fig. a: baby white turnips
I get an itching for this kind of meal around this time of year anyway, but a visit with my Great-Aunt Juliette on Saturday cinched the deal. I came back and I knew it was time for a bouilli, that classic Quebecois harvest meal. After all, Juliette had been so good as to pass along her basic recipe for her cherished sucre à la crème (minus the “touch” that separates those who make good sucre à la crème from those who make revered sucre à la crème like Matante Juliette) to me—so I needed a suitable accompaniment.
Look it up and you’ll see that bouilli generally refers to boiled beef with vegetables, and that in Quebec the word became a generic term for boiled meat—beef, chicken, or ham—with vegetables. There’s no question that the meat component can be important—and this is a meal that’s famous for getting families to fight over the beef bone or ham bone that’s so central to its flavor—but as any true Quebecois will tell you, it’s the vegetables that are key. That’s why this meal is a classic high summer/harvest time meal—a meal that’s at its tastiest when the vegetables are at their peak, a meal where the onions, turnips, carrots, potatoes, greens, and other goodies that you find in your garden or your local markets or farm stands are the real stars of the shows. In fact, the real secret to a good bouilli, according to my Grandmaman Bilis, had nothing to do with the meat or even the bones, it all had to do with her p’tits oignons—with the onions she’d slow cook lovingly for 45 minutes or more until they’d just begun to caramelize, giving off the most heavenly flavor. That’s why for years I made a perfectly respectable bouilli that included no meat whatsoever. I just made sure to make those p’tits oignons just so, in honor of my grandmother, and the water I poured into the pot would quite magically become the most delicious vegetable broth imaginable after I’d cooked my vegetables gently for 1/2 an hour to an hour (making sure to add my vegetables strategically, of course, so that they’d all wind up tender and not overcooked at the end of my cooking time). Funny thing is, in all the years I made bouilli 100% vegetarian, I never missed the beef, chicken, or ham, but I never managed to have my bowl of this venerable vegetable stew without mustard. You see, one of the true pleasures of a beef or (a highly unconventional) ham bouilli , my two favorites, is the way mustard (preferably Dijon or some kind of rustic or whole-grain variety) accidentally finds itself into your bowl, further enriching the broth. That was a flavor sensation I was wholly unwilling to part with, so I’d just place a little mustard on the lip of my soup bowl, dip the occasional potato or carrot in the mustard to spice it up a little, and let the mustard “accidentally” find its way into the broth. Not a lot, mind you, just enough to give it that depth I craved.
It’s been a while now that I’ve been eating beef, chicken, and pork again, but last night was the very first bouilli I’d ever made with meat. It’s not that I thought it’d be better necessarily—I, like my grandmother, am also convinced that the onions are the most crucial part of the equation—it’s just that I wanted to make a somewhat more traditional one this time around, and one that wouldn’t have poor Michelle scratching her head trying to figure out how the mustard fit into the picture. So, after picking up our assorted vegetables from the Jean Talon farm stand that’s probably our all-around favorite, in addition to being the farm stand we're convinced has the best name, “Jacques et Diane,” we made our way to the Boucherie du Marché to pick up a healthy hunk of smoky bone-in ham.
Later in the day, after we’d done a year’s worth of tomato sauce canning (that’s right, yesterday was The Day), we set about assembling our classic bouilli. Keep in mind that the vegetables are more or less interchangeable, although I’ve never had a bouilli that didn’t have onions, carrots, and potatoes in it. Use the very best vegetables that you can find. Savor them. This week’s bouilli went as follows; next week’s could be entirely different.
(Not Your Grandmaman's) Bouilli
2 tbsp butter
1 large onion, minced finely
1 clove garlic, minced
3 leeks, white parts only, cleaned and chopped finely
1 turnip, peeled and chopped finely
3-4 baby white turnips, sliced
8-10 baby potatoes, scrubbed but left whole
6-8 carrots, cleaned but left whole
1/2 lb. yellow string beans
1 healthy hunk of ham, preferably bone-in
8-12 cups of water, depending on the size of your ham and the amount of vegetables you choose to use
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Melt your butter over medium heat in a large pot. Add your onions and lower your heat to medium-low, cooking them slowly and stirring frequently for a good 45 minutes, until they’ve begun to caramelize and have developed a rich flavor. (You may want to add a bit of salt to help the onions release their juices.) Turn your heat back up to medium and add your garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, for another 1-2 minutes. Add your leeks and cook until the leeks have softened and have begun to give off a pleasing aroma, stirring frequently all the while. Add your turnip and cook for about 5 minutes, again, stirring frequently. Add your ham and your water. Add your potatoes and turn the heat up to bring the ingredients to a simmer. Cook, covered, for about 5-10 minutes, then add the carrots. Cook for another 10-15 minutes, then add the beans. Cook for 5 minutes and adjust the seasonings. The potatoes and carrots should be perfectly tender and not overcooked. The string beans should be crisp-tender. And the broth should be rich in flavor. If using a ham, the broth should have a lovely smoky flavor, while the ham should have become infused with the flavors of the onions, leeks, turnips, and carrots. Remove your ham to carve it. Divide the showcase vegetables—in this case, the white turnips, potatoes, carrots, and beans—evenly among your bowls. Pour a ladle or two of the broth plus the minced and chopped vegetables overtop. Serve each bowl with a slice of ham on top.
Accompaniments: crusty bread, good mustard.
Serves 6-8 generously.
fig. b: sucre à la crème
Sucre à la Crème à la Matante Juliette
2 cups light golden sugar
1 small can Carnation brand evaporated milk
5 tbsp butter
2 cups powdered sugar
Place the first three ingredients in a medium-sized pot over medium heat. Stirring constantly so as to prevent scorching, cook the ingredients until they begin to bubble, about 5 minutes. When the bubbles become bigger and denser, and the mixture has suddenly become thicker, about 1 minute later, remove from heat and pour in the powdered sugar, stirring or whisking vigorously so as to remove any lumps. Remember, the sucre à la crème cooks quickly—total cooking time at medium heat should be no more than about 5-10 minutes and the sucre à la crème should still be blond. Pour into a buttered 8”x 8” baking pan and let cool. When the sucre à la crème has cooled considerably but is still just the slightest bit warm, use a spatula to loosen it from the sides of the baking pan and flip it out onto a cutting board. Cut the sucre à la crème into small squares—the flavor is intense, so a little goes a long way—and place in a wax-paper lined metal tin. The sucre à la crème will keep for days and days in the metal tin, and if you cut it and store it at just the right moment, it will remain tender all the while.