I mentioned on Facebook how divine my house smelled last night while I was cooking Beouf Bourguignon and got some recipe requests. I looked online for a recipe similar to my version of the classic French beef stew, but they were all so much more complicated than necessary, so I am feeling bound to type up mine. This peasant dish, raised to haute cuisine by Antoine Carême, then brought to American home cooks 40 years ago by Julia Child is now experiencing a resurgence of interest thanks to last year’s film Julie and Julia. (I can’t help but wonder why the upstart’s name is first in the title?)
The recipe, as described in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, appears complicated, but really, this is home food and none of the techniques involved are beyond the scope of a home cook. Preparing the meat and sauce is simplicity. You get the onions and mushrooms ready while the meat is cooking. I do find peeling the two dozen pearl onions tedious and if I don’t have them on hand or don’t want to deal with them, I just saute a sliced onion along with the carrots and add them to the meat. That said, the browned whole pearl onions bring a welcome contrasting sweetness to the dish that is worth the effort, so do try it that way at least once. Sadly, no one in my family but me likes mushrooms, so I have to cordon mine in a corner of the sauteuse pan I use for braising, then scoop them into a little serving bowl for myself before putting the rest of the meat and sauce in another serving bowl.
You may notice there is no bacon, fat back, lardons, or any other form of smokey pork fat goodness in my recipe. I’m all for it much of the time and we even go so far as to cure and smoke our own bacon, but I feel the act of soaking, which Julia recommends to remove the saltiness, just negates the whole purpose of using a cured fat. When I’ve just used bacon fat, I have found the dish gets too salty and the smokiness doesn’t add to the dish. So, I use tallow, which is rendered beef fat. If you don’t have any tallow, clarified butter or ghee would work. You can DIY, of course. Or, you can completely ignore me and go for the pork fat. C’est la vie.
I also find flouring the meat unnecessary and knowing that so many are trying to avoid gluten and grains, I can assure you that you are missing nothing. I quit doing that ages ago, when I started using the sauteuse pan, which, because of its large surface area, readily thickens the sauce without the addition of flour. If you are using at Dutch oven and find that your sauce isn’t thick enough in the end, you can always thicken with a beurre manie or potato starch if you eschew gluten (to avoid lumps, first whisk a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid with a couple teaspoons of starch, then add the mixture to the sauce).
I served last night’s beouf bourguignon with homemade crème fraîche. O. M. G. Really, just plan a day or so ahead and do it. Your taste buds, if they could, would bow down and say, “Bless you!” Sour cream, quark, or even yogurt would be fine. I believe Julia says to serve this with boiled potatoes, though it is also quite good with roasted or mashed potatoes, buttered egg noodles…oh anything to catch that sauce! And don’t forget a side of halved Brussels sprouts, boiled for a few minutes, then browned in bacon fat. Nom-nom-nom, says the lady who doesn’t like Brussels sprouts.
Someone asked if using grass-fed beef made a difference in the cooking time. I simply cook this until the meat is tender, not according to any specific time. Do keep an eye on things during what you expect to be the last hour or so, especially if you use a sauteuse, rather than a Dutch oven. The sauce can go from perfectly thick to not-so-perfectly dry rather quickly if you are not paying attention. I simply add more broth or even the rinse water from the jar of tomato sauce if more liquid is needed toward the end.
3 pounds lean stewing beef, cut into 2-inch cubes
Salt and pepper
2-4 tablespoons tallow
1 carrot, diced
2 cloves mashed garlic
2 cups red wine, young and full-bodied (Pinot Noir or Burgundy is usually recommended, though I often use an inexpensive Bordeaux)
2 to 3 cups beef stock
1 pint tomato sauce (optional)
leaves from 4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
18 to 24 pearl onions
1 pound cremini mushrooms, quartered
4 tablespoons butter, divided
Preheat oven to 325F. Sprinkle salt and pepper all over the cubed meat. Melt tallow over medium high heat in a large saute pan or sauteuse. Add seasoned meat to the pan in a single layer, browning in batches if your pan is not large enough to accomodate all the meat at once without crowding. Remove the browned meat to a bowl. Saute the yellow onions and carrots in the pan for 10-15 minutes, until they are browned. Add the garlic and saute for 60 seconds. Remove the browned veggies with the meat, return the pan to the heat and immediately add the wine. Using a flat wooden spatula, deglaze the pan, scraping the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Add the stock, tomato sauce (if using), thyme leaves, bay leaf, meat, and vegetables to the pan. Bring to a simmer on the stove. Cover the pan and cook in the oven for 3 to 4 hours, or until you can easily pull the meat apart with a fork. Add the onions and mushrooms and cook for another 2o minutes. If you feel the sauce is not thick enough, remove the meat and vegetables from the sauce. Put the cooking pan on a medium-high burner, then thicken with a potato starch or beurre manie (typically, one uses flour to thicken at the start of cooking and a root starch for thickening at the end of cooking, but in a pinch, the flour-butter mix works). Return meat and vegetables to the pan and gently stir, coating everything in sauce.
In the meantime, prepare the onions and mushrooms. To peel the onions, boil them for 1 minute, then drain. Cut off the ends, the slip off the skins. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a saute pan over medium high heat. Brown the onions in the pan for 10 minutes, remove and set aside. Return saute pan back to burner. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and saute the mushrooms for about 8-10 minutes. If you, like me, must keep the mushrooms out of the finished dish, as they begin to brown sprinkle salt on the mushrooms and add a splash of red wine to the saute pan and cook for 1 more minute. Feel free to add some more butter, too. You deserve it. Set the mushrooms aside with the onions.
When the meat is tender, gently stir in the onions and mushrooms, then serve. Bon Appétit!