Friday, December 5, 2008

75. Beef Bourguignon (p. 440)

There are two dishes that changed Julia Child's life, and by extension, American cooking, forever.

The first, sole meunière, was Julia's first meal upon arriving in France with her husband, Paul. Julia described this elegantly simple dish as a revelation, and as "an opening up of the soul and spirit for me."

This introduction sparked Julia's interest in la cuisine Française, inspired her to take classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and led her to write a manuscript, with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, for a cookbook aimed at making French food approachable for the American home cook.

That's where the second dish, beef bourguignon, comes in. Julia's manuscript found its way into the hands of Judith Jones, a general book editor at Alfred A. Knopf, who was on the lookout for a new French cookbook for the American market. And as she described in a 2004 New York Times piece, Judith took the manuscript home with her one night and made Julia's recipe for beef bourguignon. The result was "a masterpiece," and Judith determined to get Mastering the Art of French Cooking published. The book launched Julia's television career and inspired thousands of Americans to start cooking. None of that would have been possible without these two dishes.

This story even touches on cook-through blogging in a "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" sort of way. When Julie Powell was working on her Julie/Julia Project, the original cook-through blog, in which she set out to cook and blog about every recipe in MtAoFC, Judith Jones accepted an invitation to have Julie Powell cook for her, and Julie planned to cook (what else?) beef bourguignon. But, in a very "Big Night" turn, Judith never showed up, and Julie and her husband Eric, ended up eating alone.

So, it was against this backdrop that I cooked this recipe* a few Sundays ago when a couple of my good friends from grad school came over for dinner. I have been looking forward to making this dish for some time now, and I wasn't disappointed.

My friends were coming over for dinner at 6 (it was a "school night," so we planned on eating early), and so, at about 3, I was in the midst of congratulating myself on getting an early start on cooking, when I re-read the part of the recipe that says "simmer gently ... 3 1/2 to 4 hours." Not an auspicious start, but I didn't let it rattle me. We'd just have more time to catch up over glasses of wine while we waited for dinner to be done. I did kick myself a little bit for not making this on Saturday since the Cook's Note says that the dish can be made a day in advance "and in fact it tastes even better made ahead, because this gives the flavors time to develop."

This is a pretty time-consuming recipe with lots of steps. First I cut a couple of slices of thick-sliced bacon into one-inch pieces. I boiled the bacon pieces in water for a few minutes. I assume that the purpose of this step is to get rid of some of the salt and to mellow out the strong bacon flavor. I drained the bacon and set it a side.

Next, the beef. Since my wife is "semi-veg," I rarely cook beef, and I'm not very knowledgeable about my cuts of meat. The Book calls for three pounds of boneless beef chuck cut into two-inch chunks. I went to my local butcher, and as usual, I stared blankly at the array of meats on display. I told the butcher what I wanted and what I was going to do with it. He reached into the case and selected a nice, big chuck roast, and he even offered to cut it up for me. I thought that was great. The butcher went down a bit in my estimation, however, when I saw him drop a chunk of the beef on the floor and actually shoot a look in my direction to see whether I saw what happened. I wonder if I hadn't been watching, if the five-second rule would have been invoked. Anyway, I divided my not-dropped-on-the-floor beef (which I had patted dry and seasoned with salt and pepper) into two zip top bags with a bit of flour, and shook to coat the meat. (I'm not sure why The Book insists on having you use two bags? Couldn't you just do it in two batches in the same bag? Then, I browned the flour-coated beef in my Dutch oven in a few batches, and set it aside while I deglazed the pan (which had developed a nice fond) with some brandy.

The next step is a little bit odd. The Book says to make a bouquet garni from a celery stalk studded with a couple of whole cloves, parsley, thyme, and bay leaves. I've got no problem with that. The weird part is that this instruction is smack dab in the middle of the recipe, and then The Book doesn't tell you what to do with the bouquet garni until about five steps later.

Once the pan was deglazed, I melted some butter and cooked the chopped onion, garlic and carrots with the blanched bacon. Once the onions began to turn golden, I added some tomato paste, and then the beef and a bottle of wine. The Book calls for Burgundy or Cotes du Rhone. They didn't have any Bugundy at the wine shop I went to, so I used Cotes du Rhone, and it worked well. I brought this to a simmer and let it cook, partially covered for about three hours.

While the stew simmered, I blanched some boiling onions for about a minute and ran them under cold water. This step does make peeling them a lot easier, but they're still a pain in the neck. I browned the oinons in some butter, and then added some water to the pan and simmered them until they were tender. I raised the heat and boiled them until the liquid had thickened.

After that, I browned some mushrooms in some butter and cooked them until all of the liquid evaporated.

After the stew was done simmering, I stirred in the onions and mushroom, seasoned with salt and pepper, and tasted it to make sure that it was just right.

I served the stew with buttered egg noodles. The Book suggests serving it with parsleyed boiled potatoes, but I decided at the last minute that noodles would be easier, and anyway, noodles are mentioned as an acceptable accompaniment in MtAoFC, so I had the Julia Child seal of approval.

The finished dish was great. The beef was tender and delicious. The sauce was thick and rich with an excellent layered flavor. Beef bourguignon is the perfect example of home-style comfort food being elevated to haute cuisine status. It's a classic.

Date Cooked: November 16, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: B+

*This recipe from is almost identical to the one in The Book, and both are very similar to Julia Child's recipe in MtAoFC.

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