Several years ago we celebrated our anniversary in Paris, where we stayed in a tiny yet charming apartment in the 6th arrondisement, spending a whole week exploring the sights, the sounds, and of course the flavors of La Ville Lumière; the City of Light.
On our first evening we took a walk along the Seine when it started raining suddenly. As we ran up the stairs to street level, the brisk sprinkle quickly turned into a heavy downpour, so we darted across the street and ducked into the first restaurant we came to.
Without having researched the place head of time, we didn’t know what we would find and to be honest, our expectations were not that high. However, after only a brief glance at the menu we both instantly knew what we would order; a soupe à l’oignon, boeuf bourguignon, crème brûlée for dessert, and a mid-list bottle of Bordeux to wash it all down. The menu did have more sophisticated options, but this was after all our first day in Paris, and besides we were both cold and wet and so the allure of comfort food, though touristy, was too much to resist.
That particular meal, modest by comparison to others we’ve since had in Paris, will always hold a special place in our hearts. From time to time, especially in the fall when the weather starts to turn cold, we recreate it at home and it always takes us back to that first wonderful evening in the City of Light.
The epitome of comfort food, boeuf bourguignon is a peasant stew that uses red wine, aromatic herbs, and a long, slow simmer to transform tough, inexpensive cuts of beef and simple vegetables into the most satisfying, savory, and comforting meal one can experience. This is why such a humble dish is standard in cafes and restaurants not only across France, but in French restaurants all over the world. Best prepared over the course of a day, the slower it is cooked, the more delicious it becomes, and the rich flavors continue to develop over the next several days in the refrigerator, so as the week goes on the stew becomes even more enjoyable; this is one leftover meal that never sits around long enough in our house to be thrown out.
Deeply traditional yet totally versatile, Julia Child’s version is a classic and my favorite of the half dozen or so recipes I’ve tried.
Recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking
6 ounces (170 g) of chunk bacon
3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
3 pounds (1360 g) lean stewing beef, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 carrot, sliced
1 onion, sliced
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups red wine, young and full-bodied (like Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhone or Burgundy)
2 1/2 to 3 1/2 cups brown beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
1/2 teaspoon thyme
A crumbled bay leaf
18 to 24 white onions, small
3 1/2 tablespoons butter
Herb bouquet (3 celery stalks, 4 parsley sprigs, 3 bay leaves, 2 thyme sprigs, tied together)
1 pound mushrooms, fresh and quartered
Remove bacon rind and cut into lardons (sticks one quarter-inch thick and one and a half inches long). Simmer rind and lardons for ten minutes in one and a half quarts water. Drain and dry. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (230C).
Sauté lardons in one tablespoon of the olive oil in a flameproof casserole pan over moderate heat for two to three minutes to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon.
Dry beef in paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp. Heat fat in casserole until almost smoking. Add beef, a few pieces at a time, and sauté until nicely browned on all sides. Add it to the lardons. In the same fat, brown the sliced vegetables. Pour out the excess fat.Return the beef and bacon to the casserole and toss with one half teaspoon of salt and one quarter teaspoon of pepper. Then sprinkle on the flour and toss again to coat the beef lightly. Set casserole uncovered in middle position of preheated oven for four minutes.
Toss the meat again and return to oven for four minutes (this browns the flour and covers the meat with a light crust). Remove casserole and turn oven down to 325 degrees F (160C). Stir in wine and two to three cups stock, just enough so that the meat is barely covered. Add the tomato paste, garlic, herbs and bacon rind. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove.
Cover casserole and set in lower third of oven. Regulate heat so that liquid simmers very slowly for three to four hours. The meat is done when a fork pierces it easily.
While the beef is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms. Heat one and a half tablespoons butter with one and one-half tablespoons of the oil until bubbling in a skillet. Add onions and sauté over moderate heat for about ten minutes, rolling them so they will brown as evenly as possible. Be careful not to break their skins. You cannot expect them to brown uniformly. Add one half cup of the stock, salt and pepper to taste and the herb bouquet. Cover and simmer slowly for 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are perfectly tender but hold their shape, and the liquid has evaporated. Remove herb bouquet and set onions aside.
Wipe out skillet and heat remaining oil and butter over high heat. As soon as you see butter has begun to subside, indicating it is hot enough, add mushrooms. Toss and shake pan for four to five minutes. As soon as they have begun to brown lightly, remove from heat. When the meat is tender, pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a saucepan. Wash out the casserole and return the beef and lardons to it. Distribute the cooked onions and mushrooms on top.
Skim fat off sauce in saucepan. Simmer sauce for a minute or two, skimming off additional fat as it rises. You should have about two and a half cups of sauce thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. If too thin, boil it down rapidly. If too thick, mix in a few tablespoons stock. Taste carefully for seasoning. Pour sauce over meat and vegetables. Cover and simmer two to three minutes, basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce several times. Serve in casserole, or arrange stew on a platter surrounded with potatoes, noodles or rice, and decorated with parsley.