Boeuf à la Ficelle (Poached Beef with Vegetables)

With Wednesday's French influences still ringing in my ears, we had to go to France for today's recipe. In fact, to France via New York. There are many versions of this classic, but this one comes from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. Brasserie Les Halles in New York City was where Bourdain was Executive Chef from 1998 until its closure in 2017.

Those who simply knew him as a TV personality may not be aware that he was for years a professional chef. His first work, Kitchen Confidential, produced in 2000, exposed what really went on in his first 25 years in professional kitchens. AA Gill described it as, Elizabeth David written by Quentin Tarantino. Anyway, I commend the Les Halles book to you. Much excellent practical advice.

These days, we just don't cook whole chunks of beef in stock very often. It's all about the sear and the browning and the Maillard effect. Previous generations may have been put off by a British "classic" of boiled beef and carrots. The best known French version of this dish is the famous pot au feu. That, however, is quite a rustic dish, featuring cheap cuts of meat. The other thing about a long slow cook is that the veg lose their colour.

Boeuf à la Ficelle, on the other hand, is quite luxurious. Bourdain's recipe uses fillet: others call for sirloin. It's important, therefore, not to overcook. With shorter cooking time for the veg, they retain colour. Ficelle just means string. Traditionally this was to allow you remove the meat. Some recipes call for it to be tied to a wooden spoon. I find tongs do the job just as well.

A few other points. Our Anthony calls for baby carrots and turnips. If you can't source these just cut your veg into chunks, but try to keep them all the same size. The turnips here are the white navets, not our Scottish ones which others know as swedes. AB says to use only the white parts of the leeks. Why? I would use the green parts too, well washed of course.  Or perhaps a few baby leeks. A bouquet garni is simply a bay leaf, a sprig of parsley and a couple of sprigs of thyme, tied together or sometimes wrapped in a muslin parcel. That simply makes the herbs easier to remove at the end. Here, you're going to strain the liquid at the end, so worry not.

Finally, a word on garnish and presentation. All beef goes well with mustard or horseradish. You will see he calls for a huge amount of mustard. In his preamble, he also suggests a béchamel sauce loaded with grated horseradish. (By all means grate your own horseradish (a) if you can find it, and (b) if you have blocked sinuses. Think of the strongest onion you've ever chopped and multiply by 10. Or just add ready made horseradish sauce. Suit yourself.) Again, you may not care for cornichons, but they are traditional.

In short, while I reproduce his recipe as is, feel free to play about with it, but DON'T OVERCOOK THE BEEF.


8 baby carrots, peeled; 8 baby turnips peeled; 2 leeks, white parts only, washed and cut in half lengthwise; ½ onion, studded with cloves (cloves optional); 1 bouquet garni (see above); piece of fillet of beef, about 900g; s & p.

For the garnish

112g cornichons, drained; 112g Dijon mustard, and/or quantity of horseradish sauce; coarse sea salt.


Put all the vegetables in a large pot. Cover with water. Add the bouquet garni and season with s & p. Bring the water to a bubble and add the beef. Leave the beef to cook in the broth. 15 minutes for rare; 20 minutes medium rare; more than 20 minutes and you're sacked. Remove the fillet to a serving platter and allow to rest for 15 minutes.

Reduce the heat of the liquid to a simmer, and skim off any scum with a ladle, Cut the beef into slices about 1cm, and arrange on the serving platter. Arrange the veg around the slices, trying to mix up the colours. Bring the broth back to the boil and strain. Ladle some over the beef,

Serve with sea salt, cornichons and your choice of mustard and horseradish. This would nice with plain boiled potatoes, either baby ones, or neatly turned ones, using your best commis chef skills.

Post Script

At the time of publishing, I hadn't made this dish. Decided to try it on Saturday night. It feels counter intuitive having a very expensive piece of fillet boiling in a pan; however, if you keep an eye on the timing, it works very well. The original article used a stock photo. The latest photo is mine. Although it's beautifully rare, the outside will seem surprisingly dry. That's why you need the mustard and/or horseradish. I don't like watery stuff on my plate, so I used only a little of the broth. I put four cloves in the half onion, which gave it a delicate flavour. The rest will be a light soup today.

Tom's Food! will be back in a month or so.

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