those clever french

Boeuf Bourguignon

Beef stew. So homely, so ordinary, so thick (and not in a good way). But boeuf bourguignon? So romantic, so enticing, so savory. And it’s not just a change in accent; I think those French are really on to something. Browning the beef in bacon fat? Brilliant! Simmering the meat in a bottle of red wine? Crazy! And braising those fancy little pearl onions separately so they retain their shape and succulence? Genius!

I always assumed my mom’s recipe for boeuf bourguignon was straight from Julia Child (who was practically a minor deity in our house) until I compared the single notebook page of her handwritten notes to the three type-written pages in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I think it’s more likely that Julia’s recipe inspired my mom’s, and I wanted the taste I’d grown up with, so I followed (as best I could) my mother’s notes, occasionally consulting the original for technique.

I promise you’ll lick your plate. The beef is meltingly tender, the sauce is rich and bright and those onions! I think they’re the best part, all buttery and rich from their bath in herbs and beef stock (and you can do them a day ahead or on the stove while the beef is in the oven). Sure, maybe we Americans figured out how to put beef stew in a can, but I think turning low-rent beef cuts, a bottle of wine, some fungi and a few root vegetables into heaven on a plate is an even better trick.

Boeuf Bourguignon
From Julia Child, via my mom

1 lb (aprox) white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced ¼” thick
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 slices thick-cut bacon, sliced into ¼” lardons
1 carrot, peeled and sliced ¼” thick
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 lbs boneless beef (preferably chuck, but sirloin will work) cut into 2” pieces
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups red wine
2 cups beef stock
1 tablespoon sugar
6 – 8 sprigs of thyme, tied in a bundle with kitchen twine
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste
braised onions (see recipe below)

Preheat oven to 325º. Melt butter in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Increase heat to medium-high and sauté mushrooms until brown and caramelized around the edges. Remove mushrooms to a bowl with slotted spoon. Reduce heat to medium and cook bacon until fat is rendered and bacon is crispy. Remove bacon with slotted spoon and put in the bowl with the mushrooms. Increase heat to medium-high and sauté carrot until softened slightly and caramelized around the edges, about 5 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside.

Season beef well with salt and pepper. In batches, sear beef until well-browned. Remove beef from the pot and set aside. Add garlic cloves to pot and sauté briefly. Add 1 cup of red wine to the pot and simmer vigorously for 2 – 3 minutes, scraping bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release the fond. Return beef and carrots to the pot. Sprinkle with flour. Add bay leaf, bundle of thyme, beef stock, sugar, tomato paste, 1 teaspoon salt and remaining wine.

Bring contents of the pot to a simmer. Cover the pot and place in the lower third of the oven. Cook for 2 hours, add mushrooms and bacon. Cook 1 hour more until a fork goes into the beef with little resistance.

When the stew is finished, remove the pot from the oven. Fish out the bay leaf and thyme and discard. With a slotted spoon, remove the meat and vegetables from the pot and set aside. With a wide spoon (or a gravy separator), de-fat the gravy. Over medium-low heat, simmer the gravy until thickened slightly, about 5 – 8 minutes. Taste the gravy and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Return the meat and vegetables to the gravy. Stir in the braised onions. Serve over noodles or mashed potatoes. If you’re smart, and not a silly girl like me, you’ll slice up a nice baguette to sop up the sauce.

Braised Onions

Braised Onions 24 small, white pearl onions, peeled
1 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
½ cup beef broth
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

Over medium-low heat, melt butter and oil. Add onions and sauté, shaking the pan to roll the onions so they brown evenly on all sides. Be careful not to break their skins. Add broth, herbs and salt and pepper. Cover the pan and simmer very slowly over low heat for 40 – 50 minutes until tender and most of the liquid has evaporated.

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5 responses to “those clever french

  1. Once it gets cold again (apparently I should have believe Al Gore), I am making this one. Beef and mushrooms, how can I go wrong. Although I might go crazy and not use a wooden spoon to scrape up the fond!

  2. This recipe looks delicious but peeling 24 pearl onions sounds like a lot of work. Have you tried using frozen or blanching them first

  3. I, too, recently made this for the first time. We used a combination of Julia’s recipe and another more random French cookbook recipe.

    The one change we made on Julia’s recipe is that we soaked the beef in the wine for a few hours before it was cooked. Not sure exactly what that did, but it was delicious.

  4. Nancy, I know, peeling pearl onions is a pain (but I made Anne help me). I have used the frozen ones in other recipes (like chicken pot pie), but I think they come out a little spongy. But maybe it would work here, where the onions are braised? The new issue of Saveur (which, annoyingly arrived the day after I made the boeuf) says to place the onions in a bowl, cover with boiling water, set aside 1 minute, drain and rinse in cold water. Then, trim the root ends. Starting from the onion tops, peel them (allegedly, the skins come right off).

    Rebecca, do you think the acid in the wine tenderized the meat by breaking it down a bit? Nancy recently made a bolognese sauce that also called for soaking the meat in wine before cooking it. It probably also acts as some kind of marinade, don’t you think?

  5. I soaked 2 pounds of ground beef and pork in two cups of white wine for about 1/2 hour. The bolognese cooked for about 4 hours and tasted delicious in the pan. My husband and I wondered why we never made it before and made plans to cook up a big batch to freeze. But when I poured it over pasta it lost it. My son said it tasted like sloppy joes only not as good. I don’t know what happened. I used dried pasta maybe that was the problem.

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