The French dish pot au feu is an easy, homey one-pot meal that can be made while hosting a party or doing other chores around the house. Justin Spring is the author of The Gourmands' Way; he talks with contributor Melissa Clark about the cultural evolution of dish, and how it can be stretched into a full week of meals. Try your own hand at the process with our recipe for Pot au Feu.

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Melissa Clark: In your book, you write about six American food writers in France – including Julia Child. There's one thing that really struck me. You wrote that she made it possible for the hostess to also be the cook; she elevated this idea.

Justin Spring: That's right. She was in Paris at a time when social life was changing. People didn't have cooks anymore, so somebody had to cook dinner. If you were going to have a dinner party, you had to cook and entertain at the same time.

MC: And how do you do that?

JS: Dione Lucas was the great French Cordon Bleu chef teaching in New York. She would not come out during a dinner party. She would cook for other people, but she'd stay in the kitchen. Julia Child wasn't having that; she wanted to have a party and somehow let the cooking be the life of the party.

MC: You write about pot au feu, the famous French dish, and you say that that is an illustration of what she did to combine the two roles of cook and hostess.

JS: In this instance, she was working in collaboration with Simone Beck, who had grown up in Normandy. This pot au feu Normand – the Norman style pot au feu – had been innovated by her parents as a way of having a big dinner party and, at the same time, going to Christmas Eve mass. The dinner party was held after the mass. So they needed a dish that could hold all evening while the entire household went out to church, including the servants.

Justin Spring Justin Spring (Photo: Jason Puris)

MC: Basically, she created this amazing dish that you would make ahead. It then freed her up to have cocktails with her guests.

JS: That's right. This is the perfect cook-ahead dish. It's a very basic preparation of beef and usually some bones that are brought to a boil over the fire. A stock is created, and aromatic vegetables are added along with a bouquet garni. Pot au feu in the French style is a Sunday afternoon preparation and a Sunday dinner, after which the beef and the leftover vegetables go into all sorts of other preparations that are served during the course of the week. It's a very homey dish.

MC: You wrote in your book that you would make pot au feu on Sunday, and it would feed the family for the entire week. What else would you do with it?

JS: The French have a whole bunch of homey dishes. We think of them as something like shepherd's pie. Hachis parmentier is very popular in France; beef miroton is another. Hachis parmentier is chopped up, boiled beef with a crust – usually of potatoes – on the top. Beef miroton is similar, but it's got chunks of beef rather than ground beef.

MC: Of course you have the beautiful broth, this rich beef stock that you've made.

JS: The broth is the whole point. It's the most glorious, and it's the first course of the meal on Sunday. During the course of the week, that broth is recycled in different ways. It becomes the base of other preparations, but it's also used as different kinds of soup with different thickeners in it. Like rice one day, semolina the other, vermicelli another, and so on.

MC: You've compared it to a boiled dinner, but you don't actually boil it?

JS: No. The big challenge is keeping the beef at a low simmer on the back of the stove. Traditional French kitchens of the 19th and early 20th centuries had these slow burning ovens – kind of like an AGA cooker in the UK – where a pot of broth or stock can be kept at the back of the stove indefinitely. That's one of the basics of Escoffier’s cuisine classique.

The Gourmands' Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy by Justin Spring

MC: At its heart, it's a very humble dish. You have your beef and this broth; you have the broth as a soup for the first course, and then you have the beef as a second course. But Julia Child and Simone Beck elevated it. You said that they added different cuts to the pot. How else did they elevate it?

JS: The festive presentation is a big part of it. When Simone Beck's family had this as a Christmas dish, there would cuts of beef, but also of pork roast, a stewing hen, and of garlicky sausage. They would all be arranged around a huge mound of rice. And then there would be a tarragon cream sauce served alongside. Beck is from Normandy, which is famous for its cream, and crème fraîche was the basis of many of Simone Beck's favorite sauces.

MC: Do you have a favorite recipe for pot au feu?

JS: My favorite pot au feu is actually the Viennese tafelspitz, which I make every Christmas. It's a bit more elegant. There are always two traditional sauces served alongside. One is fresh horseradish and applesauce; the other is a chive and egg yolk sauce. The tafelspitz is a very delicate cut of beef in that instance. The broth or consommé is served first, then the boiled beef with a little moistening broth on top is the main course. The traditional accompaniments are roasted potato and creamed spinach.

MC: That sounds really good. Is pot au feu a simple enough recipe for anybody to pull off?

Absolutely. One of the fun things about learning all about French food, you go into it thinking it's the fanciest cuisine on the planet, but a lot of the preparations are the simplest kinds of food. In that way, they’re the most satisfying and homey.

Melissa Clark
Melissa Clark is a food writer, author, and host of our new podcast Weeknight Kitchen with Melissa Clark. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written more than 30 cookbooks including Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, and In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite.