My appreciation for boeuf Bourguignon entered late in my life. It was there all along, defying my derision, even as I and many others of my generation turned up our noses. We wanted the new shiny thing around the bend. This was disappearing in the rearview mirror. And then one day, just as I would get into vinyl records, or started reading dusty books from some dead guy named Vonnegut, what was old became new again.
Boeuf Bourguignon is old as the hills, first recorded in print in 19th century France. By the time Julia Child wrote about it in her seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, boeuf Bourguignon was already a classic: “Carefully done, and perfectly flavored, it is certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man, and can well be the main course for a buffet dinner.”
These words, however, were published in 1961, and the five-years-ago version of me would have considered her statement passé. A beef stew in stock and red Burgundy wine on its face sounded as alluring as orthopedic shoe inserts.
Perhaps I was wrong and she was right. I wasn’t sure. What I needed was someone whose opinions meshed with mine, an authority on cool who could give me the real talk on the level, and tell me I was missing out:
It was all the convincing I needed.
This week I am cooking my way through Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. In nearly every other recipe of boeuf Bourguignon I looked up, including Julia Child’s, the dish called for veal stock, bacon, mushrooms, and pearl onions. Les Halles’ version edited down what was already an uncomplicated dish down to its essence.
It seemed to be a recurring theme throughout the cookbook: What is the bare minimum of ingredients one could employ and still retain the dish’s soul? Or put another way: What figurative fat could one trim? What is extraneous? What is the straightest line between two points?
Les Halles’ take on boeuf Bourguignon (pg. 202) eschewed veal stock, bacon, mushrooms, and pearl onions. This dish was simply beef shoulder cooked in red wine, with sliced onions and carrots providing the sweet backbone. Did this sound alluring? To be determined. But the man said it’s one of the best dishes in the book, and that counted for something.
(As with yesterday, I have decided not to reprint the Les Halles recipe verbatim. The lessons Bourdain impart could be applied to any boeuf Bourguignon. Mostly, it’s a ploy to get you to buy a really terrific cookbook from your local bookseller.)
Bourdain preached the fundamentals that culinary school students learn in their first semester. For example: You should not crowd the pan with too much meat. Instead, sear the cubed beef in batches, as too much meat will cool your cooking vessel and not achieve that crispy brown you’re seeking. The more brown on the surface of the meat, the greater the Maillard reaction, and the meatier your beef will taste. Plus, there’s more of those flavor-augmenting bits (called fond) stuck to the bottom for deglazing. For those who log much time in the kitchen, this may already be second nature. But there’s something about underscoring the basics that illustrates cause and effect with more clarity: Searing the beef in small batches will yield a more flavorful end product.
Once the two pounds of beef shoulder (a nicely marbled cut ideal for long stewing) had nice color on all sides, the meat was removed, and four onions—thinly sliced—went in the pot of olive oil and rendered beef fat. Two points: 1) The cookbook does not specify what size of onions. I used large Spanish onions, and four seemed too much, so I called an audible and took out about one onion’s worth. 2) As with the French onion soup, I highly suggest purchasing a mandoline to considerably cut your slicing time.
The onions don’t need to be caramelized, just soft and slightly golden, so 45 minutes to sauté wasn’t necessary. The cookbook claimed 10 minutes—I think 20 minutes is more like it. Then I added a few tablespoons of flour, which would help thicken the stew.
What surprised me most about this recipe was how little wine was used: just one cup of red Burgundy (Pinot Noir would be an acceptable substitute). Most of the liquid in this dish was water straight from the tap. For extra credit, Bourdain suggested adding two big spoonful of demi-glace. I had none on hand, and instead used Better Than Bouillon’s roast beef base, which provided that additional lift of rich meatiness. Then came the waiting.
During those two hours the stew simmered, the tough cubes of beef loosened, collagens broke down, eventually yielding to a fork tine with little resistance. A low heat accomplished this. High heat would seize up the meat. Bourdain, a man with great affinity for the English language, chose his words carefully: “A gentle simmer,” he implored.
The recipe’s final suggestion, though optional, asked for us suck it up and wait even longer. “This dish is much better the second day... Refrigerate overnight. When time, heat and serve.” The popular idea that stews taste better the next day has skeptics in high places, but I’m of the mind that perception is reality, even if it’s all in my head. I will buy into the narrative that waiting is better, and that my taste buds will confirm it. So that’s what happened. I chilled the pot in the fridge. Twenty-four hours passed. I reheated the pot—there was enough for six servings—and poured a glass of red Burgundy, the same wine that went in the stew.
I stared at it from all angles, almost not believing my actions produced this bowl. Not for its difficulty—Bourdain was right that it’s easy—but at the surprise I’d tackled this seemingly passé dish. Sure, deliciousness is a sliding scale, but delicious is delicious, full stop. The beef separated with a gentle nudge of the fork. The soup: meaty, rich, thick with onions, familiar and soothing. An ideal vehicle for bread sopping. Would bacon, mushrooms, and veal stock improve the dish? Certainly. But I didn’t miss it. Boeuf Bourguignon, turns out, is a simple pleasure. It was always there, waiting for they day that I would find out.
Tomorrow: Conquering pork rillettes.