Take comfort in tradition: pot au feu

Traditional dishes like this pot au feu draw me into the kitchen on a regular basis. Have I become stodgy in my cooking, I ask myself? Or is my gravitation towards these dishes simply a knee jerk response to the darkness and difficulty that has piled up this year. So much sorrow and grief and trouble in 2012, both personally and globally, leave me and so many others with a deep need for grounding. A need to create some small happiness amid the crushing blows of the world. Of life. Tradition helps us put one foot in front of the other when we don’t want to get off the couch or out of bed in the morning.

I take solace in the words of Pema Chodron: “It’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for that is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.”

I’m working on that. In the meantime, it helps me to get into the kitchen, despite my resistance to doing so. One foot in front of the other. I want to cook something to create a little joy, to create a connection with my fellow humans, to express some love to lighten the load. I hope January will bring more friends around the table. We need each other.

Pot au feu, “pot on the fire,” is a cherished French cold weather dish. Sexy? No. But like many favorite, classic dishes it is deceptively brilliant in its simplicity and depth. One sip of the richly flavored broth quickly dispels any notion that a dinner of gently boiled meat and vegetables might be bland or boring. It’s the kind of dish that comes from the heart—no egos, no showing off here—and it comforts you down to your toes. This recipe is for six, suitable for a small dinner with friends. You could add more meat, more vegetables, more stock for more people. The recipe does not call for precision.

Beef shanks look like this

You will need a large, deep pot to submerge the meat in the broth. Blanch it for a few minutes in simmering water and rinse it before cooking it in the stock to remove impurities so you end up with a clear broth. Once the meat has cooked for a few hours, remove it and replace it with the vegetables. Arrange the sliced meat and vegetables on a deep platter or in bowls and ladle the broth over them. Splurge on that six-dollar loaf of artisanal bread to serve with it, along with some cornichons and horseradish mustard.

If you want to make this a day ahead, cook the meat and strain the broth. Store meat and broth separately in the refrigerator overnight. Scrape off the fat that rises to the top of the broth. Slice the beef and warm it in the oven with some of the broth. Cook the vegetables just before you want to serve the meal.

Pot au feu
Serves 6

3 medium leeks, tops trimmed
6 (1 to 1 1/2 inches thick) cross-cut beef shanks, about 6 pounds, trimmed of excess fat
3 quarts chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs thyme
8 carrots, cut into 4-inch lengths and halved lengthwise
1 celery root (1 pound), peeled and cut into 6 wedges
1 rutabaga (1 pound), peeled and cut into 6 wedges
8 small, yellow-flesh potatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Sliced bread, to serve alongside
Cornichons or small sour pickles, to serve alongside
Horseradish mustard, to serve alongside
Coarse salt, to serve alongside

1. Cut the leeks to separate the white part from the green ends. With a piece of kitchen twine, tie the green ends into a bundle. Quarter the white parts lengthwise.

2. In a large, deep pot, warm 3 inches of water over high heat until the water is lukewarm. Add the beef shanks and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a low boil and cook for 2 minutes. Drain in a colander. Rinse the meat under cold water.

3. Rinse out the pot and return the meat to it. Add the stock and, if necessary, enough water to cover it by 1 inch. Bring to a simmer and skim off any foam that rises to the surface. Add the leek bundle, pepper, bay leaves, and thyme. Taste and add more salt, if you like. Set a lid on the pot, leaving a 1-inch gap for steam to escape. Simmer gently for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until the beef is very tender.

4. Heat the oven to 250 degrees F.

5. With tongs, remove and discard the leek bundle. Remove the meat and set it on a plate to cool slightly. Slice it and transfer it to a baking dish. Cover the slices with a few ladles of cooking broth, and cover the dish with foil. Set it in the oven to keep warm.

6. Strain the broth into a large pot and skim off the fat. Add the carrots, celery root, rutabaga, and potatoes to the broth, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the leeks, and cook for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.

7. Remove the meat from the oven, and transfer it to a warm platter with a deep rim. With a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables to the platter and arrange them around the meat.

8. Ladle the stock over the meat and vegetables. Or, if you prefer, pile both meat and vegetables into shallow soup bowls and ladle broth on top. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve with sliced country bread, horseradish mustard, cornichons or small, sour pickles, coarse salt, and extra broth.

Wishing you joy, peace and love in the new year, my friends.


  1. "'...when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality...'

    I’m working on that."

    Ha! Aren't we all. We were driving back from Brooklyn on Friday, heading north through CT on 84, when we decided to pull off the road for lunch at a diner. Too late, we realized as we pulled into the lot, we were in Newtown, about 500 yards up the road from Sandy Hook Elementary. The dinner front windows were plastered with prayers, condolences, scribbled messages, all taken from the back of the diner placemats. My quest for enlightenment pales in the face of other blessings in my life.

    The pot au feu looks and sounds fabulous. Let's get together for a drink!


    1. These huge events do put things in perspective. To me, along with the heartbreak, this enormous tragedy is just a reminder how fragile our lives our, how important it is to count our blessings and to live fully each day with gratitude. Happy New Year, and yes, let's get together.

  2. The poem certainly makes one think: thank you for sharing it. I find that in times of uncertainly, cooking gives sense and direction to my actions, at least for a little bit. Your pot au feu reminded me of Christmas: my mother would make broth for cappelletti and then we would have some of the boiled meat and vegetables. Wishing you all the best in the New Year.

    1. Thanks Simona. Happy New Year to you, too!