Slow cooking in a flavoured broth takes boiled meat to a whole new level in the creamy blanquette de veau, says Rosa Jackson
Growing up on my mother’s repertoire of post-war British cooking, I never thought of boiled meat as something particularly sexy. That was until I went to France and encountered blanquette de veau, proudly pale chunks of melting meat in a silky sauce thickened with egg yolks or a roux (melted butter and flour) and crème fraîche.
This is a dish that the French take for granted, but for me it shows their genius for turning modest ingredients into something majestic. Blanquette is said to have originated during the 19th century in Lyon, where it originally made use of leftover roast veal. The name refers to the colour of the sauce and the meat, which is cooked in liquid rather than browned.
If many stews rely on an initial caramelisation of the meat to add depth of flavour, in blanquette the veal imparts some of its character to the water or bouillon (broth), which is then used to make the sauce.
In France, blanquette is famous for being the most beloved dish of Inspector Maigret, hero of the detective novels by Georges Simenon. Its creaminess creates a comforting quality that makes this stew well suited to Sunday lunch or an informal dinner party. Because it uses the cheaper cuts of veal that need slow cooking, the ingredients are accessible to most cooks.
Hugo Desnoyer, the most famous butcher in Paris and supplier to many of the capital’s best restaurants, also has a soft spot for blanquette de veau. For him, the secret to a great blanquette – besides exceptional meat, of course – is to cook the roux for a very long time. Some lighter recipes for blanquette don’t call for a roux at all, relying on egg yolks as the thickener, but for Desnoyer, slow cooking the roux gives it a smoother, more digestible quality. To be absolutely sure of achieving this outcome, he cooks it twice, once for 45 minutes over very low heat, then again for at least 30 minutes.
“This is really essential,” he says. Like most recipes for blanquette, Desnoyer’s calls for different cuts of veal. “That way everyone is happy,” he says, “because some people like the leaner pieces and others prefer the more gelatinous ones.” He chooses from cuts such as the paleron (shoulder), jumeau (upper part of the neck), tendron (rib roast) poitrine (breast), jarret (knuckle) and collier (neck). All of these come from the front part
of the animal around the shoulder; meat that has a lot of flavour to give, but does not respond well to being rushed. If slowly cooking a roux seems a bother, most recipes call for a smaller amount of flour and butter cooked for a shorter time.
However it’s thickened, a blanquette always involves cooking the main ingredient in stock or water. Sometimes, the meat is briefly boiled in water which is discarded, then stewed in fresh water or bouillon, with vegetables and herbs. Some vegetables may be added nearer the end of the cooking time so that they retain their texture and colour.
For his recently opened butcher’s shop and restaurant in the 16th arrondissement,Desnoyer almost inevitably chooses award-winning veal from the Corrèze, an area of south-central France that is known for the quality of its meat. “I have never tasted veal
like it anywhere else in the world,” he says.
Though blanquette is most often associated with veal, the same technique can be used to cook chicken, lamb, fish and even vegetables. If using chicken, it is essential to choose a free-range bird that can hold up to slow cooking, releasing its flavour and gelatin into the broth. Shoulder or neck, or a combination of the two, work well in a lamb variation. The meaty quality of monkfish makes it ideal for this stew, though you might also try haddock or pollack. Add a few vegetables (or make it with vegetables alone, such as Swiss chard, carrot, leeks and potatoes), and you will have a dish fit for a king, or at least for a convivial holiday meal.
Hugo Desnoyer’s blanquette de veau
If you see the name ‘Hugo’ on a menu in Paris, it will be referring to Hugo Desnoyer, the city’s star butcher. Working out of a modest shop in a residential neighbourhood, he has established a reputation for sourcing prizewinning beasts and ageing the meat to perfection. Recently, he opened a second butcher’s shop in the 16th arrondissement which doubles as a restaurant thanks to its central table seating eight people. Here customers can taste simple and more complex meat dishes prepared by Angie Fouquoire, who previously cooked at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris. Seasonal vegetables, farmers’ cheeses, wines from the unpretentious to the prestigious, and home-made desserts such as wild strawberry tart complete the experience.
FOR THE ROUX
• 150g butter
• 150g flour
FOR THE BOUILLON
• 2 litres water
• 1 bouquet garni (2 thyme sprigs,
1 bay leaf, 1 parsley sprig and a few
celery leaves, tied together)
• 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
• 2 carrots, cut into large chunks
• 1 red pepper, cored and cut into
• 1tsp coarse sea salt
• 8 peppercorns
FOR THE STEW
• 1.2 kg of veal for stewing, preferably
made up of different cuts
• ¼ bottle white wine
• 650ml double cream
• Grated nutmeg, to taste
• Zest of ½ lemon
• Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1. Prepare the roux in advance: in a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the flour. Cook over a very low heat for 45 minutes, stirring often, and set aside.
2. When you are ready to make the stew, cook the roux again over a low heat for 30-45 minutes.
3. For the bouillon, place the water in a large pot and add all the other ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, skimming any foam that rises up.
4. In another large saucepan, heat the wine and, as it reaches a simmer, light it with a match to burn off the alcohol. Add the strained bouillon and bring just to a boil. Add the meat and simmer for one to one-and-a-quarter hours until tender.
5. Add the liquid bit by bit to the hot roux, whisking to eliminate lumps. Combine the thickened bouillon with the meat and add the cream. Season with nutmeg and more salt if
necessary and bring just to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and add the lemon zest and pepper. Serve with boiled potatoes or rice.
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