Five Classic French Stews
Fall had started in earnest; a cool, light mist was falling. My wife Lisa and I decided to take our dog for a long walk foraging wild cèpes (porcini). I built a roaring fire in our small wood stove, placed a daube of beef on top to braise slowly, then walked out into the dank Mendocino woods.
We followed a narrow track that ran through the dense, overgrown pygmy forest collecting two shopping bags full of precious mushrooms before returning home to enjoy our simple feast.
Wood smoke commingled with the enticing aromas of slow-cooked meat that hung nose high in the clammy mist surrounding our cabin. With every step closer, the smells grew more ambrosial and inviting, causing us to quicken our pace. By the time we reached the cabin door, I was drooling uncontrollably and my stomach growled in bated anticipation.
Summer to Autumn
As summer segues into autumn, I cannot help but hope summer will linger on just a bit longer. But the pitter-patter of rain on my roof reminds me that won’t happen anytime soon.
The palate of flavors changes at my local farmers market. Rich stews are inspired by the root vegetables and unctuous cuts of meat forgotten by summers table. The heartier fare provides comfort and solace during the darker cold nights. Here are five of my favorite French stews to curl up next to a fire with.
1. Authentic Coq au Vin
Coq au Vin is as synonymous with French culture as hamburgers are with American. It’s a dish I grew up eating quite a bit and still find very comforting when I’m longing for my mother and France.
It’s important to let the raw chicken marinate overnight and let the wine and aromatics fully penetrate. The sauce is packed with flavor and begs for a starchy vehicle to soak it up. Classically boiled or mashed potatoes are served but I prefer creamy spätzle, potato gratin, or even buttered noodles. Like all great stews, flavors continue to develop as they sit so resist the urge to eat it immediately. I usually let mine sit for at least a day or two.
Coq au Vin
Prep Time 20 minutes, Cook Time 1.5 hours, Servings 4
- 3.5-pound chicken cut into 8 pieces
- 3 carrots peeled and chopped
- 2 ribs celery chopped
- 1 onion peeled and chopped
- 4 cloves garlic smashed
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 1 bottle of red wine
- 4 ounces bacon diced
- 1 pound button or cremini mushrooms
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 16 pearl or cipollini onions peeled
Braising the chicken
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon flour
- Place the chicken, carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and thyme in a large bowl. Pour over the wine, cover, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
- Place the bacon into a cold skillet over low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned. With a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a plate. Add the mushrooms to the fat in the pan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. If you need more fat, add 1 tablespoon of the butter. Transfer the mushrooms to the plate with the bacon.
- In a small saucepan, bring the stock to a boil. Add the pearl onions, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the tip of a paring knife easily pierces the onions, about 20 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the onions to the plate with the bacon and mushrooms. Reserve the stock.
- Remove the chicken from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Place a fine-mesh strainer over a large bowl and strain the marinade into the bowl; discard the vegetables.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter and the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat until bubbly and very hot. Working in batches if necessary, add the chicken, skin side down, and cook until browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Turn and cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Remove the chicken to a plate and sprinkle the flour into the pot. Whisk in the reserved stock and marinade and bring to a rapid boil. Add the chicken legs, thighs, and wings to the pot, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook, turning once, for 20 minutes. Add the chicken breasts, bacon, mushrooms, and pearl onions and cook, uncovered, until the chicken is fully cooked, 25 to 30 minutes longer.
- Served with a potato gratin or buttered egg noodles, a big green salad, and a great bottle of wine!
2. Beef Bourguignon
Boeuf a la Bourguignonne is perhaps Burgundy’s most iconic dish. It is a rich beef stew made infamous in America by Julia Child, prepared from marinated beef slowly simmered in local red wine with a calves foot, pearl onions, bacon lardons, herbs, and button mushrooms.
Beef Bourguignon undoubtedly started life as a humble, peasant dish used to cook tougher pieces of beef. I have seen a few websites claiming its first appearance is in an Escoffier book, but I would argue the recipe is timeless and has been published several times prior without the word ‘bourguignonne’ attached to the title.
3. True Bouillabaisse
Bouillabaisse is France’s most argued-about stew. Adherents to the cult of bouillabaisse will argue until they are blue in the face about what fish are permitted to go into it, whether or not potatoes are allowed, and how to serve it. Even the name itself is a contradiction: Bouille means to boil hard, and baisse means slow and easy.
At its core, bouillabaisse is an assertively flavored, richly textured saffron-laced seafood stew. It’s not a dish to throw together on a Wednesday night. Rather, it is a celebration, so invite friends over and have a party — this is what life is truly about.
I once wrote, “Eating bouillabaisse is a carefully choreographed religious ceremony, requiring 24 hours notice and preparation, whose consumption is performed in two sacred rites ending with genuflexion to the sacred cauldron.” I stand by those words with more conviction today than when I originally wrote them a few years back.
Bouillabaisse is correctly served in two courses, starting with the pungent saffron and tomato hued broth ladled into warmed bowls and served with garlic croutons, shredded cheese, spicy rouille, and garlicky aioli. After seconds are offered, the whole fishes that were poached in the broth are presented to the table, then filleted and served glistening in a thin pool of extra broth.
For adherents of the bouillabaisse religion, there are certainties and expectations to be met. Trying to describe what authentic bouillabaisse should taste like is a bit like arguing with a Mexican over what constitutes a real mole or maybe with an American about what true bbq taste like. Ask ten people and you will get twelve answers.
4. Daube Obsession
A daube is a slow-cooked stew you will find simmering at a grandmotherly pace in kitchens all across France, most notably the South. Traditionally daubes are made with lamb or beef, though one does not need to travel too far to find pork daubes, bull daubes, rabbit daubes, and even octopus daubes. Classically they are cooked in the lingering embers of a wood fire in special potbellied pots called ‘daubieres’ which are mostly made from copper or clay.
One of my favorite authors, Paula Wolfert, once penned an excellent piece that was recently republished entitled ‘The Magic of the French Daubiere‘ in which she quotes Bernard Duplessy who advises readers on how to choose an earthenware daubière: “The daube must always ‘breathe’ and so it’s best for a daubière to be only partially glazed, leaving the lower half of the belly and the inside of the lid untreated. Resistant clay has to be used, as a daubière must withstand the heat of an oven. However, Madame Daubière is still not ready. Once home, it must be filled with water or milk. Placed upon a diffuser over a gas burner, it is then brought to a boil. Then, with each use, it is wise to rub the daubière inside and out with a clove of garlic. A magical and tasty hint.”
Beef Short Rib Daube
Prep Time 10 minutes, Cook Time 5.5 hours, Servings 4
- 4 bone-in beef short ribs
- Zest and juice of 1 orange
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 star anise
- 2 cups Cabernet Sauvignon
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 medium carrots, sliced into rounds
- 1 sweet onion, diced
- 1/4 cup mashed garlic cloves
- 4 ounces slab bacon, diced
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1 (14-ounces) can San Marzano tomatoes, undrained
- 1 cup beef stock
- Big pinch saffron threads
- 6 oil-packed anchovy fillets, chopped
- 1 cup Picholine olives
- In a large nonreactive bowl, combine the beef, orange zest and juice, cinnamon, star anise, and wine. Cover and marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
- Place a fine-mesh strainer over a large bowl and strain into the bowl, reserving the liquid. Discard the orange zest and spices. With paper towels, pat the short ribs dry.
- In a large Dutch oven or stockpot over high heat, heat the oil. Add the short ribs and cook, turning frequently, until browned on all sides, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer the meat to a plate. Add the carrots and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and bacon and cook until the bacon is browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour. Squeeze each of the tomatoes in your hand until they pop, then add them and their juices, the stock, and reserved marinade to the pot. Stir in the saffron, anchovies, and olives, then add back the beef. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the meat is insanely tender, about 5 hours.
- Serve directly from the pot.
Garbure is much more than a stew; it is a meal. Like other rustic stews from France, garbure is best made with an ample mixture of both vegetables and meat. The seasons dictate some of the ingredients to be included; spring might bring delicate fava beans, while fall might see roast chestnuts being added.
It has been said that a good garbure should be so full of ingredients that your ladle stands straight up in it. Like many great French soups, it is sometimes served in two courses: first, the broth served over toasts, and then the meat and vegetables.
Prep Time 10 minutes, Cook Time 1.5 hours, Servings 8
- 2 tablespoons duck, goose, or pork fat
- 2 carrots, diced
- 2 leeks (white and light green parts), diced and washed well
- 2 turnips, peeled and diced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, diced
- 2 quarts water
- 1 (15-ounce) can Great Northern bean, undrained
- 1 ham bone
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 bouquet garni
- 4 legs of duck confit, cut in half
- 4 cooked pork sausages, cut in half
- 8 ounces Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced
- 1 head Savoy cabbage, cored and shredded
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- In a large Dutch oven or stockpot over low heat, melt the fat. Add the carrots, leeks, turnips, onion, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes.
- Add the water, beans, ham bone, thyme, bay leaf, and bouquet garni. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes to let the flavors develop.
- Add the duck confit, sausages, potatoes, and cabbage and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve. For the best flavor, let the stew cool, cover, and refrigerate overnight. Reheat and enjoy the next day.