I have been making boeuf bourguignon for as long as I have been cooking – almost 30 years. I used the recipe in Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook for most of that time, until I discovered the Cook’s Illustrated recipe that streamlined the process and produced a decent facsimile of the original.
Diane loves this dish, so much so that I once cooked it on a sweltering August day, retreating to the only air-conditioned room in our apartment to cool off between steps. It had been a while since I made it, so it was the logical choice for dinner this past Valentine’s day. I decided to use Julia’s recipe again, but an updated version that appears in Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, her collaboration with Jacques Pepin.
It’s important to start a large piece of beef that you can cut into pieces of the size you need. Supermarket “stewing beef” is cut into irregular shapes and is made from irregular cuts, which produces variability on cooking time and final tenderness. I used a four pound beef chuck roast and a block of salt pork:
I cut the pork into long slices a half inch thick, then cut each slice into inch thick pieces. The pork was simmered in water for 10 minutes to remove some of the salt, drained and dried, then sauteed in oil for about 10 minutes until browned. Using a slotted spoon, I transferred the pork lardons into the cooking pot.
What follows is the most difficult part of the entire recipe: forcing yourself not to snack on the crispy pork bits. I tried only one, a measure of love for the dish’s recipient.
During the lardon prep (multitasking!), I separated the beef roast along its natural seams, trimmed away the fat, connective tissue, and silver skin, and cut the cleaned pieces into chunks about an inch square by two inches long. I would up with three pounds of chunks and a pound of scraps. I dried the chunks on paper towels, then added salt and pepper.
I browned the chunks in the rendered pork fat over medium high heat, taking care not to crowd the pan. This is the most important step in the recipe: the beef must be thoroughly, deeply browned. If you crowd the pan, the meat steams and won’t develop the crust required. The browned beef was added to the pot with the lardons, now safe from filching under a protective layer of beef.
While the beef browned (multitasking!), I prepped 1 1/2 cups each of carrots and onion, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces. I piled the pieces on top of a large square of cheesecloth, then added a head of garlic (separated into cloves, crushed, but not peeled), three bay leaves, six thyme sprigs, and about ten parsley stems.
I tied the cheesecloth into a bundle, set in in the middle of the pot (pushing the meat out of the way), then added a large chopped tomato. For the braising liquid, I used a bottle of burgundy (a 2005 Block 45 Oregon Pinot Noir), then added enough beef stock (Swanson’s Organic) to just cover the meat. Don’t skimp on the wine, it’s the second most important contribution to the final flavor of the dish. I usually spend between $15 – $20 on a bottle.
I brought the pot to a simmer on the stove, then covered it and transferred it to a 300 degree oven, where it cooked for two hours.
I took a detour at this point and started a pot of beef stock, made from the leftover chuck scraps, more carrot and onion, some celery, the remaining beef stock from the carton, and some water. I let that simmer for a few hours, then strained out the meat and vegetables.
During the two hour braise, I moved on to preparing the mushrooms and onions. Julia insists on blanching and peeling fresh pearl onions; I took a cue from Cook’s and used frozen peeled pearl onions instead. I added the onions to a pan with 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter, 1/2 teaspoon of sugar, a pinch of salt, and about a cup of the homemade beef stock. I simmered the onions, covered, for 10 minutes, then uncovered the pan and continued simmering until the liquid reduced to a glaze. At this point I added 10 ounces of small crimini mushrooms, and kept cooking until the mushrooms had browned.
When the braise was done, I removed the beef and lardons from the pot and strained the cooking liquid to remove the tomato pulp, seeds, and skins. I returned the liquid and meat the the pot, and let it sit, covered on the stove while I moved on to the garnishes.
Jaques Pepin recommends serving pommes de terre mont d’or with the boeuf, and since I was tired of always serving it with noodles, I thought I’d give the potatoes a try. I started a pot of mashed Yukon Gold potatoes while the mushrooms cooked (multi- oh, never mind) then added the mash to a food processor, to which I also added three eggs, 1/3 cup grated Gruyère cheese, and salt & pepper. I pulsed the mixture to combine the ingredients, then transferred it to a buttered gratin dish and covered with another 1/3 cup of the cheese.
After 30 minutes in a 300 degree oven, it came out like this:
Looks just like a potato soufflé, doesn’t it?
The final garnish was simple croutons, buttered and toasted in the oven along with the potatoes.
Entering the home stretch, I heated up the meat and sauce, then made buerre manié, a paste of two tablespoons each of softened butter and flour.
I whisked in a cup of the hot sauce, then returned the mixture to the pot and stirred to thicken. Once the sauce was gently simmering, I added the mushrooms and onions, corrected the seasoning, and added a quarter cup of the wine that would be served with dinner (2003 Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel).
At last, time for the final plating:
Did I forget to mention the haricots verts? You know how to cook green beans; these were garnished with shallots wilted in olive oil and fennel-thyme salt.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I have made this dish many times, but Di & I agreed this was the best version to date. There were many layers of flavor going on: the salty pork, the sweet onions, the rich beef, and the bright note from the uncooked wine. The potatoes were a perfect compliment, light, fluffy, and with a little bite from the aged cheese.
Miles liked it as well, even though I had to sell it to him as “beef stew with green beans and cheesy mashed potatoes.”
And there was dessert, but that’s the next post.