My mother, although multi-talented, had an aversion to the kitchen and has often said that I learned to cook at an early age “out of self-defense.” When she made chicken à l'orange by smearing a chicken with powdered Tang, I quickly developed a necessary passion for creating tasty things to eat. Somewhere in the family photograph album is a picture of me at the stove, age ten, happily stirring marinara sauce.

I developed a lifelong fascination with food; good food. There was even a foray of working as a chef’s assistant at a French restaurant during my mid twenties, just for fun. I had always loved watching Julia Child and knew that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to be revered. It wasn’t until I read her biography (long before the Julie & Julia movie) that I really became fascinated with her work. From that book, I decided to prepare her recipe for mayonnaise.

Upon tasting it, I wept. . . .

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Julia's Boeuf Bourguignon

Ah! Perhaps no other recipe says "Julia Child" than her famous Boeuf à la Bourguignon, or rather "Beef in the Burgundy Style". For those of you who’ve read her biography, My Life in France, you may recall that this was the recipe that captivated her publisher, Judith Jones, and thus launched the publication, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Incidentally, you can find Judith Jones’ blog here if you like.

And Julia's recipe here.

So, of course, this notorious dish is captivating. A good deal of work, yes, but it really is straightforward; one, two, three. Needless to say, it’s well worth the effort and is also one of those creations for which you’ll become known. After all, Julia certainly did alright by it.

Let me begin by saying that I really love this dish but am far from being a fan of beef stew. I’m reminded of my paternal grandmother’s incredible vegetable-beef soup of which I’d greedily eat bowl after bowl as a young child.
For beef stock, she’d make "the real deal" by simmering soup bones for no less than eighteen hours. Seasonings, carrots and onions were added along with tomatoes, potatoes, and finally, the beef.
Although I’d give anything to be able to recreate her masterpiece, I remember her dismay as I’d tediously pick out every piece of beef, set them aside, left uneaten. To me, they were tough, gristly, livery-tasting and probably the result of using “beef for stew.”

So, it’s not beef stew I find distasteful; it’s beef for stew that’s the culprit. Anything labeled as such is most probably scraps from the leg of the animal. It has no marbling and will result in dry, livery-tasting pieces that you may find a finicky grandson picking out.

Solution: Use two, 2-lb chuck blade roasts, cut into 1 ½ inch cubes (minus any gristle, please.)

They’re the easiest things to work with. Simply hold one up, make a cut with a sharp knife and it will tell you where to cut from there on out. Less than five minutes of work, really.
As usual, Julia calls for us to simmer the bacon in water to rid some of the smokiness. I realize that this goes against the trend in which smokiness is “in” these days (chipotle-flavored everything comes to mind) but trust me, do as you’re told. Other flavors will need to come through.

The bacon is then dried, sautéed and set aside while the beef is diligently browned in the bacon fat. (Remember to dry the beef or it won’t brown.) And here comes another technique that strikes me as somewhat strange:

After placing the browned beef in a large casserole, dust it with 2 Tbs of flour and place it in a 450-degree oven, uncovered for 4 minutes. Turn the beef, and return it for 4 more minutes. My guess is that this cooks away any raw flour taste and gives the beef a tasty crust.

With Julia, I do as I’m told. Technique is everything.

Sauté the chopped onion and carrot and add it to the beef.

The wine: Of course, a red burgundy comes to mind but that can be difficult to find. I like a pinot noir or even better, a Côtes du Rhône. I’d stay away from a cabernet sauvignon with its dark, jammy “cabby-ness”. Merlot? I don’t know. I wouldn’t risk it. Julia even suggests a Chianti.
Anyway, add 3 cups which will leave the cook a small glass for yourself. Or better, pour yourself a small glass (quality control, remember?) and pour in the rest of the bottle.

Add another 2 cups of good beef broth, 1 Tbs tomato paste, 1 crumbled bay leaf, ½ tsp thyme. I leave out the 2 tsp of salt because the beef broth can be salty and I tend to use salted butter (later) for the onions and mushrooms. You can always add salt to taste later. If it’s over-salted, there’s only so much you can do with butter and sugar to correct it.

While this is cooking away at 325 for 2 ½ hours, you can get on with the pearl onions and mushrooms.

Pearl onions can be awfully tedious to peel when raw. Solution: Cut off the root end and plunk them all in boiling water for about three minutes. The peels will then slip off in the most cooperative way. They get sautéed in butter, covered with chicken broth and simmered down until the broth has reduced to a syrupy glaze.

Mushrooms: I prefer to cut them in half and place them face-down in the butter and let them brown. That way, I only have to cook one side of them really well.

The mushrooms stay juicy and mushroomy that way. And remember, don’t crowd the pan or they won’t brown. You’ll just be braising mushrooms in mushroom juice.

When the beef is done, Julia instructs us to remove the beef and strain the sauce. I have to admit that I’ve done that – once. It’s a hot, messy ordeal and in all honesty, I fail to see how straining the sauce will make this creation any more appealing than it already is.
For one thing, the sauce always comes out with the perfect consistency. (Follow Julia's instructions, remember?) There's never been any need to thicken it or thin it out.

Also, it tastes even better left over and served the next day. Any difference in sauce-texture (smoothness, maybe?) that might be achieved by straining will be long gone by then.

Add the mushrooms and onions to the beef and serve. For the accompaniment, egg noodles are good. Rice drinks up too much of the sauce. Small potatoes, boiled and sautéed with butter and parsley might be best.

How many superlatives can one use in describing this creation? The wine sauce gives it such a rich, tangy complexity. Combine that with the sweetness of the onions, the rich, earthiness of the mushrooms along with the perfect balance of spices – the French have a word for “unctuosity” that I wish I knew. “Unctuous” describes it best.

I love this dish. Yes, even though I’ve made it numerous times, I got tears in my eyes the last time I made it – its goodness is that overwhelming. I made it on a Friday night and spent the entire weekend having it all to myself. Talk about a glimspe of heaven. . . .

. . . And remember, this is from someone who really doesn’t like beef stew.

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