Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Butcher, The Baker, The Boeuf Bourguignon Maker

For a while now, I have had a hang-up about boeuf bourguignon. Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon, to be precise. I somehow came to view mastering this recipe as a vital step in the career trajectory of any serious foodie. I'm not quite sure how this happened, but it was probably somewhere between reading Julie and Julia and My Life in France.

I - and many others, I believe - have come to view Mastering the Art of French Cooking as the First Edition Foodie Bible, the embodiment of the original Good Food movement. Maybe MtAoFC was considered an entrance into the world of home cookery for housewives in the 1960's, but like a snowball rolling down a hill, it has gathered force and mass as it raced through the next fifty years. This book has weathered TV shows, newscasts, best-selling memoirs, The Julie-Julia Project, and a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep, for crying out loud. A humble little cookbook it certainly is not... not anymore, anyway.

Bouef bourguignon is well known as traditional French fare, and is now even considered haute cuisine.* As such, it does not come without baggage, historically and culturally speaking. When the manuscript for MtAoFC first came across editor Judith Jones' desk, she settled on boeuf bourguignon as her test recipe. In the introduction to my own 40th anniversary edition of the cookbook, she explained with no small amount of gusto:
I ran home to make the recipe - and my first bite told me that I had finally produced an authentic French boef bourguignon - as good as one I could get in Paris. This, I was convinced, was a revolutionary cookbook...
And this from a lady who had lived in Paris for over three years.

Reading Julia Child's little love note before the recipe didn't really help settle my nerves, either:
As is the case with most famous dishes, there are more ways than one to arrive at a good boef bourguignon. Carefully done, and perfectly flavored, it is certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man...
Perfectly flavored, eh? One of the most delicious concocted by man? No pressure.

I started at the butcher shop. Doesn't that sound quaint? There are a lot of reasons to frequent a butcher, which I won't go into right now, but the primary one is that it gives you the most control over selecting your meat, short of raising and slaughtering the animal yourself. I, of course, have additional ethical concerns, and I chose accordingly.

I decided to go with The Goose, an Indianapolis-based shop that specializes in local, naturally raised meat. They also have a coffee shop and sell delicious sandwiches, as well as artisinal cheeses, fresh seasonal produce, and dairy products from a local creamery. I got six ounces of bacon and three pounds of chuck roast, courtesy of Fischer Farms in Jasper, Indiana. Their cattle is grass-fed with a grain-finish, as the nice man who wrapped up my juicy-looking hunk of meat explained to me.

Back at the ranch - I hauled out the cookbook and re-read the recipe to make sure I had everything. Then I prepared all my ingredients in advance - cut my bacon into lardon and my three pounds of beef into two inch chunks, and sliced up all the vegetables I would be needing.

Of course, I had an audience.

Then it was a matter of blanching the bacon (that sounds like it should be a euphamism for something), browning the beef (ditto), sautéing the veggies, and dumping everything into a pot with a bottle of red wine, some beef stock, garlic, tomato paste, and a bouquet garni, which was provided free of charge by my friendly neighborhood butcher man. Wasn't he something?

Ultimately, I don't know why I was so nervous. It's time intensive, to be sure, but most of the time is spent just letting the whole pot simmer in the oven for a few hours. You can even make boeuf bourguignon in advance... Julia's recipe actually recommends it as a way to let the flavors mingle.

You might even have time to bake a little dessert. Lemon-lavender pound cake, if you're me.

In the end, it turned out perfectly. The sauce was just thick enough. The beef was tender to the point of perfection, falling apart on our forks and melting on our tongues. My parents, my brother, and my friend Abbie (who I invited along) all made many yummy noises. It might have been the wine speaking, but I'll pretend otherwise for now.

*This may or may not be according to Wikipedia.


  1. Love it! You are such a burgeoning foodie blogger : D Great commentary and beautimous pictures. Can I re-post the link to your blog on my facebook page?
    - Katie