There are some dishes that are made to impress — miniature towers of painstakingly cooked and elaborately presented food that look as delicate and complex as they can sometimes taste. You’ll find such dishes in many fancy restaurants, the ones with managers who like to make you wait for your table, designer chairs that cost more than the ones you have at home, and lighting so dark you feel like asking for a flashlight to see your food. Sometimes, the food is worth it. On a few occasions, it can be outstanding. Too often though, in attempts to wow you and out-finesse the competition, young and eager chefs send out over-worked Frankensteins that scare you more than surprise and satiate you.
Then there are other dishes that are made to simply satisfy. Most often, they’re pretty simple dishes. No fancy, exotic, unpronounceable ingredients. No fancy gravity-defying plating. Just good, uncomplicated, comforting and beautiful flavours. Most of these dishes aren’t too pretty, but they usually taste amazing. And I’d easily take a heaping bowl of chicken curry, a soft and succulent oxtail stew or a rich and tender chicken à la king over a duo of truffled somethingorother and whatintheworldisthat served with a jus of overexpensive stuff and a reduction of ican’tpronouncethat. Of course, I didn’t always think this way. I openly admit that like many foodies I know, I went through the requisite pretentious food stage, during which I (mistakenly) believed that the best food was fancy fusion fare with as many ingredients from as many parts of the world as possible. Thankfully, that phase is long since gone and today, I’m a big believer in the simple beauty of comfort food.
One of the most well-known and best-loved comfort foods is blanquette de veau. This rich, creamy, French veal stew is certainly one of my all-time favourite dishes and something I seek out when eating out. During our recent trip to Paris, my wife S and I had the pleasure of eating at a lovely bistro in the 16th called Le Petit Retro not just once, but twice. On both occasions, I had their blanquette de veau. The first time, it was amazing. The sauce was delicious, tangy, thick and full of flavour. The veal chunks were gorgeously tender and the basmati that the blanquette was served with was buttery, fluffy, nutty and aromatic. The second time, however, while the sauce and the rice were still excellent, the veal pieces were just a little tough, but still tasty enough to impress us.
To make blanquette de veau, you poach chunks of veal belly, breast, or shoulder (or if you can’t get either of these cuts, you can use what butchers often call “stewing cuts”) in stock or water. You then sauté mushrooms and onions, which are added to the veal in a rich, creamy sauce made with both creme fraiche and cream. This is a truly satisfying dish, the kind of thing that, when served with buttered rice, hits the spot on a rainy day or a chilly night. We like to make a huge pot of it and freeze single serve portions. That way, whenever I have a craving for this yummy dish, it’s just a few microwaved minutes away. (S, of course, advocates reheating it on the stove and not in a microwave.)
Blanquette de veau à l’ancienne
Adapted from Chef David Lemee’s recipe
2 onions, peeled
2 carrots, peeled
1.5 kilograms boneless veal shoulder cut into 4cm cubes
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
1 litre veal stock
200 millilitres white wine
100 grams unsalted butter
500 grams champignons, quartered
lemon juice to taste
280 grams small white onions, peeled
1 tablespoon sugar
60 grams all-purpose flour
250 millilitres crème fraiche
250 millilitres heavy cream
salt, pepper and sugar to taste
Stick the cloves into one of the onions. Cut the carrots and leek into 5 centimetre chunks and set them aside. Place the veal in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring the water to a boil on high heat. Simmer for 4 minutes then drain and rinse thoroughly in cold water.
Clean the pot. Place the meat, onions, carrots, leek, thyme and bay leaf in the pot. Cover with veal stock and white wine. Bring to a boil and remove any scum that rises to the surface. You can lower the fire down and leave the veal to simmer over the fire, or place the pot in an oven preheated to 100 degrees Celsius, for about 2 hours (or until the veal is tender; if using breast, cook for much less time).
Meanwhile, melt 15 grams of butter in a frying pan. Gently brown the mushrooms and add a drizzle of lemon juice (to taste). Cover and leave to cook over gentle heat for 10 minutes before seasoning with salt and pepper.
In a separate frying pan, melt another 15 grams of butter. Fry the small onions with the sugar and 1 teaspoon of water for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
When the veal is tender, remove it from the pan. Strain the stock and discard the vegetables and aromatics. Place the stock in a saucepan and reduce it until about 1 litre remains.
Melt the remaining butter in a pan and gradually add the flour while mixing with a wooden spoon. When you have a roux, cook over medium-low heat for 3 minutes. Then add the hot stock, ladle by ladle. Keep stirring the sauce, ensuring it stays smooth. Then add the creme fraiche and heavy cream, still stirring. Add the veal, the onions and mushrooms. Add salt, pepper and sugar to taste. When the veal has been heated through, you can serve. It’s best with buttered basmati rice.