Pot au feu, the French version of pot roast, is eaten in two stages. First, the cooking broth is ladled into bowls to be sipped or spooned as a first course. Then, the meat and vegetables are pulled out of the remaining bouillon (broth) and served (sometimes with mustard and aioli – yum!) as the meal.
But back to that broth…My neighbor Roland loves it so much that he pretty much doubles his pot-au-feu cooking liquid so he can have extra to eat the next day. My friend Marie-Christine prepares a vegetable stock before she even starts cooking the dish so as to have a richer-flavored broth. And I suspect that there are many more people out there like Roland, Marie-Christine, and, well, me, who think pot-au-feu broth is as good as, if not better than, the meaty main.
Truth be told, the meat is my least favorite part of a pot-au-feu. It’s the vegetables that I really go for. Meltingly tender and glistening chunks of potatoes, turnips and carrots. Silky eeks. And all seasoned to the core with that rich, flavorful, transformative broth.
When I decided I wanted to make a vegetarian pot-au feu, I knew it all boiled down to the cooking broth (Yes, I know. Excuse the pun). I’d have to kick up the base flavor so that it could season the vegetables to their core. I’d also have to find a way to recreate the fatty, marrow-y richness stewed meat and bones impart to the broth and make it glisten with goodness.
I’m happy to say, I think the following recipe nails it. It starts with a slow-cooked, salt-free vegetable stock seasoned with whole fenugreek seeds. I owe the salt-free idea to the ‘Salt’ chapter in Samin Nasrat’s brilliant, imminently readable Salt Fat Acid Heat, and the fenugreek addition to Emmanuel Tessier at La Cuisine Corsaire cooking school here in Cancale. In one of his courses or one of our conversations (I can no longer remember which), Emmanuel mentioned that fenugreek could be used to give dishes a meat-like flavor. Adding a large-ish dose laced dose of olive oil was my own idea, after rejecting a friend’s suggestion to use duck fat. (A good example of how the French still have a hard time wrapping their minds around what ‘vegetarian’ means.)
Once the broth is made, all that’s left to do is simmer the vegetables in slow, pot-au-feu style.
Admittedly, this is not a quick, weeknight dinner since it requires a good 3 hours of cooking time—but then neither is a traditional pot-au-feu. It can be made ahead though, and it can probably be made in a slow cooker—something I plan to try next time around.
1½ lb. (600- 700 g.) boiling potatoes, divided
3 carrots, divided
1 large turnip
½ lb. celery root or stalk celery
3 small leeks
1 small head fennel
1 medium onion
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 large sprigs fresh thyme, divided
2 bay leaves, divided
1 tsp. whole fenugreek seeds, optional
1 tsp. sugar, optional
10 whole peppercorns
¼ cup olive oil
2 ½ quarts (liters) water
WASH all the vegetables well in cold water.
TO MAKE THE BROTH: Cut 1 medium potato and 1 carrot, and place in a Dutch oven or a large saucepan. Peel the remaining potatoes and carrots, as well as the turnip and the celery root (if using celery root) and place all the peelings in the pot. (If you’re using stalk celery, cut up one stalk and place it in the pot.) Trim the green parts off the leeks (set aside one leaf for the bouquet garni, below) and the stems off the fennel, cut the onion into quarters, and place in the pot along with the garlic, 1 sprig of thyme, bay leaf, fenugreek, sugar, peppercorns. Add the olive oil and water, cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer the stock 90 minutes.
MEANWHILE, cut all the vegetables into large chunks, and set aside.
STRAIN the broth and discard the cooked vegetables. Return the broth to the pot, season it with 1 Tbs. fine sea salt, and add all the cut vegetables. Tie together the reserved leek, the reserved thyme sprig (What? You accidentally used it earlier? No big deal, just get another one.), and the reserved bay leaf with kitchen twine to make a bouquet garni, and add it to the pot. Cover, and bring everything to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer 1 ½ to 2 hours, or until all the vegetables are fork-tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
SERVE à la française: Ladle the broth into small bowls and drink as a first course. Then serve the vegetables with grainy mustard, aioli (not shown), and good bread and butter (of course). Serves 4