It was a hot summer night in Paris when Mr. English came down from London to keep me a bit of company, and I led him by the hand across the Pont Neuf from my apartment to my favorite little pocket of Paris: Place Dauphine. A petite triangle tucked behind a fold in the tip of the Île de la Cité, it boasts a restaurant with my favorite sort of French food: heavy, in that thatched roof, pot-au-feu peasant way (not to be confused with the decadent, creamy, one-forkful-per-plate way).
The fading nighttime summer sunlight pushed past the wide-cast platane leaves, tracing light-and-shadow doilies over the earthen ground over which tinkling pétanque balls clattered in the dusk. I ordered duck confit, off of which I promptly began picking of the salty, crispy skin—my French crackling. Mr. English ordered boeuf aux carottes. The waitress lifted the black lid off of the beef's cast iron pot, and there beneath in the darkness lurked what simply looked like beef and carrots: unassuming and unimpressive.
"The carrots had leached their sugar into the broth and into the meat that collapsed at the nudge of a fork."
But oh, the alchemy of the kitchen! Bits of least-expensive meat and dusted off carrots sat and simmered into this tender stew whose greatest accolade was its unexpected sweetness. The carrots had leached their sugar into the broth and into the meat that collapsed at the nudge of a fork, and it was suddenly as sumptuous as the great pillared hall which presides over the square. After a day of brunoise, dauphinoise, and all the other -oises I didn't want to think about, I greedily snatched up bite after bite of his boeuf aux carottes, chiming how this is the French food I adored, and marveling at a cuisine that could turn the lead of sinewy beef and humble carrots into carrot-copper gold.
This dish may not classify at first glance as "in a Flash," as it cooks for three hours. In fact, French police interrogators are nicknamed, so I've been told, "boeuf carottes" because they take so long in questioning their suspects. But I find immense primitive satisfaction at browning bits of short rib to a crust in hot oil in a deep enamel pot and methodically slicing carrots into coins. The short ribs are not traditional, and you could certainly substitute stew meat, but I adore the stringy softness of short ribs so much that I use them anywhere I can.
At the end of it, you have the same slightly sweet, voluptuous stew that falls off the bone and has the undeniable trick-the-diet bonus of highly visible vegetables. It's a classic, discovered in summer, perfect for the dead of this icy winter.
French in a Flash: Boeuf aux Carottes Recipe
- 3 pounds beef short ribs
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus 1 teaspoon
- 12 carrots, peeled (cut 6 into thirds, and 6 into penny coins about 1/2-inch thick)
- 2 cups peeled pearl onions (I use thawed frozen pearl onions)
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 bunch of chervil, leaves chopped, stems reserved
- 3 juniper berries, crushed (optional)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 3 cups beef stock
- 2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
- 2 tablespoons flour
In a wide, deep pan, heat 2 tablespoons oil on medium-high heat.
Season the meat well with salt and pepper, and sear the short ribs in the hot oil until crusted and browned on all 6 sides. Set the meat aside, and discard the oil.
Add 1 teaspoon fresh olive oil to the pan, and reduce the heat to medium low. Add the 6 carrots which you have cut into thirds, reserving the copper penny carrots until later. Add the pearl onions, and garlic, and chervil stems, and bay leaves, and juniper berries. Season with salt and pepper, and sauté gently until the garlic is fragrant—about 5 minutes.
Add the red wine, and allow it to lift any dark bits of meat from the bottom of the pan. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes.
Nestle the meat back into the pan with the vegetables, and add the beef stock. Bring to a boil over high heat, then cover, and reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 1/2 hours.
After 2 1/2 hours, add in the copper penny carrots. Stir into the broth, and cover, simmering another 30 minutes, so the meat will cook 3 hours in total.
Make a beurre manié by smashing the butter and flour together. Set aside. This step is optional: it turns a runny, brothy sauce into something thick and coating, but you can either omit the thickening agent altogether, use half of it, or use all of it, depending on how you like your stews.
After 3 hours, pull out the large chunks of carrots that have cooked for three hours, and the chervil stems and bay leaves and juniper berries if you can find them. Discard. Skim off as much fat from the surface of the stew as you can.
Add in the beurre manié, if you are using it, and allow the stew to bubble for 5 minutes to thicken. Just before serving, stir in the chervil leaves.