- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Marvelously rich and winy, redolent of orange zest and cinnamon, bay leaf and garlic and fennel, with meat made tender by hours of slow simmering and, yes, those wonderful olives, a Provencal daube is a beautiful thing.

It began in the south of France. Daube (rhymes with “globe”) grew up in the Occitan, which cuts a wide swath across the entire southern part of the country. It was in Provence that the dish attained its sunniest, most aromatic expression. That’s what makes a daube provencale so appealing.

A daube is not just a dish; it’s also a method of cooking, and it is taken so seriously in Provence that a daube wouldn’t be a daube unless it were cooked in a daubiere, that quintessential Provencal cooking vessel.

Made from the local red-gold clay, the daubiere is almost spherical in shape, with a neck just large enough to insert your hand, a flat lid and characteristic double handles to make lifting easy.

Fear not, any heavy casserole or Dutch oven does as well for a daube as it does for other stews.

The ingredients are layered inside the pot, with slow-cooking meats — usually beef or lamb — at the bottom, vegetables and aromatics on top. It’s not surprising to learn, then, that the word “daube” comes from “adobar,” which, in the Oc language of Occitan, means “to arrange” or “to accommodate.”

In Provence, those aromatics and vegetables would be onions, carrots, fennel, wild thyme, garlic, cloves, cinnamon and tomatoes in just about any combination. Wine red for beef, white for lamb or veal is essential, moistening the layers as a marinade.

It’s a long marinade: The mix should be left in the refrigerator one to three days for flavors to blend.

Cooking is long and gentle, taking three to four hours so the heat from the oven (in the old days it was an open fire) gradually penetrates the heavy pot, warming the contents to a simmer so they marry over the hours to a glorious, aromatic, fork-tender finish. Partway through, olives and maybe artichokes are added.

This is a farmhouse dish, using inexpensive ingredients drawn from the surrounding countryside. But it’s not everyday food; a daube is special enough for a celebration. The meat needn’t be a tender cut; the long, slow cooking of the stew is specifically designed to break down tough tissues and cartilage, releasing their taste.

The best cuts of beef to use are chuck, blade steak, shank, top or bottom round and eye from the leg, the muscles that work hard. I always include a chunk or two of shank in my beef daube, or some ribs in a daube of lamb. You might call it a magic charm. I think it’s key in providing layers of flavor and that glossy richness that marks a fine sauce.

Many (though not all) Provencal daubes include bacon, cut into the classic chunky strips called lardons. In France, it’s easy to find bacon in one piece, smoked or salted, complete with rind. If your butcher can provide it, go for the smoked version, slicing off the rind to line the base of the pot, then cutting the meat into lardons. Otherwise, thick-cut bacon can take the place of a single piece.

For an adventure, you might like to substitute buffalo for beef; it’s the nearest match to meat from the magnificent Provencal black bulls, which is used in daubes in the Camargue area, where they’re raised. There, at the delta of the Rhone River, they provide sport in the bullfighting arenas of the region.

The dark, musky Rhone red wines are a perfect match when marinating the meat.

Aromatic flavorings for a Provencal daube are key. Traditionally these may include pared orange zest (bitter orange is a particular treat), whole cloves, a cinnamon stick, peppercorns and a generous bunch of the classic bouquet garni trio of parsley, bay leaf and local wild thyme, dried to unusual intensity by the southern sun.

Here is a hint of history: The orange and spices come from the Arabs who colonized this part of France, and the herbal bouquet garni is resolutely French.

In Provence, the signature seasoning of the daube is olives. They may be green or black, large or small, mild or piquant. (Watch out for salty types that can overwhelm the mix.) Here’s where you can add a personal touch. The fat black olives from Nyons in northern Provence will be noticeably different from the tiny, nippy olives of Nice. Green olives are juicier, and for daube I prefer them brined. A French cook would always leave the olives whole, as the pits add flavor, but be sure to warn your guests if you leave them in.

Vegetables, the other supporting players in daube, include onions, carrots and always a bulb or two of fennel, the Provencal substitute for celery. In late winter and spring, baby artichokes, called “poivrade,” are another way to go; they’re delicious baked slowly in a lamb daube. Garlic is another variable: A few cloves will suffice if you’re using regular garlic, but come springtime, if you can find fresh garlic at the market, be generous with it.

I remember being appalled when Provencal chef Antoine Bouterin once added a couple of dozen whole cloves of springtime garlic, but the results were sublime. Mr. Bouterin was equally lavish with his herbs, great fragrant bunches of thyme, oregano, rosemary, chervil, basil — practically anything he could lay his hands on.

This largesse with seasonings was a first lesson for me in the Provencal kitchen.

After the ingredients for the daube are assembled, the next step is cutting them to the right size. I like to slice beef into 11/2-inch cubes, lamb a bit smaller, avoiding large, solid chunks that will cook more slowly than looser-textured pieces.

All the cuts I suggest (particularly beef shank and lamb ribs) contain streaks of cartilage and collagen that will gradually dissolve to be transparent and tender at the end of cooking, having contributed valuable gelatin to the sauce. When trimming, I’d suggest you leave all but the largest bits of cartilage and also most of the fat (there won’t be much on these cuts).

Vegetables should be chunky, as they will simmer a long time with the meat.

Tenderizing the meat for daube begins with marinating it with the vegetables in that indispensable ingredient: wine, and plenty of it. You need not break the bank; if a wine tastes good in the glass, it will be good in the daube as well.

Once you start using your hands to layer the ingredients, you’ll see why the traditional daubiere had a fist-sized mouth; in a regular open-faced casserole, layering is even easier. Slow-cooking meat comes first, followed by the vegetables and aromatics in their cheesecloth bag. Add the wine — you can imagine how deliciously it will permeate those meats.

Find a place for the daubiere or casserole in the refrigerator and relax. The beef or lamb and vegetables need at least a day, or up to three days, of marination for truly forceful flavor, so you can abandon them for a while. Daube is a leisurely affair.

To be readied for the oven, the daube is topped with chopped garlic, squishy chopped tomatoes and enough broth or water to almost cover everything. (Olives come later so they retain some taste.) Lid on, and you’re ready to bake gently.

In Provence, you can still see daubieres bedded among the hot embers of an open hearth, left to cook peacefully for four or five hours after taking an hour to come to a simmer. To get things going, in my own standard oven, I start the process at a higher heat, then lower the temperature.

Lamb takes two to three hours and beef up to four hours to be tender enough to crush easily between your finger and thumb, the traditional test for a well-done stew.

I am always concerned about having too much liquid at the end of cooking. Some may need to be ladled out and boiled down. Then I taste it, adding freshly ground black pepper and a pinch or two of ground cinnamon if I’m so inclined.

You can make daube ahead and forget about it. Even after the cooking is over, the stew is best after a day or two since the ingredients marry and mellow in the broth; it can be refrigerated in its pot up to three days, and it freezes well. Serve it when you and your guests are ready. There’s a Provencal saying, “It’s as easy as daube.” Here’s the delicious proof.

Daube de boeuf provencale (Provencal beef daube with red wine and black olives)

BOUQUET GARNI:

1 orange peel, pith (white part) scraped away

3 to 4 bay leaves

4 sprigs parsley

6 to 8 sprigs thyme

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

4 whole cloves

1 stick cinnamon

DAUBE:

2 pounds chuck or round steak

1 ½-pound) piece smoked bacon

1 2-inch slice beef shank (about 1½ pounds)

3 onions (about 1 pound), cut in eighths

3 large carrots, peeled, trimmed and cut diagonally in ½-inch slices

2 medium bulbs fennel, tops trimmed, cut in eighths

1 bottle (750 ml) robust red wine (see Note)

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 to 6 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

2 pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (21/4 cups chopped) or 13/4 cups diced canned tomatoes, drained

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Water

1 cup (about 6 ounces) brine-cured black olives

1/4 cup chopped parsley

To make the bouquet garni, tie the ingredients in a piece of cheesecloth.

Trim excess fat and cartilage from beef steak and cut it in 1½-inch cubes. Cut rind, if any, from the piece of bacon. Slice bacon and cut slices crosswise to make lardons.

Line a large (5½ quart), heavy, ovenproof casserole with bacon rind and put beef shank on top. Add beef cubes, lardons, onion, carrot and fennel, and pour wine over. Add bouquet garni and push bag down into marinating ingredients. Spoon the olive oil over so they do not dry out. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 and up to 3 days.

When ready to cook, heat oven to 400 degrees and put oven rack in lower third of oven.

Remove daube from refrigerator while oven is heating. Sprinkle daube with garlic and chopped tomatoes, add 2 teaspoons salt and ½ teaspoon pepper, and pour in enough water to almost cover the vegetables. Cover and cook in oven until broth is almost simmering, about 45 minutes.

Stir the meat and vegetables. Add olives. Reduce heat to 300 degrees. Cook, stirring occasionally, until a cube of beef can be easily crushed between your finger and thumb, 2½ to 3 hours more. The vegetables will be very tender.

Take pot from oven and lift out the slice of shank. It needs to be tender and falling off the bone, so will probably need more cooking: Put it in a medium saucepan and ladle in enough broth from the daube to cover the meat. Cover and simmer until the meat is almost falling apart, 30 to 45 minutes longer.

Remove shank with the bone and let cool until tepid. Return broth to casserole and discard the bouquet garni. Taste broth. If flavor is thin and needs reducing, ladle as much as possible into a saucepan and boil until flavor is concentrated and liquid is reduced by about half, to about 4 cups.

Meanwhile, pull meat from bones of shank and cut it into 1-inch pieces. Stir meat gently into casserole, with marrow from the central bone. When the broth is reduced, stir it back into daube, taste and adjust the seasoning.

If possible, prepare daube a day or two ahead and keep it, in its pot, in the refrigerator. Reheat it in a 350-degree oven, allowing at least an hour and probably more for heat to penetrate to the center.

Just before serving, stir in chopped parsley and check seasoning again. Ladle daube directly from pot into shallow pasta bowls. Makes 8 servings.

Note: Use a red wine such as a vigorous, tannic Cote du Rhone or a robust shiraz. Serve with macaroni or polenta.

Daube d’agneau aux artichauts (Lamb daube with green olives, white wine and baby artichokes)

BOUQUET GARNI:

1 lemon peel, pith (white part) scraped away

2 teaspoons coriander seed

2 teaspoons fennel seed

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

3 to 4 bay leaves

DAUBE:

1½ pounds boneless lamb shoulder

1½ pounds lamb riblets

4 onions (about 1½ pounds), sliced

1 bottle chardonnay

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 garlic cloves, chopped

2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped or 11/4 cups diced canned tomatoes, drained

1 tablespoon dried thyme

Salt and white pepper

2 cups veal or beef broth, more if needed

1 cup (about 6 ounces) brine-cured green olives

Juice of 1 lemon

Water

8 to 10 baby artichokes (about 2 pounds)

1½ tablespoons softened butter

1½ tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat leaf parsley

2 lemons, cut in wedges, for serving

To make the bouquet garni, tie the ingredients in a piece of cheesecloth.

Trim meat, leaving bones and a little fat; cut shoulder in 1½-inch pieces. Pack lamb in a large (5½-quart), heavy, ovenproof casserole with onion on top, and pour wine over.

Pound bouquet garni with a rolling pin to crush the spices. Push bag down into the pieces of lamb and spoon olive oil over. Cover and refrigerate at least a day and up to 2 days.

When ready to cook, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove daube from refrigerator while oven is heating up.

Sprinkle lamb with garlic, tomatoes and thyme. Stir 2 teaspoons salt and ½ teaspoon white pepper into veal or beef broth and pour over top. Cover and cook in oven until broth is almost simmering, about 45 minutes.

Reduce heat to 300 degrees, stir in olives and continue cooking lamb, stirring occasionally, until it is nearly tender, about 45 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, add lemon juice to a bowl of cold water. Trim each artichoke head, cutting crosswise about halfway down to remove tough tips. Snap off tough outer leaves and trim any remaining tough leaf tips.

Trim cut end of stems, leaving 1 to 2 inches. Peel stems with a vegetable peeler or small knife. Halve artichokes lengthwise (quarter them if large) and scoop out any hairy central choke with a melon baller. Immerse artichokes in lemon water so they do not discolor.

When lamb is nearly tender, drain artichokes and stir them into casserole, adding more broth if needed to half cover them.

Simmer until lamb meat is falling from the bones and artichokes are very tender when you poke them with a fork, 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove daube from oven, let bubbles subside and skim off excess fat. To make a beurre manie, combine butter and flour in a small bowl and refrigerate. Remove and discard bouquet garni.

Ladle as much of the broth as possible into a saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. Cook about 20 minutes, until flavor is concentrated and liquid reduced by half to about 3 cups. Add butter-flour mixture a small pea-size piece at a time and whisk in.

Bring broth back to a boil for a few minutes. Pour it back into daube, taste and adjust the seasoning. Daube keeps well in the refrigerator up to 3 days, and can be frozen.

To serve, reheat daube, if necessary, in the casserole in a 350-degree oven for an hour and probably more for the heat to penetrate to the center. Stir in parsley and check seasoning again. At the table, ladle daube into shallow pasta bowls; pass lemon wedges on the side. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: The best cut of lamb for daube is shoulder; include some riblets, too, so the bones enrich the sauce.

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