As anyone that reads this blog knows, I have a certain something for rustic, French cooking. The kind of food that gets cooked in houses and small restaurants throughout France. The food that has honestly made France what it is culinary-wise, and I am sure will continue to do so well after I have put my knives and pans away.
A “Fricassee” is right in the heart of French country cooking. A rustic stew of meat and vegetables, enriched with some form of cream. The great thing about a dish like this is that it can be as rustic, or as refined as you like. Some upmarket restaurants go all crazy with alleged fricassee’s of lobster and crab. “Alleged” because like so many terms in French cookery, this one tends to get bent around a bit.
Fricassee always seems a bit 60s or 70s to me. This is almost certainly because of the Cordon Bleu cookbooks my Mum got given as a wedding gift of that time. I think there is mostly likely half a dozen different fricassee recipes in there – most revolving around chicken or some form of mellow game. I remember flicking through these books as a wee kid, looking at recipes, analyzing food. Course, that was also far enough back for the food photography in said book to still be considered decent. Today, I have no doubt it would be rather disturbing and exceedingly unpalatable to look at!
It wasn’t until I saw a shot on Rick Poon’s blog of a great looking fricassee he had in Vancouver at Medina, that I got thinking about this old classic again. For my presentation I wanted something that was much lighter and cleaner than a lot of the fricassee’s I am used to. All too often they seem to get really creamy, and often even cheesy, which isn’t what I was looking for here (not that creamy and cheesy is a bad thing..). The the sauce that surrounds the meat and vegetables is often really rather thick and heavy too, which again was something I wanted to avoid – what with things slightly warming up here in this Northwest pocket of the US of A.
So yes, I wanted a clean, and almost light fricassee. To make sure this is going to happen, you need to be rather fastidious with your stew.
Here are my top tips for making a clean stew:
1) If you are using bones to help flavor the stew (I used the small short-rib bones here), boil them first to remove any blood and impurities. You can soak them in cold water before boiling too if you wish.
2) In the stew itself you are going to have the flavor vegetables (the usual suspects of onion, carrot, celery, leek) and the meat. It is a good idea to form a base layer of vegetables, then a layer of cheesecloth, then the meat in the dish. This helps keep the vegetables separate from the meat, making it easier to remove the meat without churning up the veg too much, causing the broth to cloud.
3) The broth from the stew should be strained a couple of times through a wet cloth to remove any particles of veg, meat, herbs/whatever.
4) In a fricassee Creme Fraiche is completely divine. Absolutely try it instead of cream. A little goes a long way here. No, sour cream is no substitute.
5) Tying up your herbs into a neat bundle is a good idea. Again, keep things clean. You can cut the leek top down the middle, stuff with herbs, and tie it back up if you wish. I do wish.
6) Discard the stew flavor vegetables (or at least don’t use them in the final presentation). Blanch, roast or quickly grill some new ones to go in. This will give a much cleaner flavor, with the flavor of each vegetable coming through, rather than that of beef broth soaked veg.
7) After stewing the meat and straining the stew broth, take this broth and reduce it down by half. Add this back to the meat, and you will have a much more flavorful stew base, and not so watery.
Now, with my retentiveness out of the way, lets get back to the stew. In this fricassee I added in some potato, winter squash and pearl onions as the presentation vegetables. Traditionally you might well see carrots, onions and so forth. Quite honestly, just let your imagination run wild here (and let seasons dictate it too). I had a small amount of winter squash sitting around, so I decided to use it. Small little onions are quite lovely in a stew however. For me I like this tossed in oil, and grilled over a high heat till browned, then added in to the stew and just warmed through in the broth.
Since we are talking early spring here, look for some small baby root vegetables – I got some great tiny carrots and turnips at the farmers market this week which would be fantastic in this too. These should always be cooked separately, and added to the stew with only a few minutes to warm them through in the stew flavorings, otherwise they can become soggy and not as bright as one would wish.
Beef Short Rib Fricassee Recipe, with root vegetables and Creme Fraiche
NOTE: you want a thick, heavy pan to make this stew. Enameled cast iron or earthenware is a good bet. The pot needs a tight, well fitting lid.
1.5lb beef short rib – on the bone
1 leek top
1 small onion
1 celery stalk
1 small handful of fresh thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
1 small handful of fresh parsley sprigs
2 glasses of robust red wine
1 extra glass of red wine for you, this is work you know..
4 cups of beef stock
1-2 tablespoons of creme fraiche
presentation vegetables – baby carrots, pearl onions, diced potatoes or winter squash
Preheat oven to 275F.
Cut the meat from the bones. Soak the bones in cold water for 30 minutes, then boil them for 1 minute in clean water. Discard this water, rinse off the bones. Cut the meat in to 1-2inch cubes – try to get roughly the same sized pieces of meat.
Warm the beef stock in a pan over a low heat.
In the bottom of medium sized thick, heavy pan put the carrot (cut into two), the leek top, onion and celery stalk. Tie up the thyme, bay and parsley together. Put this on top of the vegetables.
In large saute pan heat a little olive oil (just enough to coat the pan). Over a medium heat, brown the meat in batches – try not to crowd the pan otherwise these certainly won’t brown.
Remove all the meat from the pan, turn up the heat, and pour in the red wine. Let this bubble and reduce scraping the pan around, until the alcohol smell is mostly gone. Pour this wine over the vegetables in the stew pan.
Put a layer of cheesecloth over the vegetables, and put the meat on top. Pour in enough of the stock to almost cover the meat. Bung the lid on the pot, and put it in the oven for 3 hours.
Check the water level half way through. If you have lost some liquid, top it back up.
When the meat is almost falling apart tender, remove it from the broth. Pour the broth through a fine strainer, lined with a wet dish towel. Do this again to get a cleaner broth.
Toss the presentation vegetables with a little olive oil, and either roast or broil until almost tender, and slightly browned. Either that or for a really clean dish simple blanch them in a pot of boiling water until almost tender.
Finely chop up a few thyme leaves, and add these to the broth. In a clean pan reduce this broth by about half – leaving enough broth for two people.
Add the creme fraiche to the broth, and stir to combine.
Add the meat and presentation vegetables to the broth, and heat gently until all is warmed through.
Divide between two plates, and serve at once.
I thought I would just share a quick photography setup shot for the photo of the beef short ribs pictured above. I shot this at around midnight, with no natural light (obviously). Lit with an umbrella light, with a couple of pieces of white foam boards as bounces. Oh, and very little space in our tiny sitting room.