Like many of you, I grew up watching Julia Child’s TV show, “The French Chef,” as often as I could. But as silly as it sounds, at first I didn’t know she wrote cookbooks, too. Then one day, at my neighborhood library, I was introduced to “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
Published in 1961,“Mastering the Art of French Cooking” changed the way Americans thought about French food, and it changed me. Much to my Greek parents’ dismay, a “chef” was born — or at least an avid cook.
I was so eager and inspired that I sometimes couldn’t resist testing new foods on my long-suffering family (“Please, Lucy! No more experiments,” my tired and hungry parents begged me when they came home from work, only to find something unfamiliar on the stove.)
As an early aficionado of Julia’s masterwork, I learned that if I took my time, I could trust both her recipes and her methodology. And one of my earliest successes was boeuf bourguignon. Even my Greek parents found it acceptable.
Fast forward several decades to a recent dinner party that my husband and I hosted for our friend’s 80th birthday. I wanted to serve something memorable and also soul-warming. But most of all, it had to be foolproof.
So, to celebrate our friend’s milestone, what better time than now to return to the quintessential French dish: boeuf bourguignon! During the winter, I am especially excited about an excuse to dig into one of the world’s most delicious winter classics. And to keep things relatively effortless on the day of the dinner party, it’s a dish I could make days in advance. In fact, it’s better made at least a day ahead as that gives the flavors time to meld together for a mouth-watering result.
Boeuf bourguignon sounds intimidating, but it is basically beef stew. What makes it special is the addition of red wine, bacon or salt pork, mushrooms and pearl onions. Any number of versions are available, with a wide range of difficulty. My go-to recipe, of course, comes from the definitive “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
While still lengthy in execution, Julia Child breaks down the steps to a list of straightforward instructions alongside each ingredient, making them easy to follow. The result is certainly worth the effort.
Other recipes for boeuf bourguignon are as simple as throwing all the ingredients into a crock-pot and hoping for the best. And while that might be okay for everyday beef stew, I don’t quite recommend it for a special occasion. Something about a several hourslong lazy oven-braise in a heavy covered dutch oven makes this dish exquisite.
In truth, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit it (especially since Julia Child has been my life-long hero of the kitchen), I can’t resist adding my own tweaks even to Julia’s instructions. Some of the steps can be much less complicated today.
For example, in 1961, pearl onions had to be peeled, sautéd in beef broth, and further cooked in butter until tender. Today pearl onions are available frozen, pre-peeled and par-boiled. I knew that sautéing the mushrooms and the defrosted pearl onions in butter at the same time would yield a quicker and still perfect result.
In another example, while Julia specifies a slab of pork fatback, I use a good applewood bacon because I like the hint of smoky flavor. So, as usual, I interpret liberally as my own experience with a dish comes to play.
I substitute techniques or ingredients where appropriate. Luckily, boeuf bourguignon is a very forgiving dish, which is probably why there are so many versions of it.
But some steps must be given their due. I began by shaking the beef cubes in a bag of seasoned flour, and then browning them in batches in smoking hot olive oil.
It is important not to crowd the pan, otherwise the meat will boil instead of brown. As I browned batch after batch of the flour-covered beef, I was pleased with the dark brown crust forming on the cubes. Then, when I was finished browning the beef, I threw in the diced onion and garlic with a little more oil and sautéed until softened and light golden.
This also served to partially deglaze the pan. The house filled with mouth-watering aromas.
My husband often raises an eyebrow at the quality/price of the wine I choose for adding to a dish. But long ago, I learned (from Julia, of course!) that the wine should be good enough to drink.
That doesn’t mean it has to be an expensive vintage Bordeaux. A moderately priced French red table wine is the perfect addition to this dish. And please, don’t use what is known as “cooking wine,” which has salt and preservatives in it to keep it shelf stable. You may have it on hand for an emergency, to pour a few tablespoons when you deglaze a pan, but you should never use it for a dish like this.
Once your boeuf is well-browned, you can place it, along with the cooked bacon, carrots and a good drinkable red wine, in a dutch oven for baking (or, if you’re lucky enough, a 5-quart cocotte, a covered, enameled cast-iron pot like Julia’s.)
You will now cook the pearl onions and quartered mushrooms in butter and herbs in a large skillet until the vegetables are glistening and tender. These will be set aside to add to the beef during the last hour of cooking.
Although mashed potatoes are a traditional accompaniment, I opted to make duchess potatoes — a fancier and prettier version. To finely mashed potatoes, I add butter, cream and egg yolks. I spoon the mixture into a pastry bag with a star tip, and I pipe flower-like rosettes onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.
You can cook the plain potatoes and mash them well in advance. (Note: The potatoes must be completely smooth, free of skins and lumps, or they will not pipe.) But don’t add the other ingredients until you’re ready to pipe them. Once piped, the duchess potato rosettes can hold for an hour or so at room temperature before cooking them. Pop them into the oven for fifteen minutes to cook and brown them before dinner. Served floating elegantly on top of the stew, duchess potatoes act as both the starch and the garnish.
At our birthday dinner party, I was fortunate to be able to stop here because our other guests, fervent cooks all, enthusiastically asked to contribute something to the French-themed dinner. Our friend John made Parisian baguettes as good as any I’ve ever tasted. Sarah brought a fresh mesclun salad with beets, avocado and toasted breadcrumb-coated rounds of chevre. Polly brought canapés — with salmon gravlax, creme fraiche and dill. And everybody brought wine!
For a typical French dessert, I recommend a rustic apple galette. Uncomplicated to make and delightful to eat, this free-form pie satisfies every sweet tooth. Serve it with some good quality French vanilla ice cream, and you’ll have your guests swooning.
Relying on the classics certainly comes in handy. Not only do they produce an appealing meal, but also you can count on reliable timing and delicious results.
Getting back to basics is also a great exercise in relearning the building blocks of culinary technique. And for those who haven’t looked at “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in a while, I warmly endorse the walk down memory lane.
And if you have never read it before, buy a copy. You will enjoy exploring it, and you might even be inspired to cook a few of the recipes from Julia Child’s tour du forcecookbook yourself.
Classic Boeuf Bourguignon
6 ounces thick applewood smoked bacon, cut into dice
3 pounds beef round roast, trimmed of fat and cut into 2” pieces
1/2 cup flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
4 tablespoons of olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cups drinkable red wine, such as a French Cotes de Rhone
1 carrot, trimmed, peeled and cut into chunks
1 pound bag frozen pearl onions, defrosted and drained
1 pound brown or white mushrooms, cleaned and cut into quarters
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Cook the bacon in a heavy 5-quart Dutch oven over medium heat until the bacon is crispy and the fat is rendered. Remove bacon from the pan, but leave the bacon fat.
Place the flour, the salt and the pepper in a gallon-size plastic zip bag. Close the bag and shake to mix well. Open the bag and add the beef cubes. Close bag and shake to cover meat with flour mixture, making sure to pull cubes apart, so they are well coated.
Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil to the bacon fat in the Dutch oven. Add some of the meat cubes, enough to fill the pan without crowding. Brown on all sides over medium high heat. Remove to a shallow bowl and repeat with remaining meat, adding another tablespoon of oil if needed.
After all the meat is browned and removed from the pan, turn the heat to medium-low and add the remaining olive oil and the onions and garlic. Stir well to combine the vegetables with the crusty pan drippings. Turn down the heat to low, and sweat the vegetables for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the tomato paste and stir to mix well. Return the beef cubes and any juices to the pan, and stir to combine. Add the bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Slowly add the red wine, scraping all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the carrots. Add just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for about 5 minutes, cover and then place in the preheated oven. Bake for 2 hours undisturbed.
While the beef is cooking, melt 3 tablespoons of butter with 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Add the pearl onions and stir well to coat with the butter and olive oil. Continue to cook for about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook the mushrooms and onions until caramelized, about 10 minutes more. Set aside.
When the beef has cooked for 2 hours, remove the heavy casserole from the oven. Add the reserved bacon, and the sautéed mushrooms and pearl onions. Cover and return to the oven for another hour.
4 large golden potatoes, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup cream
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper
About 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Boil the potatoes in water until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain. Mash well, using a ricer or a food mill if available. Make sure the potatoes are very smooth. They may be made ahead to this point. To reheat, add a bit of cream or milk and reheat over very low heat, stirring well.
In a bowl, mash the warm potatoes with the butter until smooth. Using a whisk, add the cream to the potatoes. Whisk in the egg yolk until well combined. Add the salt and pepper to taste.
Fit a pastry bag with a large wide star tip, or use a gallon plastic bag with one corner snipped off, preferably with a tip inserted. Half fill the bag with the mashed potato mixture, and pipe circles close together but not touching on a parchment covered baking sheet. Refill the bag and repeat until all the potatoes are used up. Sprinkle evenly with the parmesan cheese.
About 15 minutes before serving, place the baking sheet in a preheated 400 degree oven. Allow to bake for about 10 minutes, until lightly browned.
To serve, place one or two rosettes next to or on the boeuf bourguignon.
Rustic Apple Galette
1 uncooked pie crust
3-4 large Gala apples, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Roll out the pie crust and place on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Arrange the apples in circles overlapping as needed leaving a 2 inch border around the edge. Drizzle with the honey. Sprinkle with the sugar and cinnamon. Dot with butter. Bring the edge of the pastry up and over the apples.
Bake the galette for about an hour, until the crust is browned and the apples are tender. Place the pan on a rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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