Cooking five-star meals with obscure meats, ingredients, and sauces is not just for the experienced cook; it can be for anyone with a desire to learn. This month’s challenge: Boeuf Bourguignon.
I’m not sure where my love of cooking originated. Perhaps it’s always been there, as I come from a long line of cooks and Tulsa State Fair champion bakers. Or maybe it really started in fifth grade, when I made a box of mac and cheese for the first time by myself. It was just a box of cheap pasta and powdered cheese — hard to mess up, really — but I remember feeling like I could take on the world after that.
Ever since then I’ve loved to be in the kitchen, and that really ramped up last year when I came across a little vintage 1948 O’Keefe and Merritt stove buried under a mound of crap in a cramped, claustrophobic antique store. Gleaming white porcelain with delightfully retro chrome nobs and crumb trays … it was love at first sight. I’ve christened her Ethel, after both of my great grandmothers. It’s the kind of stove that, simply by looking at it, you can almost smell all the fragrant pots of stew that were cooked there, and hear the whistling tea kettles of the past.
Around the same time I acquired Ethel I also watched Julie and Julia, a movie that alternates back and forth between telling the story of how Julia Child became Julia Child in post-WW II France, and how an average girl in the early 2000s deals with stress and identity issues by endeavoring to cook all of Child’s recipes in a year. After finishing that movie, I had a revelation: cooking five-star meals with obscure meats, ingredients, and sauces is not just for the experienced cook; it can be for anyone with a desire to learn.
After all, that’s how Child herself started.
I bought my first real cook books shortly after seeing that movie, and it’s been a stop-start kind of year learning what terms like “blanche” and “braise” mean.
All that being said, I will be taking on a new project in 2019 for Preview 918: each month, I will tackle those recipes and dishes typically not undertaken by the average cook. I will laugh in the face of intimidation (or at the very least try not to cry or cuss too much) and venture into the niche culinary world of weird smells and far-less-than-average shopping lists.
And each month, I will either nail it or fail it.
For January, and in honor of Child, I thought I would finally try a recipe from her infamous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I opened the thick tome to Page 315 to get an overview of one of her flagship dishes — Boeuf Bourguignon — which translates simply to “Beef stew in red wine with bacon, onions, and mushrooms.” Ah, deceptively simple, Julia.
The first instructions were to cut a 6-ounce chunk of bacon into lardons. Oh boy. Stuck already. Luckily Google came to the rescue and informed me that lardons are basically just ¼-inch thick by 1 1/2-inch-long strips of bacon. (Seriously though. What did people ever do without Google and YouTube?)
The real problem, however, was that the recipe kept talking about the bacon “rind.” Upon further Googling, I discovered that rind-on bacon is very uncommon in most American supermarkets, so I headed to Perry’s meat market off 11th Street and Lewis Avenue. Perry’s specializes in more uncommon cuts of meat, and if you’ve never been there (like me), it’s like stepping back in time to an old-world butchery. With its charming black-and-white tiled floor and knowledgeable butchers, I was already glad I’d chosen this recipe because it got me out of my comfort zone and into a new environment. I chatted with other patrons in line as I waited on my bacon and stew meat to be sliced.
Once home, I surveyed my 3 pounds of meat and lardons, took a deep breath, and began. I had the most trouble searing the 3 pounds of meat, mainly because I cut them into far too small of pieces. They were supposed to be 2-inch cubes, but that seemed too large so I cut them much smaller because clearly I know what I’m doing more than Child.
The meat cubes needed to be patted dry before hitting the hot oil, because if they are too wet they won’t brown properly. But since I had cut them so small I spent almost an hour between cutting them, patting them dry, and then browning them in batches because you can’t crowd the pan. There was literally blood and grease dripping down my counters, and hot oil popping absolutely everywhere. I know it feels natural to stand over a pot as you cook, but for the love of everything do not do this.
Once I’d finally managed to get all contents into the oven for the 2½ hour braise time, I was already drinking the cooking wine straight from the bottle. To top it off, I’d made the cardinal mistake of inviting friends over when trying a new recipe, and I grossly misjudged how long all of this would take (I started cooking at 3 p.m.; I finally put the thing in the oven at 5:30 p.m.). So they were on their way, I was bespattered with grease, and the kitchen looked like a crime scene. Luckily they are wonderfully amazing people and helped me finish out the recipe, even doing some of the dishes.
At 8 p.m. the timer went off. Judgment day had arrived.
I opened the oven, pulled out the pot, lifted the lid … and knew I had done something wrong. It did smell amazing, but I’d identified my next problem: there was theoretically supposed to be enough liquid left to strain out and make a brown sauce with, but there was none left to speak of. I believe this is possibly because the recipe called for three cups of wine but I only added two. Ethel also cooks really, really hot, so I should have anticipated this and added a bit more liquid as it evaporated.
Since I couldn’t make the sauce, there was nothing left to do but dish it out into bowls and try my first attempt at Boeuf Bourguignon. And … it was actually pretty tasty. It was a bit dry, though, likely because I cut the meat into too small of chunks, and all of my liquid had evaporated. Plus I’m sure having a finishing sauce would have helped.
Even though I somehow managed to dirty nearly every pot, pan, cutting board and plate I owned, I’m still going to call this one a win for a few reasons: first, it was not only edible, but actually pretty dang good; second, I now know what a lardon is; and third, I cooked a French recipe from start to finish — for this I’d like to personally thank the cooking wine for picking me up when I was down, and helping me to achieve this feat.
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