Braising is a beautiful thing, especially if you are lucky enough to own a Le Creuset dutch oven. Making a stew is comforting, calming and it makes the house smell great. Plus you have the added bonus of creating a deliciously tender and warming dish from a cheap and rather unattractive cut of meat. It may still be fairly unattractive at the end, but hey, looks aren't everything. The added benefit of serving stews and braised dishes is that they can be made ahead of time and reheated for your guests, leaving you free for cocktail hour.
My view of French cuisine changed a lot when I got Anthony Bourdain's, "Les Halles Cookbook." I encourage you to read it, especially if you have a sailor's mouth like me. He asserts that much of French cooking is about taking the most inedible parts of an animal and making them edible. If you look at it that way, it's understandable why they came up with all those sauces. He has great respect for food and it shows with his "make the unlovable lovable" attitude. My favorite section happens to be the chapter on "Blood and Guts," which includes recipes for veal kidneys, liver, tripe and pig's heart (trimmed of excess sinew, of course.) Is anyone else with me on proclaiming "sinew" as the least appetizing word ever?
I love French cuisine for many reasons, but especially because of how surprisingly simple most dishes are, not to mention delicious. Living in this country has only enhanced my love of eating well; and an appreciation for the seemingly simple recipe. After all, baguettes are just flour, yeast, salt and water, right? Crepes are made from eggs, flour and milk. How many ingredients are in an omelet? Then you ask, why the hell are they so hard to make? Well, as Julie Powell so astutely pointed out in her book Julie and Julia, simple does not mean easy.
Last weekend, I wanted to make the mother of all stews, Boeuf a la Bourguignon. Simple? Yes, if you can read a recipe and manage to break it down into steps. Easy? Not really. Let's just say it is time consuming. But, it was so good. No, it was amazing. It was even pretty but damn it if my camera was out of batteries. This is no dump-it-all-in-a-crockpot for 8 hours recipe. This has steps involving every pan you own and 2 lbs of butter. (Kidding, sort of…) It’s a beautiful dish and, to channel Anthony Bourdain, it’s magical.
Boeuf à la Bourguignon
3 lbs. beef chuck, shoulder or other cut for stew, cut in 2-in. pieces
For the Marinade:
3 cups (about 3/4 bottle) of good drinkable red wine, traditionally a Burgundy
***(this is more cost effective to make in France with so much good cheap wine, but I promise your $$ won't go to waste) Feel free to rename the dish, “Boeuf a la Syrah” if you like. I actually made “Boeuf a la Bergerac,” which sounds quite comical.
2 cups beef broth
1/4 cup brandy or cognac
1 onion, sliced
4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed a bit
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried rosemary
fresh parsley sprigs
5 whole cloves
10 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf (hell, go wild...use 2)
For the stew:
3 carrots, cut in 3-in. chunks
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 pound slab bacon or lardons, or regular bacon cut in wide chunks
1 pound pearl onions, peeled (frozen is great, thaw before using)
pinch of sugar
1 pound button mushrooms, thickly sliced or left whole if small to begin with
1-2 Tbsp flour
1-2 Tbsp butter, softened
4-5 more Tbsp butter
Combine beef and all the marinade ingredients in large bowl. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. The next day, drain the beef and reserve the liquid from the marinade (minus all the peppercorns, cloves, garlic, etc.) Dry off the beef with paper towels. Preheat oven to 275 degrees F/140 degrees C.
Blanch the bacon by covering the lardons with 2 inches of water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 3-5 minutes and drain. (This removes some of the salt and smoky taste says a Google search.) One might ask why use bacon at all if you don't want a smoky taste, but okay, Julia Child says to do it.
Melt 2 Tbsp butter and 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large dutch oven on medium heat. Add the lardons and sauté until brown and crisp. Remove lardons from the pan when done and set aside. Over high heat, add the beef in batches to sear and nicely brown each piece. Do not overcrowd the pan or you will end up with gray meat. This is an important step if you want a pretty outcome at the end. Remove meat from pan when browned.
Pour off all but 1 Tbsp of fat. Place the meat back in the pan; add the carrots, tomato paste and the reserved marinade, stirring to mix in tomato paste. Bring to a boil and taste for seasoning. Cover the pan and place in the oven for 3 hours.
Now, what to do with the rest of the stuff:
Place pearl onions in one layer in a wide skillet. Add enough water to almost cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain off water and add a Tbsp of butter, a pinch of sugar and some salt and pepper. Sauté the onions until they are golden brown and glazed.
In yet another pan, melt yet another few tablespoons of butter and sauté the mushrooms over medium high until browned and done to your liking. Add those lardons you've forgotten about to the pan and remove from heat.
Make a beurre manie by combining the softened tbsp of butter and tbsp flour into a paste.
When your 3 hours have past, remove the meat and carrots from the pan and skim some fat off the broth if it seems overly fatty. Bring liquid to a boil and whisk in some of your beurre manie, a little at a time, to slightly thicken the sauce. Return meat, carrots, your pearl onions, mushrooms and lardons to the stew.
Et Voila! Open a new bottle of red wine, since you've surely finished that other one by now, and eat your heart out. Serve with the tradition buttered noodles, potatoes, or just lots of crusty bread. Serves 6.