What dish would I bring to the audition? What was my “signature dish”? I had never thought about it before, and now I had to choose something that I thought was representative of my cooking. After a two weeks of rolling the idea around in the back of my mind, I arrived at what in retrospect was the inevitable conclusion: I would cook boeuf bourguignon.
It was the first complex dish I learned to cook, and one that continues to reveal new lessons to me in the kitchen. It requires time and patience, needs the best possible ingredients, and can be assembled stepwise over the course of a few days. But if I wanted to impress a tasting judge, I had to refine the recipe beyond my current method. I wold have to pay attention to every ingredient, which began with my laborious preparation of beef stock.
I returned to my butcher for boneless chuck roast and salt pork. As luck would have it, they had just put out their own salt-cured pork jowl, not unlike my own guanciale before the drying step. I grabbed a pound of that, knowing I’d probably make the dish twice, and four pounds of the chuck roast. For the other key ingredient I consulted with my friend Andrea — a former caterer currently working at Cambridge Wine and Spirits — about which wine to use. I would normally select an Oregon pinot nior, but she sent me two bottles of Hahn 2007 Meritage, claiming that it had a better fruit backbone than similarly-priced pinots.
With all of my key ingredients assembled, I had to reconsider my method. The Julia Child/Jacques Pepin recipe I use has you place the browned beef and lardons in the pot first, followed by the aromatics tied in a cheesecloth bundle. No mater how carefully I did this in the past, bits of vegetable and herb escaped and stuck to the beef, marring the appearance of the meat. The solution to the problem was in Thomas Keller’s boeuf bourguignon recipe from the Bouchon cookbook. He puts the aromatics in the pot first, layers damp cheesecloth on top, then the meat and lardons, and then tops the whole assembly with a parchment lid. This arrangement keeps the meat clean and submerged below the level of the simmering liquid, and allows easy removal of the meat when it is done cooking — just lift up the cheesecloth with the meat and let the juices strain out.
So that’s what I did. Last Tuesday, just hours after finishing the stock, I cut and browned lardons, trimmed the chuck roast into precise 1 by 2 by 3-inch pieces, sauteed the beef in the rendered pork fat, and layered my pot as per Keller’s method. I poured the fat off my sauté pan, deglazed with a cup of the wine, added the loosened fond to the pot along with most of the wine (reserving two ounces for finishing the sauce), added three cups of beef stock to just cover the meat, covered with a parchment lid and then the pot cover, and placed in a 325°F oven for an hour an forty-five minutes.
I lifted the meat out with the cheesecloth and set it aside, then I strained the braising liquid to separate the spent vegetables. From this point until the dish was completed my chinois became my constant companion. As Keller states in The French Laundry Cookbook:
The final clarifying stage of a sauce is passing it through a chinois. French Laundry chefs will pass a sauce through a chinois twenty times or more, till it is perfectly clean and all the particles that can muddy it have been caught in its mesh. We’re always “cleaning” sauces with a chinois — no liquid should move from one pot or container into another except through a chinois.
I passed the strained sauce back into a smaller casserole into which I had transferred the meat, covered it, and refrigerated it overnight. The next day I prepared the onion and mushroom garnish, working with carefully selected button mushrooms and multi-colored fresh pearl onions. I reheated the beef and sauce, strained out the sauce again and thickened it with a buerre manié. More skimming followed, then I combined all of the ingredients for a final brief simmer.
In an effort to improve the appearance of my plate, I purchased a set of wide-brimmed plain white bowls for serving. Here, you may recall, was my last plating of the dish:
And here was my new final plate:
I invited Andrea and her husband over for a tasting and evaluation dinner. She loved the dish, but made a few suggestions: thicken the sauce a bit more, leave the crusts on the croutons, and cut them a bit thicker. She thought the juxtaposition of the rustic croutons (made from brioche, inspired by the foie gras course at Per Se) with the refined sauce was perfect.
That was Wednesday night. My plan was to spend the next two days doing actual work, then cook version two of the dish on Saturday, finishing it on Sunday morning just before I had to leave for the audition. I bought another four pounds of chuck (my butcher loves me now) and braised it on Saturday morning. I made a few adjustments (more thyme and garlic) and knew I was onto something. This version tasted even better than the first.
With the improved version in the fridge waiting for the next morning’s finishing touches, I had one more task ahead of me: the application. But that’s a story for the next post.
Beef, salt pork: Savenor’s Market
Pearl onions, button mushrooms: Trader Joe’s
Wine: Cambridge Wine & Spirits