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The Beef About Boeuf
Boeuf Bourguignon. Boeuf a la Bourguignonne. It’s surprising how much loose talk and free-form spelling there is surrounding this classic French dish. It is one of my husband’s favorite dining accessories to accompany a good burgundy. He does go backward on his meal requests, especially for his December birthday. He picks out a wine and then wants something appropriate to go with it. And this year, the winning accessory was, indeed, Boeuf Bourguignon.
My first encounter was a one-paragraph recipe in one of my Desert Island Cookbooks – one that I would make sure to grab if my house were on fire or my ship were sinking – The Flavors Of France In Recipes And Pictures. The second was through a dinner party a friend gave, when she told me she had spent the weekend making Julia Child’s version from Volume I of Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. The third encounter came with Mary Bond, a remarkable and self-effacing woman who taught me the version she learned at the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris. She was one of a very few Americans who earned Le Grand Diplôme, which at that time required three years plus a hefty exam and practique (her certificate was signed by the chef with the additional and hard-won encomium très bien). Something very close to her recipe can be found in Henri Paul Pellaprat’s The Great Book Of French Cuisine. Pellaprat co-founded the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris with Marthe Distel.
Besides the birthday boy’s request, food writer and editor Nancy McKeon recently told me her favorite version is from Deborah Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest of the famous Mitford sisters who died at the age of 94. A quite remarkable woman who oversaw the success of Chatsworth as a restored commercial enterprise and tourist venue, “Debo” also wrote several books about the famed estate and a most intriguing memoir titled Wait For Me!.
Treading Dangerous Waters
I am now going to add my version to the BB pile, which is loosely based on what I learned from Mary Bond and looking at some “trucs” or hacks I learned from some French videos and friends. Some things I have learned along the way: you can use shallots instead of those hard-to-find fresh pearl onions – never use the frozn ones. Or use half-moon slices of white onion – or yellow (white onion is a bit sweeter than the yellow one). Some versions add a bit of tomato paste, which I like, but even better for me is adding a a small chunk of bittersweet chocolate to the sauce, something I learned from Julia Cuvy,
I now marinate the meat, onions and carrots along with the herbs at least two hours or overnight in the wine, which will be saved for cooking the dish. The birthday boy likes bacon, but I prefer pancetta. Beef chuck, shoulder, cheeks are all good – you do want fat and sinew in the meat. For getting the perfect sear, I think a good heat-conducting metal pan is better than enameled cast iron. But the latter is excellent for the long slow cooking of the final dish. Copper has spoiled me, but there are many other options in good metal heat conduction. For me, Champignons de Paris or Cremini mushrooms are de rigueur, but I do sauté them in butter and then add them in for the remaining 30 minutes. You will need some sort of beef stock to add to the Boeuf if the liquid gets too low. I also found that simmering it on the top of the stove is a lot easier than in the oven. Your sauce somehow seems more unctuous. It is drop-dead delicious the next day. Nancy McKeon even freezes portions when she makes the D of D version. So in spite of all the hand-wringing over the right way to prepare B A La B, it is quite a homey dish and can easily be part of your December recipe stash.
- 2.2lbs(1kg) stewing beef with some fat and cartilege, diced in 1.5in(2.5cm) pieces
- 3 large carrots or 4 smaller ones - I like the multicolored ones - peeled and cut into pieces the same size as the meat.
- a bouquet garni with 1 or 2 bay leaves, celery, thyme, 3 whole cloves, parsley, tied together - you can add rosemary too.
- 1 large clove garlic
- 2 strips of orange peel -optional
- 1 /2 oz bittersweet chocolate or 1-2 tablespoons of tomato paste, also optional
- 7-8 oz (150-160gr) diced bacon, or guanciale or pancetta
- 1 large white or yellow ornion, peeled and cut into half moon slices.
- a few whole black peppercorns
- 3/4 -1 bottle red burgundy (you can have a glass)
- 1/4 cup flour
- Fine sea salt
- 12 -14 cremini or Paris mushrooms, cleaned and stemmed, poached briefly in some butter - if large, cut them in half.
- 1 cup or two of beef stock
- In a large bowl, add the diced beef, onions, carrots, bouquet garni, pepper corns, and add the wine before you cover the bowl and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for 6 to 24 hours.
- When you are ready to saute the meat, strain but save the wine.
- In a large saute pan add enough butter and olive oil just to film the bottom of the pan.
- Over medium heat, saute the meat - the marinade and butter will give the pieces a nice dark sear without overcooking them.
- As you sear each batch, salt and pepper the pieces.
- Remove the meat pieces to a plate and saute the lardons (bacon, pancetta, guanciale - your choice).
- Add some of your flour to the lardons and saute briefly so that the flour is cooked in the fat.
- Add the meat, the onions, carrots (I leave the peppercorns behind along with the orange peel).
- Nestle in the bouquet garni and add the wine in the saute pan or transfer to a stewpan or cocotte that has a lid.
- Bring up to a strong simmer and then turn the heat down and allow it to cook for 2-1/2 hours on top of the stove - I find stove top easier to monitor than the oven.
- If you run low on liquid, add some of the beef stock.
- You can add the tomato paste OR chocolate at any point if you like.
- Gently saute the mushrooms in some butter and add to the stew in the last half hour - they should be just tender, not mushy.
- Adjust seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper.
- You can refrigerate and then reheat before serving, making this a a great dish any time during a busy week.
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes a blog about food in all its aspects – recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food related issues.