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Article posted: 1/30/2013 1:00 AM

Stir it up: Winter stew with a French accent

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People who write slow cooker cookbooks, and who sell slow cookers, would have you believe they are four-season appliances. But anyone who uses a slow cooker knows in her (or his) heart that it is a cold weather appliance.

In the spring, we crave the fresh, succulent first produce of the garden -- peas, radishes, spinach and strawberries. In summer, it's time for lighter fare such as salads, ripe tomatoes, corn-on-the-cob and grilled fish or meat. None of these foods has any business in a slow cooker.

But during fall and winter, the cooker shines. There is almost nothing more satisfying than coming in from the cold to a pot of simmering stew. If you work all day, that's not likely to happen unless a) you have a personal chef, or b) you use your slow cooker. And if you don't own a slow cooker, now is the perfect time to get one. Some of the new "deluxe" models do everything but buy the groceries. They have dishwasher-safe parts, programmable heating elements and inserts that can be used on the stove to brown ingredients.

Slow cooker fans may already be familiar with Michele Scicolone, author of "The Italian Slow Cooker," "The French Slow Cooker" and, now, "The Mediterranean Slow Cooker" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). In this book, Scicolone takes on a French classic: pot au feu. This dish, which translates as "pot on the fire," is the simplest of boiled meat dinners and, at the same time, a complex tour de force of flavors. It was considered a country dish, one that would supply a family with meals for a week (meat and vegetables on the first night, then the broth with various additions -- noodles, semolina, rice -- and, finally, "potage a la fecula," or broth thickened with cornstarch). Scicolone gives a nod to this tradition by suggesting that you serve the broth as a first course.

French housewives used to spend quite a bit of time making pot au feu. One source I found said they tied potatoes on the end of bones with string to seal in the marrow; another suggests wrapping the bones in "muslin" (or cheesecloth). Beef was the main meat, but classic preparations call for the addition of chicken (or chicken giblets, duck or turkey), veal, pork or lamb. One recipe, in the famed French cooking encyclopedia "Larousse Gastronomique," calls for adding to the pot a whole chicken -- stuffed with fresh pork, ham, chicken liver, onion, garlic and parsley -- along with "veal knuckle" and "salted pork knuckle."

Scicolone's recipe is far less exotic but still has the satisfying appeal of French farmhouse cooking. It's a winter dish, no doubt about it. Serve it with Dijon mustard, prepared horseradish and cornichons -- those tiny sour pickles available, jarred, in many supermarkets. A baguette and some cheese will make this a classic French meal. Bon appétit!

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