Poached filet of beef with green sauce

Boeuf à la ficelle is a classic Parisian dish, probably emanating from the area around Les Halles. Prime cuts of beef are dangled by a piece of string into a boiling stock for a very short time. The meat is always served extremely rare and, though undeniably tasty, can be a little chewy.

I am not aware of any French restaurants that ever served it in Soho, but since reading about this strange method of cooking in Robert Courtine’s excellent book Hundred Glories of French Cooking, I have been serving a version of it for the last twenty years. By cooking in a stock that is simmering rather than boiling I have avoided the problem of the steak toughening. In Paris the beef is served with mustard, boiled potatoes and coarse salt, the Little’s Soho version loses the string and takes the dish towards Italy by adding salsa verde, henceforward referred to as green sauce.

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Ingredients

  • 4 fillet steaks of 175 g each (ask your butcher to cut them from the central, tournedos, section of the fillet)
  • 16 small carrots, topped, tailed and peeled
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 200 g French beans, topped and tailed
  • 16 spring onions, trimmed to resemble small leeks
  • salt and pepper

Poaching Broth

  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 200 g lean beef, trimmings or diced shin
  • 1 onion, unpeeled and quartered
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • the trimmings from the spring onions and carrots but discarding the carrot peelings
  • 3 tbsp Kikkoman soy sauce
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1×400 g tin beef consommé

Green Sauce

  • 2 garlic cloves
  • a handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, major stalks removed
  • a handful of basil leaves
  • a handful of mint leaves
  • 1 tbsp capers (if using dry salted, rinse and desalinate thoroughly)
  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 150 ml olive oil

Method

Making the Broth

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and add the beef trimmings. Cook on a medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the meat is browning. Add the onion, celery and vegetable trimmings, stir and continue cooking until everything in the pan has turned an appetising brown. Add the soy, bay leaf and consommé, then boil vigorously for 5 minutes. Add 3 litres of water and return the lot to a steady simmer. Continue simmering for 2 hours, skimming as often as you can be bothered. The broth can be left alone, but check that the heat is very low before leaving, otherwise your return may be marred by a smoking, acrid mess in the pan instead of a lovely beef broth. Sieve the broth and check the seasoning. Return to the cleaned-out pan, and bring to the boil, giving it one last skim.

Making the Green Sauce

Put all the ingredients except the olive oil in a food processor and chop coarsely. Add the oil in a steady stream with the machine still running. Add salt and pepper to taste, remembering that this is a relish and needs to be well seasoned.

Cooking the Beef and Vegetables

Season the steaks generously. Bring the broth to a boil, add the carrots and continue boiling for 5 minutes. While this is happening, heat a frying pan with the sunflower oil and brown the steaks for 1 minute on each face, ignoring the sides. When the carrots have had their 5 minutes’ head start, add the beans and boil for 3 minutes. Now add the browned beef and turn the heat down to achieve the barest simmer (the French refer to this by the very descriptive term frémir, to shiver). Cook for 5 minutes then add the spring onions and simmer for a further 5 minutes.

Serving

Take the pan from the heat and remove the vegetables. Arrange these in piles in the centre of four soup plates, or deep dinner plates. Remove the steaks from their broth and place on top of the vegetables. The steaks will be done medium rare; if you want them well done, allow another 5 minutes. In this case you may need to take the vegetables out before the meat is done. Serve the green sauce separately.

Variations

It is perfectly possible to cook larger pieces of beef in this way, the only problem is judging the cooking time. The four steaks in the recipe above, if cooked as one piece of central fillet, would probably need an extra bit of browning and a further 10 minutes in the broth.

The Dijon mustard, coarse salt and potatoes mentioned above go very well with the Italianised version as well. If you can get hold of small tender leeks, substitute them for the spring onions, and add to the cooking pot at the same time as the beans.

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