"Great cookery... ?" asked the prince of Eurasia.
"Is a choice work which demands much love," Dodin-Boufant answered.
Dodin-Boufant, the imaginary hero of Marcel Rouff's classic thighslapper for gourmets, The Passionate Epicure , has just taught the prince a lesson. He responded to a royal banquet of unparallel scope and grandeur with a simple menu, the centerpiece of which was "boiled beef."
As the guests began the meal, "each of them heard resounding in his ears the vulgar, inglorious, grease-smelling sound of those two little words: 'Boiled Beef."'
Naturally, the dish is a triump. The prince is freed from the bondage of gastronomic pretension and realizes that a dish becomes a work of art because of what goes into it, not what garnishes it.
But what of boiled beef?
Who has not encountered it in disrepair -- either hopelessly fatty or dried out to the point in crumbles into sawdust then touched by a knife. Who has not wondered at the vegetables that accompany it? How can they be cooked so long and still hold their shapes, if, indeed, they have. They have no taste, but of course the taste is in the broth -- or would be, if you could find the broth underneath its protective coating of grease.
It's shameful -- and more than a bit said -- because boiled beef is crucial to good cooking for the French and other meateating nations.It gives flavor to the stock that in turn becomes the cooking medium for other foods or the base for soups and sauces.
Cook it properly and you have a wonderful winter's meal, plus meat leftover for sandwiches and casseroles and the invaluable asset of a pot of stock that can be cooled and frozen. Boiling beef takes time, but you need be on hand only for the initial preparation and the eating. As long as the heat is properly controlled, it cooks perfectly well without you. Cost is mitigated because this form of cooking is best suited to the less tender, less expensive cuts of beef. Root vegetables, traditional winter fare, are an integral adjunct to the beef.
Pause, though, for several moments before you seek out a stock pot or rush off to the supermarket meat counter. No dish apparently so simple, yet so ften prepared badly, can be without hidden pitfalls.
With "boiled beef" the first problem is its name. To cook properly, the meat must not be boiled , it must simmer, A piece of meat cooked at a fierce boil will be tough, shriveled and dry. Instead the meat must be immersed in water or stock, which is brought to a boil slowly. The scum that accumulates on the surface is skimmed off, vegetables are added, and when the boil is reached once again, the cook must adjust and readjust the temperature until only an occasional bubble breaks the surface. Then the pot is prtially covered and the meat is caressed rather than driven to the cooked state.
The cut of meat itself is important, too. Brisket is an excellent choice, both for its texture and the flavor it provides. Chuck and short ribs provide strong flavor. But the ribs are generously, perhaps too generously, endowed with fat. If using them, be prepared to perform an extensive degreasing operation. Avoid meat that is too tender. or without any fat.Even rump or top sirloin may be too lean, though they are easy to carve.
You will need a large pot, one with a capacity of several gallons. It takes quite a bit of liquid to cover a solid piece of meat and there has to be room for vegetables as well. If the pot is of heavygauge metal or enameled cast-iron, all the better. If you have a flame-control pad, use it.
Once the meat is cooked, taste the broth. If it is thin, remove the meat and begetables, strain the broth and boil it down to reduce the volume and concentrate the flavors.
Think in terms of two sets of vegetables. The first group will cook with the meat and lose texture as they surrender their flavors to the broth. They should be discarded, fed to pets or recycled. The second group, the begetables that garnish the meat at table, will be added later or cooked separately only until tender. Properly cooked vegetables are essential to a successful boiled beef presentation -- or to any dinner for that matter.
The choice of begetables, as well as additional meats, will determine what your boiled beef should be called, presuming you are in search of a pedigree for the dish. As the ingredients change, so does the name. Both the Austrians and the Italians have distinguished boiled beef dishes, but to confine the discussion to French terms:
According to the great chef Escoffier, beef shin, lean beef, fowl's skeletons, plus carrots, turnips, leeks, celery, parsnips and onions were needed to make an "ordinary or white consomme." It must b e relatively colorless and, he points out, "veey slightly salted" because the liquid may be cooked down later.
If you make the consomme, then cook it again with duplicate ingredients, but adding a marrow bone and chicken giblets and forgetting the parsnips, you are on your way to constructing a petite marmire . Serve this with toasted bread and cabbage.
Then there is pot-au-feu , a subject -- and a meal -- in itself. This is the legendary farm-house dish of provincial France, served from a kettle that had been kept simmering on the back of the family stove for years. The greatest enemy of the pot-au-feu , Waverley Root noted in his classic, The Food of France , was progress.
Root wrote: "Whenever the wood stove, kept constantly burning at no expense with fuel provided by debris of the farm, gives way to gas or oil or electricity, the immortal pot-au-feu disappears.
Escoffier said to prepare the pot-au-feu "exactly like the petite marmite."
Larousse Gastronomique points out, however, that pot-au-feu provides two dishes (the soup is served first, then the meat and vegetables) and suggests that coarse salt, mustard, horseradish or horseradish sauce and small pickles are appropriate condiments.
Root goes further and outlines a number of regional variations. One of them is Henry IV's famous poule au pot . As made in southwest France, it requires a consomme to become a petite marmite, then play host to a well-trussed chicken that has been stuffed with a mixture of chicken liver, ham, bread, eggs, garlic, various herbs and nutmeg, salt and peoper and Armagnac. Extra stuffing is wrapped in cabbage leaves, that are added during the final cooking.
He suggests that the pot-au-fou of the Languedoc is really "a more liquid cassoulet." In Provence shoulder or leg of mutton and a goodly amount of garlic is used. And, to pile riches upon riches, the Albigeois version includes stuffed goose neck, beef and mutton, country ham, dried sausage and a large quantity of cabbage.
Not even this can touch the fantasy creation presented by Dodin-Bouffant, which is explained following a basic recipe for boiled beef. A variations on the theme inspired by the recent nouvelle cuisine movement is persented as well.
A BASIC BOILED BEEF
(6 servings) 4 pounds brisket or boneless chuck, wrapped and tied Water to cover (about 4 quarts) 4 medium onions, quartered, with 2 or 3 cloves stuck in one quarter 1 pound of carrots, washed and cut in chunks 4 cloves garlic, unpeeled 2 or 3 celery rib tops with leaves Bouquet garni made from 5 or 6 sprigs parsley, 1 teaspoon thyme and 2 bay leaves and a dozen or so freshly cracked peppercorns, all ties in a cheesecloth bag 1 turnip, peeled and quartered (optional) 1 parsnip, washed and cut in chunks (optional) Salt to taste
Place meat in pot and cover by at least 2 inches with w ater. (If you have some chicken bones or gizzards, add them, too.) Slowly bbring water to a boil. Skim scum that rises to the surface. Add a cup of cold water and skim again when water returns to a boil. Add vegetables, bouquet garni and a tablespoon of salt. Skim again when water begin to boil, then partially cover the pot, adjust temperature and simmer until meat is done, 2 hours or a little longer. A pronged fork should slide into the meat easily when it is ready.
Remove meat and keep warm. Pour the broth through a strainer and discard vegetables. (This may be done ahead. If so, refrigerate the meat, then return it to the pot to heat up while the new vegetables cook.)
Return broth to a clean pot. And the following: Salt to taste 3 carrots, peeled and each cut into four pieces 12 small onions, peeled, or 3 onions, quartered 3 turnips, peeled and quartered, or 3 parsnips, peeled and cut into pieces 3 ribs of celery, each cut into four pieces
In a steamer, or in separate kettles of water, cook: 2 quarters of green or sayvoy cabbage 12 small potatoes
Taste broth and add salt as needed. Add vegetables except cabbage and potatoes and cook until just tender. Slic the beef across the grain, arrange on a deep platter and garnish with the vegetables, ladling broth over all and sprinkling on parsley. Serve in soup bowl and pass mustard, coarse salt and horseradish or horseradish sauce.
DODIN-BOUFFANT'S BOILED BEEF
"The beef itself, lightly rubbed with saltpetre and then gone over with salt, was carved into slices of a flesh so fine that its mouth-melting texture could actually be seen. The aroma it gave forth was not only that of beef-juice smoking like incense, but the energetic smell of tarragon with which it was impregnated and the few, very few, cubes of transparent, immaculate bacon in the larding. The rather thick slices, their velveth quality guesed at by every lip, rested languidly upin a pillow made of a wide slice of sausage, coarsely chopped, in which the finest veal escorted pork, chopped herbs, thyme, chervil... But this delicate triumph of pork-butchery, cooked in the same broth as the beef, was itself supported by ample cuts from the breast and wing fillets of farm chickens, boiled in their own juice with a shin of veal, rubbed with mint and wild thyme. And, to prop up this triple and magnificent accumulation, behind the white flesh of the fowls (fed exclusively upin b read and mild), was the stout, robust support of a generous layer of fresh goose-liver simply cooked in Chambertin. The arrangement was repeated again, in the same alternating order, forming distinctly separate parts, each marked by a boundry of assorted vegetables cooked in the broth and then lightly warmed in butter."
ROY DEGROOT'S MULTI -- PURPOSE BEEF AND CHICKEN BOUILLON
(Makes about 2 quarts) 3 pounds soup bones, including knuckle 1 pound lean soup beef 8 whole, shelled macadamia nuts 6 shallots, peeled 3 cloves garlic, peeled 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered 1 lemon 1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds, finely ground 2 teaspoons ground tumeric 2 small pieces of fresh ginger root, skinned Coarse salt and freshly gound black pepper to taste 1 whole chicken, preferably a 3 1/2 pound boiling fowl 3 medium carrots, scraped and chunked 1 stalk celery, destringed and chunked 2 medium leek whites, washed and chunked 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and chunked 1 bay leaf 4 sprigs parsley 1 cup dry white wine
Put bones into an 8-quart soup kettle. Cover with water, bring to a boil, then pour off water and wash bones. Return bones to kettle, add the soup beef and cover with water to 6 inches over the bones. Bring to a boil and allow to simmer uncovered.
In a food processor or blender, combine the nuts, shallots, garlic, 1 onion, 1 teaspoon grated rind from the lemon, the just-ground coriander, turmeric, ginger, 1 teaspoon of salt and 6 grinds of pepper. They should form a slightly grainy paste. Rub the chicken inside and out with the cut side of half a lemon and the paste, leaving in excess in the cavity. Lower the chicken into the bouillon, add more water to cover it if necessary, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
Remove the chicken when quite soft and reserve it for another use. Add to the bouillon the carrots, celery, leeks, 2 yellow onions, bay leaf, parsley and wine. Simmer for 1 hour, uncovered. Strain the bouillon. Discard the bones. Reserve the pieces of lean beef for another use.
This bouillon may be used to prepare boiled beef or any of the pot-au-feu variations.
Adapted from "Revolutionizing French Cooking" CAPTION: Illustration, 1. Boiled beef
7. Mint, Illustration by Susan Davis for The Washington Post