The Heart of Burgundy: A Valentine

I think one of the main differences between me and most of you, dear readers, is that I am older. And, by being older, I can pretty much say that I not only watched more episodes of Julia Child cooking shows, but that I also watched them when they first aired.

Today, I made Julia’s bœuf Bourguignon, a hearty dish from the heart of the Burgundy region of France... Heart, of course, being the operative word for Valentine's Day!

For many of us, Julia Child is a kitchen hero, kitchen goddess, or even kitchen witch (and I mean a good witch, like Glinda). She is synonymous with food, and only with great food at that.

The other day I started wondering what it is that she actually did for me. How did she help me personally in my culinary journey? Here is what I came up with:

Julia got both my mother and me really excited about food. Mom was always a good cook, but access to Julia on television really changed things in our household. And it changed me, too, as I started watching the shows with Mom at a very young age. My mother became an amazing and adventurous cook, and the entire family's culinary expectations were raised. Today all three of my brothers love to cook too.

She inspired - and continues to inspire - me. Akin to Gusteau in Dinsey's Ratatouille, Julia believed that anyone can cook. She knew it in her heart, and she shared it weekly in her signature mezzo-soprano warble. I sometimes look at her recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and am intimidated. But then I remember why she wrote that two volume set, and I simply forge on. I haven't yet had a disaster... well, as long as I followed her directions.

She taught me so much and trained me well. She imparted little things that have made such a difference in my day-to-day cooking:

She made me laugh. I laughed with her - and occasionally at her - because she wasn't afraid to laugh at herself. I try to laugh at myself, too, especially when I know I am taking the kitchen too seriously. I also really love that she owned a video of Dan Akroyd’s loving parody of her on that incredible Saturday Night Live skit. (Sadly this isn't available on YouTube so I can't share it with you.)

She modeled the art of believing. I think it is true that if you believe it, you can do it. Forge ahead, don't stray from your objectives, and your results will be good. Okay, the results aren't always good, but you definitely learned something in the process.

She advised me wisely. "If you're afraid of butter, use cream!"

I made my first bœuf Bourguignon when I was just out of college and had just purchased both volumes - used - of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Being pretty young, I was very exciting to make this basic, exotic sounding and, let's face reality, peasant dish for my friends. It cost me a fortune, took endless hours, exhausted me - and was, in the end, a happy success.

I didn't make it again till after the movie Julie and Julia came out on DVD. Once the movie was purchased, a food-themed movie night was a given. But let's first talk about the movie.

Did you like it? I liked half of it. I liked the parts with Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci as Mr. and Mrs. Paul Child; I could watch them all day. I was bored, annoyed and felt cheated, however, by Julie. I am still hoping that someone will eventually edit out all the Julie parts to make a one-hour docu-drama of Julia and Paul.

Something I discovered after all these years of not making bœuf Bourguignon: doing it right still takes time. You can't just whip it up after a long day at the office. But that's okay; that is why we have weekends. I think I relearned as much this time around as I learned the first time.

Naturally, the recipe that follows has my slight changes. I certainly don't use American bacon, for example, and (as you can guess) I leave out the garlic. But other than that, it is pretty faithful to Julia's.

So, pour yourself a glass of wine, tune up your best falsetto, and warble with me: Bon Appétit!

~ David

Bœuf Bourguignon

6 ounces meaty salt pork

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 pounds lean stewing beef (rump roast or chuck roast)
1 carrot, sliced
1 large white onion, sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups of full-bodied red wine - I used a Côtes de Rhône
2 to 3 cup beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
3 or 4 fresh bay leaves, or 1 dried bay leaf

24 small white onions, peeled

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup beef stock
bouquet garni consisting of a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme and 4 sprigs parsley

1 pound cremini (or button) mushrooms, quartered

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Parsley sprigs for serving

Notes before starting:

Remove rind from the slab of salt pork. Slice the salt pork into 1/4-inch slices and then into 1/4-inch batons. Place into a small saucepan of boiling water and reduce heat. Simmer for 10 minutes and then drain; dry well with paper towels. Set aside; both the rind and the batons will be used.

Preheat the oven to 450°F (225°C).

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Sauté the batons of salt pork for 2 to 3 minutes until lightly browned. Remove the salt pork from the pan with a slotted spoon and put on a plate; set aside.

Raise the heat under the Dutch oven to medium high and add your dried beef cubes to the oil, a few at a time, as not to crowd them. There must be space between them otherwise they won't brow properly. Brown the cubes on all sides, then remove the and add them to the plate with the sal pork. Repeat the browning until all the beef is used.

Next, sauté the carrot and sliced onion until brown using the same fat. Pour off any excess fat. (Note: in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia actually never says what to do with the sautéed carrot and onion. Once they are sautéed, they are never mentioned again! Some references say remove them, while others just keep them as part of the stew. In this version, I removed them but have kept them at other times. I actually watched her French Chef episode on this - I believe it was the very first episode of the series - and she didn't have the salt pork, carrot, onion or any flour. Go figure...)

Return the beef and salt pork to the Dutch oven and season with the salt and pepper. The sprinkle with the flour and toss to coat. Place the Dutch oven in the preheated oven for 4 minutes, remove and toss the beef, then bake for an additional 4 minutes. This process toasts the flour.

Reduce oven heat to 325°F (170°C).

Add the wine and 2 cups beef stock to the meat, so that the meat is barely covered. If necessary, add more stock to cover the beef. Add the tomato paste, herbs and reserved bacon rind. Bring it to a simmer on top of the stove, then cover it and place it in the oven. Check after 15 minutes to make sure the stew is at a simmer. If it is more than a simmer, reduce heat. Conversely, if it isn't simmering, raise heat 5°. The meat should be done in about 3 hours - and will be very tender when pierced with a fork. Some cuts of meat (bottom round, for example) might take longer - up to 4 hours.

While the beef is in the oven, prepare the onions and mushrooms.

To brown-braise the onions, heat the butter and oil in a skillet until bubbling. Add the peeled onions and sauté over medium heat for about 10 minutes, rolling the onions so that they brown evening on all sides. Take care not to break their outer skins, and (per Julia) don't expect them to brown evenly.

Pour in the 1/2 cup beef stock and add the bouquet garni. Cover and simmer slowly for 40 to 50 minutes, until onions are tender and still retain their shape. At this point, most of the liquid will have evaporated. Remove the bouquet garni, and reserve onions for the stew.

Sauté the mushrooms. Julia's advice in this is spot on, and something I learned and will never forget. Sautéing mushrooms is easy following her counsel.

Place a large (14-inch), heavy skillet over high heat with the butter and oil. As soon as the foaming of the butter begins to subside, add the mushrooms. Toss and shake the pan for 4 to 5 minutes. In this time, they will fist absorb the fat. In a couple of minutes, the fat will reappear and the mushrooms will begin to brown. As soon as they have browned lightly, remove them from the heat and set aside.

When the beef is fork tender, pour the stew through a sieve set over a saucepan. Wash out the Dutch oven and return the beef and salt pork (this is where she doesn't mention the carrot and onion) to it. Add the brown-braised onions and sautéed mushrooms to the pot.

Skim the fat off the strained sauce, and simmer for a couple of minutes skimming any fat that rises. This will depend on how lean your beef was to start. You should have 2 1/2 to 3 cups rich, thick sauce that coats a spoon. If too thin, boil for a couple of minutes to reduce it. If too thin, add some beef stock a couple of tablespoons at a time. Pour the sauce over the meat, onions and mushrooms.

Cover Dutch oven and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring gently a few times. Serve over egg noodles, rice or boiled potatoes - or, as we did, with a nice crusty bread and a nice tumbler of wine.

Julia says it will serve 6, but I find it easily serves 8.

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