Wednesday, 15 August 2012

In Honour of a Legend: Julia Child

My take on Bœuf Bourguignon
As I look forward to the day I start my official academic training in the field of food studies (which hopefully will be sooner rather than later), or perhaps when I think ahead to how I would fill out an application to a cooking competition, I have to step back and think of the many forces (cultural and people alike) that have influenced my own desire to delve into food beyond consumption. In retrospect, one clear influence for me has been Julia Child, an American who brought French cuisine and technique into the lives of so many across the pond. She made cooking accessible and--especially as I re-watch the clips from her television shows--fun. Indeed, inquiry should reign in the kitchen whereas "fear" has no place there; among her many memorable quotations, I think this one seems particularly telling: "This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook- try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!" Today, Julia would have been 100 years old, and fom local chefs of her hometown of Pasadena to television sets across the nation to even a rather catchy tune on the radio waves, it remains clear that she continues to inspire and influence the masses. (And of course, who could forget Julie & Julia?) In honour of this legend, I chose to cook up my own version of bœuf bourguignon, one of the many dishes for which she is particularly known.

Of course, Julia Child was not the authenticator of the dish (that honour goes to Georges Auguste Escoffier, around the start of the 20th century), but she certainly helped Americans understand how to prepare it with as much ease as possible (check out the video above). For a true bœuf bourguignon, I'd claim there are two very specific ingredients one must include (neither of which show up in my version): Charolais cattle (the crème de la crème when it comes to beef) and Burgundy wine. As luck would have it, I saw a Charolaise cow while in Brest about a month ago, but that'll probably be my closest encounter tothis prized protein for quite some time. Charolais beef is especially tender and of "outstanding quality," perhaps as a result of its healthy diet-- talk about the impact of terroir! Speaking of which, the specific pairing of beef and Burgundy wine rings with reason, given that this beef also originates in the eastern region of Burgundy. All of this said, I had to go with the beef the grocery had in stock (and I can unequivocally state it was not of Charolaise quality), and the wine I used (merlot) originates from the southwestern city of Bordeaux, though this one was of a boxed variety that came from California. If there's a piece of advice I would add to Julia's, it would be this: do not be afraid to adapt. For this recipe, adapting is especially key-- given that this version is four times smaller than the original.

So, adapting as we go along, I first began by blanching three strips of bacon. As this recipe claims, blanching your bacon should remove the "smoky" taste; perhaps it does, but for me it removes its saltiness. Usually this wouldn't be an issue for me and I'd use the bacon as is, but after cooking coq au vin without this step (and thus ending up being super salty), I thought I'd give this method a try. Drop the bacon into a sauté pan halfway filled with cold water and bring it to a boil; once it reaches the boil, lower the heat to a simmer.

As that's going, gather the rest of your ingredients: your beef (about 1 lb), olive oil, a clove of garlic, two small onions (if you prefer, you can swap one of these out with a handful of pearl onions), tomatoes (canned or fresh-- here, about a large handful of small, yellow tomatoes), carrots (a handful of baby carrots, or 1 large carrot), a 16 oz can of beef broth, red wine, salt, ground black pepper, and anything else you want to serve with the dish (as seen here, green beans and rice). If you have room in your budget or just have some left over, add mushrooms to your list (they're traditionally a part of the recipe). Also, in lieu of a bouquet garni--which I hope I can make when my herb garden is up and running--I brought out my Italian herb mix.

By this point, your bacon should be simmering away. After at least three minutes of simmering (it will most likely have cooked longer than that), take the bacon out of the water and pat it dry. Get rid of the water and dry that, as well, before getting it back on the stove. On medium heat, brown the bacon in a teaspoon of olive oil. While the bacon browns, pat the beef dry and slice it into 1" cubes.

Your bacon should be browned by the time you're done slicing the beef. Take the bacon out and brown the beef cubes on all sides in the rendered bacon fat and olive oil. While keeping an eye on the beef, cut your baby carrots into halves or thirds, and peel and slice one of the small onions into half moons. Set these aside until the beef has browned.

Transfer the beef into a pot (a 3-qt saucepan worked for me) and crumble the bacon slices over the beef. Drain all but a third of the rendered fat from the sauté pan and, back on the heat, sauté the carrots and onions just until fork tender.

While those are browning, mince and smash your garlic clove, and quarter your yellow tomatoes (or open your tin if you've got canned ones). After the carrots and onions have sautéed long enough, add these to the beef and bacon. Next, use about a glass (about 167 mL if you're measuring, or guess 1/3 of a 500mL boxed wine) of red wine (again, merlot was used here) to deglaze the carrot and onion pan, and pour this into the sauce pan with the other ingredients. Take note that, as most of the brown bits from the meat have been picked up by the carrots and onion, you're essentially "cleaning" the pan of anything leftover with the wine.

To this lot, add about 1 c beef broth; as you can see here, I went all "Iron Chef" on this can and punctured it since I coudn't find my tin opener. Do be extremely careful if you attempt this! (Officially, I would recommend finding the tin opener.) Finally, add the garlic and tomatoes, about 1 tbsp Italian herb mix, salt, and ground black pepper, and give everything a stir. Cover the sauce pan with a lid and, on medium heat, bring the mix to a boil. After it boils, keeping the saucepan covered, reduce the heat to lo-med and let everything continue to simmer for at least an hour (up to two hours, if you have that kind of time).

Meanwhile, should you desire, prepare your rice, or pasta, or potatoes, or whatever starch you'd like to serve with the bœuf bourguignon. Here, I ended up cooking rice in stages: 3/4 c rice with 3/4 c beef broth and 1 tbsp unsalted butter; an additional 3/4 c rice with 3/4 c water; and then an additional 3/4 c water. As the rice is going, peel and halve your other small onion, slice each half and then divide again in two (essentially quartering the onion slices).

Into a small skillet, heat 1/2 tbsp butter and sauté the onion slices (or pearl onions if you chose to go with those instead) with a pinch of sugar, salt and pepper. After the onions have browned slightly (about 5-7 minutes), add in the rest of the beef broth (about 1/4 c), and allow the onions to soak up the beef broth and caramelize on low heat.

As the bœuf bourguignon continues to stew, you've got time to cook up some beans. In a skillet, melt about 1 tbsp unsalted butter and toss a large handful of trimmed green beans (i.e., snap/cut off the part of the bean that once connected to the vine). Add about 1/2 c water to the skillet and bring it to a rapid simmer. Then, cover the skillet and turn off the heat to steam the green beans to their desired crispness.

After all this time (i.e., about an hour after you set the beef to simmer on low heat) has passed, your onions, green beans, and rice, should be finished cooking. Check on the beef and taste for texture; once it's no longer tough, separate the solids from the liquids. In this case, I used my large scooper to strain and keep all the juices in the saucepan, putting the meat and veg in a bowl for a moment. Pour the juices into a small bowl and skim as much of the fat as possible before transferring it back into the saucepan; all told, it would be a lot easier to accomplish this if I had a fat separator, but oh well, we adapt.

Get some heat back onto the saucepan and reduce the liquid to about 1/2 c, concentrating the flavours. While this (essentially, your sauce) is reducing, make a beurre manié by mixing together 3/4 tbsp unsalted butter with 1 tbsp flour into a smooth paste. After the sauce has reduced, take the saucepan off the direct heat and whisk the butter-flour mix until fully disolved.

Return the beef and veg you earlier set aside to the saucepan and add in the onions; mix together this concoction of flavours and warmth. All that's left to do is to plate all of the different components and enjoy! Even though I cut down the recipe into a quarter of what the original makes, there's certainly enough food leftover to make this enough food for two or three, or plenty of leftovers for another meal or two. For these and additional photos, click here.

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