That’s it.”
Ludo begins with these basic elements, giving them minimal treatment—aside from some trimming or a rough chop, everything stays fairly intact as it goes into the pot. After submerging everything in water, he fashions a rustic bouquet garni, held together with dark green leek leaves, and adds a whole onion studded with cloves.
Ludo’s pot-au-feu is a bit unorthodox and strays a bit from the classic recipe by incorporating elements like celery root and daikon. “Working in Los Angeles for now, like, twenty years, I like to use a little bit of different flavors sometimes. I love Vietnamese food. There’s this story about the feu and the pho,” he says, speculating about the relationship between the two dishes that may have emerged during the period of French colonialism in Vietnam. “Feu, pho. Feu, pho.”
As another Vietnamese touch, Ludo uses fresh young ginger. “I love ginger. Especially the young ginger, oh my god. Like a little bombshell—a surprise.” And finally, some lemongrass, crushed with the dull edge of a knife to release the oils.
Ludo makes sure to boil some of the vegetables in a separate pot—“sometimes, you do stew, and you cook the vegetables with the meat, and everything tastes the same,” he says. “This way, you really get different flavors, and you keep the flavor of the vegetable.”
After a few minutes of simmering, foamy bubbles appear on the surface of the stew, which sets Ludo on high alert. He explains that these impurities can cloud the broth, and demonstrates how to skim with a ladle. The stew must be cooked on a low, steady heat—“You don’t want the broth to be like a jacuzzi, bubbling like crazy and very hot. You still want the vegetables and meat to keep their shape.”
Two more hours on the stove, and the pot-au-feu is ready to eat. “You can see it’s very rustic. No chi-chi.”
To serve, pile everything up on a big bowl and pour over some broth—don’t overthink it. Finish with salt and open a bottle of pinot. If you’d like, you can serve with dijon mustard, cornichons or horseradish—Ludo says, “You can have a lot of condiments, whatever you want. Just be playful.” It’s up to you. This dish, a pile of gleaming, aromatic vegetables and tender chunks of meat, doesn’t need much fuss.