About a year ago, my wife and I started the “Sunday Family Dinner” tradition at our house. We have a standing invitation to our moms and sisters and their families to join us. Recently we had a string of Sundays where we were either out of town or couldn’t do Sunday Dinner for some reason, so I wanted the first dinner after this month-long hiatus to be a little bit more special than usual.
Julia Child’s recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon from Mastering the Art of French Cooking is widely regarded (at least in terms of popular appeal) as one of the best, or the best version of the dish. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy Boeuf Bourguignon in Paris at “Le Vieux Bistro” (14 rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame; now closed, apparently) and (I think) Le Grizzli Café (7 rue St-Martin; “…this 19th-century bistro used to have dancing bears out front — thus the name). I think the genius of Julia Child’s version is in the separation of the mushrooms and onions from the rest of the dish, allowing for layer upon layer of flavor. My version here is not identical, but it does follow the same format.
First, the pork. [The pancetta was house-cured; see the Adventures in Pork series.] I made dinner for 12. A good rule of thumb here is 1 ounce of pancetta or bacon for each serving. In this case, 12 ounces, cut into lardons, which are first sautéed in the casserole used to cook the dish. Please note that you can use bacon, although most commercially available bacon in the United States is generally smoked, and may have additional smoke flavoring added, which will alter the flavor a great deal. Also, unless you buy slab bacon, the cut on the lardons will not be correct for the traditional dish. I have seen (at Trader Joe’s, I believe) packages of lardons from pancetta which are pre-cut. I expect that this would be better than using bacon, but best of all would be to cure your own from an organically-pastured pig, like what I used here.
Also, I suggest that in cooking the lardons, you use a lower heat than what you might use to fry bacon for breakfast. The objective is not to crisp the lardons (there’s nothing wrong with crispness, though) but rather to render the fat off the lardons which are used to brown the meat and enrich the dish. Once the lardons were cooked and the fat rendered, I added the beef.
Earlier this year we bought half a cow from the same friends who raised Salumi. The cow was pastured on a field where it spent its days enjoying grass and natural feed. I’ve written before about the quality of using naturally-raised beef over what is generally available at the supermarket. In short, in terms of flavor, fat content, color, and overall healthiness, there is no comparison. The cut I used for this dish was an “O-Bone” roast, approximately 7.5 pounds before trimming and removing the bone.
Allow 8 ounces of meat for each serving. Cut the meat into 2 inch cubes. The pancetta that I cured did not have an excess of fat. In fact, in browning the meat I added a couple of additional tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Brown the meat on at least two sides, until each side displays a nice brown-caramel color. This step will enrich the sauce and flavor of the entire dish. Depending on the number of servings that you are making, you will likely need to brown the meat in stages. In the case of approximately 6 pounds of cubed meat, it took 3-4 turns to get it all browned. If you dump it all in at once, it won’t brown properly because all of the moisture on the meat won’t have a chance to evaporate. You’ll end up steaming/boiling it instead.
Once all of the meat is browned, it is time to brown the vegetables. Now, this is one of the areas where you have to make a stylistic decision. Do you like rustic dishes, where the sauce contains bits of carrots and onions that have broken down in the course of the braise? Do you prefer big chunks of visible vegetables (primarily carrots) that can be reserved after braising, and added back after you reduce the sauce? Are you planning to strain all the vegetables out, to make more of an “elegant” version, with a smooth silky sauce?
This is Sunday Family Dinner. I like it to be a little rustic. Thus, I cut the carrots and onions in a medium dice, with the plan that they will remain in the final sauce along with the pancetta. While the vegetables brown, you can prepare your bouquet garni. This dish traditionally is flavored with thyme. I have two nice patio planters with lavender growing. I like to use lavender in meat dishes, and find that I enjoy the flavor very much, sometimes even more than thyme. Lavender, plus two bay leaves were tied in a packet for the braise.
Once the vegetables have adequately browned, it is time to return the browned beef and lardons, and add some salt and pepper.
Tread lightly with salt in this dish. Salt is necessary to help the meat break down properly during the braise. But the pancetta and stock that is added will already have a fair amount of salt. You can always add some additional salt at the end, after reducing the sauce, if necessary.
I added approximately a quarter of a cup of all purpose flour, stirred the meat and vegetables on the stove, and allowed the ingredients coated in flour to brown slightly (raw flour has an unpleasant flavor; it needs to be cooked).
Next, the liquid ingredients. The dish gets its name from the red wine from the Burgundy region of France that is traditionally used. Any medium to full-bodied red will be suitable. The wine should be drinkable; one’s criteria for whether wine is drinkable will vary. You don’t have to use the same quality wine that you’d serve to accompany the dish. I used three-quarters of a bottle of “Pontificis” from the Rhone (procured at Trader Joe’s for around $6-7; I’m a sucker for cheap wine with ecclesiastical labels). It was drinkable (evidenced by my drinking the other quarter) but a step below what we actually served with dinnner.
The wine should be the primary braising liquid. After adding the amount of it that you wish to use, add some good quality beef stock to bring the level of the liquid just up to the top of the meat.
Any more liquid added to the braise will unnecessarily prolong cooking (because you will end up having to reduce all of that volume, and you also run the risk of the final sauce becoming too salty in the case of too much stock).
At this point, you can add the bouquet garni, some tomato paste, and some minced garlic, if you like that flavor. Cover the braise and place in the oven at around 275 to 300. You can check it every half hour or so, to confirm that it is gently simmering. Adjust the oven temperature as necessary to achieve this. It will take anywhere from two to three hours to cook.
While the beef braises, it is time to make the onions and mushrooms, which can be prepared ahead, kept warm and reserved until service. The dish traditionally is served with pearl white onions and mushrooms. In the past, I’ve used the frozen pearl onions, which are very convenient because they are already peeled and ready to go. Alas, our supermarket has stopped carrying them, so I spent an extra twenty minutes peeling the smallest boilers I could find in fresh produce. I also was not tremendously careful with preserving the outer layers, so some of the onions came apart slightly but most remained intact (again, going for rustic here).
After browning the onions in butter and olive oil, I added liquid in the form of beef stock and red wine, for a slow braise, around 40-60 minutes. A second bouquet, this time with some fresh Italian parsley, more lavender and an additional dry bay leaf, was added. I also seasoned the onions with a little salt and black pepper.
While the onions braise, you can set your attention on the mushrooms. I used 1.5 pounds of white button mushrooms, but I think crimini mushrooms are preferable. It happened that the white ones were on sale.
Whole mushrooms can be sautéed, especially if they are small, or larger mushrooms can be quartered. The rule here would be that for convenience, you want the mushrooms to be bite-sized for ease in eating. Butter and olive oil are melted together in a hot skillet and the mushrooms are cooked, approximately 5-6 minutes at high heat.
A note about cooking mushrooms: as fungi, mushrooms contain primarily water. Salt added to the sauté will result in the mushrooms instantly releasing most of their water which will be evaporated in the hot pan, leaving the mushrooms dry and rubbery. The goal here is to cook the mushrooms without drying them out, which is aided in keeping the pan hot (not adding all the mushrooms at once) and allowing the mushrooms to absorb the hot fat, and develop a nice nutty brown color. After removing the mushrooms from the heat, you can add a little salt and pepper for seasoning. This is a special rule for mushrooms; most foods need to be seasoned before cooking them. You could also add herbs, shallots or onions to the sauté just before removing the mushrooms, but I opted not to do that here, since I made mashed potatoes with some scallions to go along with the beef at service.
Check the beef. It is cooked when you can pull it apart gently with two forks. Remove the beef from the braise liquid and hold it in a bowl or casserole while you reduce the sauce. Transfer the braising liquid to the stove, and simmer at low heat, until it is reduced to the desired thickness. You may also want to adjust the seasoning.
Another note, this time on seasoning: your success in cooking braises and soups depends on the careful balance of salty, sweet and acid. If you taste a dish that seems to contain enough salt but is still “missing something”, it could likely be that the acid/sweet balance is not right. Now, tread lightly here. Nobody wants to taste a sour or sweet dish that is supposed to be nice and savory. This is about adjusting the nuances so that the best flavors are highlighted, it’s not about profoundly altering the character of the dish. I added approximately 1-2 teaspoons of balsamic syrup, which added just a barely perceptible hint of acid and sweetness. You could also add ketchup (this is a secret trick, and I am not ashamed to say that I use it quite often) if you don’t have balsamic. Again, be careful!!! Don’t add too much all at once. Add a little and taste. Add a little more and taste again. Use very small amounts. Don’t ruin all your work.
After reducing the braise liquid into your finished sauce, return the beef, and hold (keeping warm, but not too warm that it continues cooking) until service.
Finally, it’s time to assemble the completed dish. As I noted above, I made mashed potatoes (containing a lot of butter and cream) with some finely minced scallion. Mashed potatoes aren’t really traditional. Boiled potatoes are more traditional. The braise and other components are quite rich. You don’t need the mashed. But, boiled potatoes — blech — well, mashed really amps up the whole thing.
A note here about the wine. We live in Northern California. There are many great wine producers all over California now. In terms of volume, both Napa and Sonoma produce very little of the total wine made here. Winemakers are discovering varietals that do well in climates that are less temperate than Napa. For example, the monks of New Clairvaux began making wines north of Chico, California several years ago. They focus on varietals that are common to the Mediterranean — southern France and Italy — and these varietals grow well in the warmer climate of the northern Central Valley, where we experience more heat than normally found closer to the coast.
The success and overall quality of New Clairvaux wines inspired me to start my own vineyard, consisting of 30 Syrah vines, which are still several years away from producing any actual wine.
The 2010 Syrah from New Clairvaux paired very nicely with this dish. It has nice fruit-forward notes on the front palette, with lots of berry and currant. The finish is soft, warm and balanced, without the heavy tannic bite that is prevalent in some wines in this style. Most of the offerings at New Clairvaux are under $20 a bottle, they have a wine club that’s a rather great deal, and you can feel good about supporting a Catholic religious community.