Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon
On my recent visit to Ottawa, I was disconcerted to hear the phrase “and she has a food blog” while being introduced.
To be true, it sounds better than “and she has no job.” And there is the fact that I am, for at least the next 50-odd days, writing about the intersection of food and my life. My daughter and I debated (briefly) about whether I merit this dubious status, and a comparison was made (not for the first time) to the movie Julie and Julia.
We were two women with wine and time on our hands. What followed was this:
- We settled in to watch the 2009 movie about food blogger Julie Powell and her 365-day mission to cook the 524 recipes from Julia Child’s celebrated cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
- Then we moved onto some YouTube binge-watching of The French Chef, Child’s fabulously funny and educational television series.
- Finally, inspired and possibly a bit tipsy, we hit upon our next move: to make Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon for a Family Day dinner. After all, it was good enough for Julie Powell’s ill-fated dinner with Judith Jones, the woman who first published Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Grocery shopping en francais
We waited until Family Day to do our grocery shopping. That’s when I learned, and Erin belatedly remembered, that almost everything in Ottawa shuts down on a statutory holiday. Merde. Undaunted, we headed across the river to Quebec to bilingually purchase ingredients for our French stew: beef, mushrooms, pearl onions, beef stock and oh so much wine.
Erin has made a version of the dish several times so she led the charge while I researched recipes, provided commentary and inspected the wine’s quality. It was a tough job.
The recipes we used came from a few sources: a website called Julia Child’s Recipes, Simply Recipes, and the Epicurious version for the slow cooker. Even Julia, in the introduction to her recipe, noted: “As is the case with most famous dishes, there are more ways than one to arrive at a good boeuf bourguignon.”
And we watched — repeatedly — the first-ever episode of The French Chef detailing the process of making boeuf bourguignon. This 29-minute, direct-to-tape video is sheer genius and a must-watch for anyone making this dish for the first time.
Did we use a kitchen castoff? Nope. But I don’t feel bad about it. I am on vacation, and it was worth it to spend this glorious day in the kitchen with Erin and Julia.
This is how we did it
- 6 thick slices of bacon, cut into small chunks
- 1 onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 large carrot, sliced into largish chunks
- 3 – 4 tbsp olive oil
- 3 lbs lean stewing beef, cut into 2-inch cubes
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp flour
- 3 cups red wine, preferably a burgundy or pinot noir
- 2 ½ to 3½ cups beef stock
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- ½ tsp thyme
- Bay leaf
- 18 to 24 peeled white pearl onions (about 1″ in diameter)
- 3 – 4 tbsp butter
- Herb bouquet — 4 parsley sprigs, ½ bay leaf, ¼ tsp thyme, tied in cheesecloth. Alternately, use a drawstring tea filter in which you’ve placed ¼ tsp thyme, ½ crumbled bay leaf and ½ tsp dried rosemary
- 1 lb fresh mushrooms, washed and quartered
The first thing we did was to disengage the smoke alarm. In Erin’s tiny apartment, the smoke from the browning beef is more than her alarm can handle.
Most of the recipes encourage simmering the bacon first but Erin flatly refused. “If we are cooking with bacon, why would we boil out that flavour?” she asked. Rhetorically. Why would I argue?
Prepare the stew
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Dry beef thoroughly with paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp.
Put the bacon in a saucepan on medium-low heat to render the fat. When it is mostly cooked, use a slotted spoon to remove it to a side plate. Add onion, garlic and carrots to the fat in the pan, turn up the heat and cook until onions are tender. Remove them to a side plate.
Add about 1 tbsp oil to the pan and get it quite hot, until the fat is almost smoking. Add the beef, a few pieces at a time, and sauté until browned on all sides. During this process, we found it fun to channel Julia Child’s high-pitched, pseudo-British ebullience as we called out “Don’t crowd the beef!”
Move browned beef into an oven-safe casserole dish. When all the beef is browned, toss with salt and pepper then sprinkle on the flour and toss again to lightly coat the beef. Put the uncovered casserole into the hot oven for four minutes. Then remove from the oven, add the cooked bacon, toss again and return to the oven for another four minutes. This process helps brown the flour and covers the meat with a light crust. Remove casserole from the oven.
Child calls the brown bits left behind after browning the beef “part of your treasure,” meaning you’ll be wanting to keep that. Into the empty saucepan, pour in about 3 cups of red wine over medium heat, then stir and scrape to get all the brown bits off.
Oven or slow cooker?
Place the meat into whichever vessel you will cook in (ovenproof casserole or slow cooker vessel.) Add the wine, tomato paste, herbs, cooked onions, garlic and carrots, and stir until mixed. Top up with 2 – 3 cups of beef stock, just enough until the liquid barely covers everything else. If the vessel is stove-top friendly, bring the meat and liquids to a simmer on top of the stove.
If cooking in the oven, turn the heat down to 325 degrees, place in the lower third of the oven and let simmer for 3 to 4 hours. If using a crock-pot, cover and turn heat on to low and let cook slowly for 3 to 4 hours. In either method, the meat is done when a fork pierces it easily.
Prepare the braised pearl onions and the mushrooms
For the onions: The easiest way to peel pearl onions is to submerge them in boiling water for about a minute, then cut off the root end and pinch the top. The skin should slip right off.
Heat 1½ tbsp butter with ½ tbsp oil until bubbling in a skillet. Add onions and sauté over moderate heat for about 10 minutes, stirring and rolling them to brown as evenly as possible. Try not to break their skins. Add ½ cup of beef stock, salt and pepper to taste and the herb bouquet. Cover and simmer for 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are tender and the liquid has evaporated. Remove herb bouquet and set onions aside.
For the mushrooms: Heat a skillet with 1½ tbsp butter and equal amount oil over high heat.
In The French Chef, Julia Child teaches that you’ll know the butter is hot enough when it stops foaming. “And it always take a little while,” she says. Waiting. “You just have to be patient and wait.” When the foam starts to subside, add the mushrooms, then toss and shake the pan for 4 to 5 minutes. The goal is not to cook them through, but to give them more flavour. Once they begin to brown lightly, remove from the heat and set aside.
“Now,” says Julia, “comes the very important and not difficult part about …
“Making the sauce”
When the meat is fork-tender, strain the entire contents through a sieve set over a saucepan. We did not bother with skimming the fat here, but you can. However, we did follow Child’s original televised instructions about thickening the sauce with a beurre manié (kneaded butter) which is equal parts butter and flour, mashed into a paste and used for thickening.
Yes. More butter.
Simmer a few minutes until it has thickened and, if need be, keep simmering until it reduces more. Taste carefully for seasoning — you can add more salt, pepper or even garlic at this stage. It should be thick enough to coat a spoon lightly, about 2½ cups in total.
The beef and vegetable mixture can be returned to the serving casserole, and the pearl onions and mushrooms arranged on top. Pour sauce over meat and vegetables. Cover and simmer 2 to 3 minutes, basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce several times.
Serve in casserole, or arrange stew on a platter surrounded with potatoes, noodles or rice. And enjoy a young, full-bodied red wine while you eat.
Curious about my “Kitchen Castoffs” concept? Here’s the explainer describing my 100-day project.
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