January 2, 2012

Boeuf Bourguignon

I think that for many home cooks, boeuf bourguignon, or beef burgundy, is a real tour de force. It ranks up there with coq au vin, Sunday roast, and homemade pasta. It takes as long to think about and prepare as an empty New Year's Eve day. We started this dish around ten on Saturday morning and were eating by seven that night. This all-day affair really is essential for experienced cooks who have ingredients, time, and an assistant chef to help with all the peeling, chopping, cutting, sautéing, browning, roux-making, and fonding. Like I said, beef burgundy is a tour de force; and I was the assistant chef.

The key to a really successful beef burgundy is the way you sauté the beef. The beef must be patted very dry with paper towels, cubed in relatively similar sizes, then browned darkly on all sides in a rich fond of bacon grease. (Here it comes again with the bacon grease.) A semi-crunchy, all-delicious crust should form on all sides of each piece of meat, otherwise it will turn to mush during the hours-long cooking process. And nobody likes beef mush, especially around the holidays. Get ready for this process to last a good chunk of the morning. Switch on your iPod dock, have a conversation with your family, or plan out your football watching times for the rest of the week. Just make sure you are prepared for how long the browning process takes. Be patient and don't rush it. The less you rush, the more brown your beef will become, and the more delicious will be your beef burgundy. Again: nobody likes mushy meat. Gross.

Also, use a really colorful Dutch oven. My mom's enormous French oven (13 1/4...what?!) is a rich cobalt blue. The blue gave all that beef a rich, slightly reddish tint, and I really think made all the beef, bacon, and grease even more appetizing. And after the addition of chicken stock and infusion bag of spices and vegetables? Unbelievable. Half of the tastiness of beef is in the color of the pot. It's a little-known scientific fact.

Another fancy thing you'll need for this recipe is a cheesecloth. Get a cheesecloth. Use it for this recipe and others that may require infusion bags. Also make sure you have kitchen twine to tie the whole thing off. Things like kitchen twine and cheesecloth make me feel like a real, bona fide chef. I can't explain it, but it really does. Forget kitchen gadgets; give me a bag and some string. Believe me - when the end result of this project is an enormous cobalt blue pot of rich red-brown beef and wine, all the fussiness and detailed directions will fall into place into one of the most fantastic fancy meals you will have had all year. And on New Year's Eve, that's saying something.

One more thing you need to know about beef burgundy: it's one of the most quintessential French dishes you'll make. It's the French version of beef stew and it has rich, rustic roots. In Julia Child's iconic cookbook The Art of French Cooking, beef burgundy is front and center. This Cook's Illustrated recpie stems directly from Julia Child's efforts to bring rustic French dishes like beef burgundy to the American home cook. Cook's has modified it, using modern ingredients and cooking times, but the essence of beef burgundy stands: brown beef, bacon grease, pearl onions, red wine. It's a formidable quartet of goodness.

Boeuf Bourguignon
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated and The Art of French Cooking
Serves 6

Infusion Bag
10 sprigs fresh parsley
6 sprigs fresh thyme

2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
2 medium carrots, coarsely chopped
1 garlic head, unpeeled but crushed
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms

Beef Sauté
6 ounces bacon, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
4 pounds beef chuck roast, trimmed, cut into 1-inch chunks and patted very dry (ours were pre-prepared from a local meat market, so don't feel bad about searching for a shortcut for this one.)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 bottle red Burgundy
1 teaspoon tomato paste

7 ounces frozen pearl onions (do yourself a favor and buy frozen; if not, you will spend an extra day peeling individual onions)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
10 ounces white mushrooms, washed thoroughly, halved, and patted dry

2 tablespoons cognac
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

Prepare infusion bag with a large cheesecloth. Don't worry about chopping accuracy or exact quantities. Throw in all the infusion ingredients, set aside, and focus your real creative energy on browning all this beef.

Sauté bacon in cast-iron skillet until crunchy and brown. Reserve bacon grease and transfer bacon pieces to large French oven. Add about 4 tablespoons grease and warm on medium high heat. Salt and pepper chunks of beef and add just a few to hot grease (in our huge pot we added about 20-25 pieces at a time). Brown until down side is dark and crusty, then flip each piece of beef with tongs and brown on the other side. When each piece of beef has a crusty crust, transfer to large bowl and deglaze pot with a bit of chicken stock. Add a little more bacon grease and repeat with remaining beef. When bacon is dark and cooked through, you can reserve it in the beef bowl as well.

When your beef is done and brown (ours took well over an hour, but then again we doubled the recipe), you can start the roux. In the same French oven (warm and crusty from your finished beef, no less), add butter pieces and heat over medium-high heat until melted. Add flour and whisk for about 3-5 minutes, until toasty brown. Gradually add chicken stock and 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly until thickened. Add 3 cups wine, tomato paste, and salt and pepper to taste. Add browned beef and infusion bag.

Bring beef burgundy to a boil over high heat. Cover and put pot in oven. Cook at 300 F until meat is tender, about 3 hours.

Remove pot from oven after cooking and discard infusion bag. With a slotted spoon, remove beef chunks from broth and set aside. Bring remaining liquid to a boil over medium-high heat. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens and reduces to about 3 cups. This should take about 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring pearl onions, butter, salt, and 1/2 cup water to boil in medium skillet. Cover and reduce to medium-high head. Simmer about 5 minutes, until onions are fork tender. Uncover and increase het to high. Simmer until liquid evaporates and onions thicken. Add mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Cook until mushrooms are glazed, about 5 more minutes. Set aside in separate bowl.

Add 1/4 cup water to same pot as onions and scrape bottom with wooden spatula until the brown mushroom and onion bits are loosened. Add liquid to reserved onions and mushrooms.

Back to the sauce: reduce heat to medium-low and add cognac, beef, and mushrooms and onions. Add remaining wine from bottle. Cover and cook until all ingredients are re-heated through, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Serve in large bowls with crusty bread and dark green salad. THEN TAKE A NAP.

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