My Mother’s Muse
How I rescued Mom’s Doufeu pot.
Hardly gourmet, but delicious every day
BY PATTY LANOUE STEARNS
My late mother, Irene LaNoue, was never by any stretch a gourmet cook. With a husband, seven kids and who knows how many extra friends at our dining table every evening, just getting enough food into all of our stomachs was a feat worthy of stone-soup legend. Any culinary lust to which she might have aspired was squelched by severe budgetary and time constraints.
But all that changed after one very long day’s drive from our new home in Dayton, Ohio, where my father had begun a higher-paying job, to our family outpost at Little Point Sable on Lake Michigan’s dune-swept coastline in Oceana County. We were suddenly flush.
It was the summer of 1964, along the rolling blue highways of western Michigan, before US 31 was built. Atop our jammed three-seat station wagon was a big white box—a heavy, homemade cartop carrier that my dad sensed was falling off, so we made a pit stop in Whitehall, a picturesque harbor town on White Lake with a good place for refreshments, the Goody Goody, and a shiny kitchen shop called Scandia.
My dad attended to the cartop carrier’s loose ropes while we kids—I was 13 at the time—headed into the Goody Goody for milkshakes and rock ‘n’ roll on the jukebox. My mom grabbed her purse and wandered into Scandia, seduced by the beckoning displays of Dansk teak salad bowls, Marimekko linens and colorful enamelware in the window.
When she came to get us out of the Goody Goody, my mother had a twinkle in her eye and a heavy package in her arms. “It’s a Doufeu,” she smiled, barely containing her excitement.
Back in the station wagon for the rest of the ride, Irene tore into her package like a kid at Christmas, unveiling a huge, round, six-quart enameled cast-iron behemoth of a Dutch oven, made in France, with an indented lid stamped with the word “Doufeu” (doo-FUH) and an oval trademark, “ac,” for the company that made it, Les Hauts Fourneaux de Cousances of Fresnoy-le-Grand in the Picardy region of Northern France. The lid’s underside, circled in protrusions, read “26.”
“Doufeu, Doufeu!” we all chimed in, thinking how cool it was to utter the French-speak that was my father’s heritage but that none of us, including he, did with aplomb. The pot’s gleaming red-orange porcelain, called flame, seemed too beautiful for cooking, but my mother’s rhapsodic behavior that moment in our cramped car told me that pot would be her muse.
Every day of our vacation, Mom fired up the Doufeu, the finest cookware she ever owned, blissfully making her signature casseroles, scalloped potatoes, spaghetti, even oatmeal, but never using the pot the way it was intended—for braising. The lid’s bowl-shaped indentation is meant to be filled with ice cubes, which cause condensation that drips from the underside’s protrusions and bastes the meats. Watching my mother cook over the years, I never saw ice cubes top that pot, but the Doufeu made her inexorably happy and her cooking was always delicious, though never haute cuisine.
Several years after Irene’s death in 1999, I noticed her heavy flame pot languishing on a shelf in the family cottage, looking charred and unloved. By then my dad had remarried—to Angie, a woman who loved to cook but didn’t have the strength or the height to heft that pot onto the stovetop or into the oven.
“Do you mind if I take it?” I asked Angie, even though I had a Dutch oven of my own at home. Mine was made by Le Creuset, which acquired the company that made my mother’s Doufeu in 1957. I didn’t care if I ever used Mom’s Doufeu, I just wanted something she held dear, something that always gave her such joy.
When I got it home, I spent hours researching the best way to clean the Doufeu without damaging the enamel, painstakingly soaking black, rock-hard popcorn burns off the inside, campfire smoke off the outside, then using Bar Keeper’s Friend to remove the rest.
Then I started using it, with ice cubes, which I replaced as soon as they melted.
The results? Moist, tender, as you’ll see from my recipe below for Hungarian goulash, cooked three hours. Voila!
The enamel around the rim has a few chips, which add to the character of my mom’s Doufeu, but they don’t compromise its cooking ability—or the fact that I can still see that twinkle in my mother’s azure-blue eye every time I take the Doufeu off my shelf, hoist it into the kitchen and feel the muse welling up, commanding me to make something delicious.
It doesn’t have to be gourmet.
Longtime food writer and author Patty LaNoue Stearns is working on her next book on Northern Michigan’s artisan food movement. Find her online at PattyWrites.com.
From My Mother’s Muse by Patty LaNoue Stearns
This recipe employs the braising method—quickly browning meats and vegetables in hot fat, then slowly simmering them over low heat in a small amount of liquid for 2 to 3 hours. It’s an excellent way to add flavor and break down the fibers of low-moisture vegetables (such as whole onions, fennel bulbs, leeks, etc.) and tough cuts of meat. If you don’t own a Doufeu pot, any heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid will do; pots made specifically for braising will have points on the inside of the lid from which liquids will drip back onto the food as it cooks. Check the liquid periodically and add more if needed.
1 1/4 cups yellow onion, finely chopped
1 sweet green pepper, cored, seeded, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil, divided
1 tablespoon butter, divided
2 pounds beef chuck, trimmed of fat, in 1 1/2-inch cubes
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons Hungarian Sweet Rose paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper, freshly ground
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
2 cups beef stock, broth or water
16 ounces extra-wide egg noodles (I like Essenhaus Homestyle)
Over moderate heat in a Doufeu pot or other heavy enameled cast-iron pot, sauté onion and green pepper in half of the oil and butter until pale and golden; remove from the pan and drain on a paper towel.
Heat the remaining oil and butter over moderately high heat. Lightly dredge beef cubes in the flour. Add the meat in batches so it browns evenly, turn heat to low and stir in paprika for 1 to 2 minutes. Return the drained onions and green peppers to the pot, add salt, pepper, cider vinegar and beef stock, cover and simmer 3 hours or until meat is tender.
If using a Doufeu pot, fill the cover with ice and, as it dissipates, add more throughout the duration of your cooking, stirring occasionally. Otherwise, check covered pot, stir occasionally and add liquid as needed.
Boil egg noodles halfway according to directions; drain, then add to the pot until thoroughly cooked.