Dorie Greenspan has covered nearly everything in her career. She’s now got two shops in New York. She’s a consummate recipe creator, baker, storyteller, and the master of techniques.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You’re always working on some new technique, and it got me thinking about poaching. We poach fish, we know about poaching chicken, but poaching red meat -- that’s not something people do.
Dorie Greenspan: I make a dish called Beef on a String. It’s a pared-down, elegant version of pot-au-feu, which comes from the old French term “mettre la pot au feu” or “put the pot on the fire.”
It’s essentially a boiled dinner. I was thinking of it as so French, but the more I thought about it, maybe not so much. You have things like New England boiled dinner, corned beef and cabbage, so I think when we think of putting beef in a pot with liquid, we think of stew. But in fact, we can poach it, and that’s a gentler technique.
Dorie Greenspan is the author of Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours.
When you make Beef on a String, gentle is the word. What you get is an extremely elegant meal that you can make for four, or eight, or even 20 -- which is what I did this New Year’s Eve.
LRK: Alright, so what’s the difference between stewing and poaching?
DG: In the case of Beef on a String, the difference is time. I poach it for a very, very briefly. I think of a stew as being saucy. When you’re poaching, you end up with a broth, or a bouillon, and traditionally you would have the bouillon separate from the beef.
Poached beef is lighter. To me, everything about the process is light and gentle, and in some ways pure. It’s funny to think of poached beef as a light dish, but that’s the way I think about it.
LRK: When you do Beef on a String, you’re usually using a really tender cut of meat, right?
DG: Exactly. So, it’s a splurge dish, because it’s either a rump steak or a filet of beef -- a tenderloin. You’re poaching it to rare, rare, rare. When you do it in France, you go to the butcher -- the guy with that fabulous, sexy one-shoulder apron that goes kind of low-cut and to the side -- and say, “I’m making Beef on a String.” If he’s over the age of 50, he’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.
This is almost a lost recipe. Younger butchers look at me like “Huh? What do you want, lady?” But the older ones know that they should tie the beef up the way a traditional roast is tied, and to leave a lot of long string at the end of it. This is so you can put the beef into the poaching liquid and can lift it out by the string.
LRK: I see. So walk us through it.
DG: You would start by making a bouillon, and I like to start with blackening onions, blackening bones, and I put in some oxtail. Then I deglaze, in a sense, because I get up all the goop from the bottom of the stock pot with some cold water. Then I add vegetables.
The first time I made this dish, I tasted the bouillon and it was good, but not fabulous the way I wanted it to be. A friend of mine in Paris, a fabulous cook, said to me, “You know what you’re missing? The beef bouillon cube.” And every French cook I’ve talked to about this dish says the same thing.
Dorie Greenspan’s recipe for Boeuf a la Ficelle.
So you can make this bouillon two days ahead, put it in the refrigerator and chill it. You can take the fat off, but with this recipe, it’s rare that you get a lot of fat. Then I discard the vegetables because they’ve done their job.
I have this clear, flavorful bouillon I’m about to make even more flavorful because I poach my vegetables in it, so I poach them until they’re completely cooked and put them aside. That, you can do about 2 or more hours before you serve dinner.
LRK: Any vegetable that you want, or any variety?
DG: In winter, I normally use small potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips and celery root -- all the root vegetables. But this can be a spring dish as well, and you can use green beans, radishes and small carrots. You can really play with this dish. Since you’ve already got a root vegetable base, you’ve got that flavor.
When the vegetables are done, I just put them in a bowl with some of the bouillon over it. Then, turn up the heat really high, get that bouillon really, really hot and poach the beef. If you have a filet, that’s about 3 inches around or so, and it poaches for just 15 minutes.
LRK: That’s it?
DG: You want it rare, rare, rare. Take it out, let it rest just a little bit, cut it, and it will be almost, as the French would say, bleu. You want it that way because you can now take that beef and serve it to any degree of doneness you want.
The way I serve this dish is I put the beef in a shallow soup plate, put the vegetables around it, and then, if I want to keep it that rare, I ladle a little bit of the broth around the beef. If I want it more done, I use the hot broth to flash cook that beef at the last minute.
LRK: For serving, do you serve the bouillon first, or do you serve just a portion?
DG: Well, I’m very selfish. You’re supposed to serve the bouillon as a separate course, but here’s what I do: I don’t give it to my guests. I give them just enough in the bottom of the soup bowl or soup plate to make everything glistening. And then I save that to serve the following day and the day after as beef vegetable soup.
LRK: Clever woman.
DG: So I can actually get about three meals out of this, because the leftover beef becomes either sandwiches or a great beef salad afterwards. But on serving night,I just serve a little bit of broth. It’s so flavorful and it makes everything glisten and it’s beautiful.
Then I serve the traditional condiments that go with pot-au-feu. Horseradish, mustard -- both grainy and Dijon -- maybe with some pickles, coarse salt and a pepper mill. That way everybody can play with their food and season it and dress it just the way they want.