In a departure from some decidedly puritan vegan brown rice bowls, It’s high time to defer to something a bit more hedonistic.
It is November – the thick of it – after all, and with the covers of this months cooking mags plastered with the most perfectly burnished and shellacked turkey specimens one has ever laid eyes on, it’s only natural that my gears are wont to shift over and down from virtuous vegetables and principled brown rice to a massive crock of something rich, dark, and utterly savory.
Totally outside of how this boeuf bourguignon tastes (I’ll get to that in just a minute), the way it instantly cozifies your house with an absolutely intoxicating scent is almost reason enough in itself to get ye to thine grocery market to procure the items necessary to get on your merry way to Bourguignon Nirvana. (I can assure you there is such a place.)
And, honestly, those necessary items are neither fancy nor numerous. If you can get your hands on some stewing beef, a motley veggie crew consisting of a few carrots and onions, some fresh herbs, and a basket of mushrooms, and if you can manage to keep your mits off of just over half a bottle of tasty and full bodied red wine, you, my friend, are in business.
Boeuf bourguignon, at it’s meager roots, is a French peasant dish that was created out of necessity to make tough and inexpensive cuts of beef palatable by simmering them away for hours in a bubbling vat of red wine, herbs, and vegetables – there to both tenderize and presumably mask any airs of beef that hath gone just past it’s prime. Along with it’s cousin, coq au vin (which translates to ‘rooster’ [usually a tough old one] stewed in wine – appetizing, no?) it’s managed to climb the rungs of the culinary social ladder and land itself back up there amongst the most desirable of suppers. A pauper dish fit for a prince.
When one decides to embark on a traditional French dish cooking adventure, I am of the strong opinion that it’s generally best to defer to the French Authority herself, the late and great Mrs. Julia Child. Sure, I realize that her ubiquitous culinary tome resides on most chef’s shelves as much for looks and nostalgia as it does for actual know how, but this lady sure knows her stuff when it comes to the classics – and who am I to muddle with tradition? There are about 925,000 results that the powers that are Google made me privy to upon a quick search of “boeuf bourgignon,” and I suspect most of them produce an end result that is not only satisfactory, but downright delicious. However I prefer to refrain from gilding the lily when it comes to a classic recipe like this, and believe that with the best simple ingredients you can find, adding just a few tweaks and improvements to bolster the flavor while still maintaining the heart of the dish will yield a final product that is far superior than anything too change-y.
What I mean is: forget the excessive duck fat/truffles/10,000 year old balsamic vinegar, and bring on some organic and high quality beef, gorgeous thick cut bacon, the freshest herbs you can find, a wine that you’d be proud to perch on your table alongside your supper, and the patience and resolve not to skimp on steps or decide that now is the time to hold back on the butter (trust, it’s not), and you’ll be handsomely rewarded.
So fry up some bacon, brown your beef, saute your vegetables, toast your flour, stir in your wine (and don’t forget to have a small glass while you’re at it), and then watch all of these things combine and come together in the comfort of your warm oven to create something that really, truly, is so much greater than the sum of it’s humble parts.
I promise – this is worth every single effort. And any additional pants loosening that may need to occur before next week’s holiday. Bourguignon Nirvana is a happy little place, I tell ya.
Boeuf Bourguignon with Buttermilk White Sweet Potato Smash
Makes 6 Servings
Adapted Slightly from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Julia recommends serving this dish with a pile of buttered green peas on the side, and who am I to mess with her recommendation? I also made a rustic white sweet potato smash (recipe below) that was the perfect vehicle to mop up all of the delicious gravy. If you can’t find white sweet potatoes (also called Japanese yams), go ahead and use the regular orange kind, or sub in white potatoes. Both variations will be delicious.
6 ounces good quality thick cut bacon or pancetta
1 Tbsp olive oil
3 pounds lean stewing beef, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 sliced carrot
1 sliced onion
fresh cracked black pepper
2 Tbsp. flour
3 cups full-bodied, young red wine , such as a Chianti (I used Côtes du Rhône)
2 to 3 cups beef stock
2 Tbsp tomato paste
4 cloves minced garlic
a small bundle of fresh thyme (10-12 sprigs)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf (use a California Bay leaf if you can find one)
1 bag of frozen pearl onions
1 pound fresh button mushrooms, quartered
unsalted butter (3-4 Tbsp total)
white sweet potato smash
4 white sweet potatoes
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 stalk fresh rosemary, leaves minced (stems discarded)
kosher salt & fresh cracked black pepper
3 Tbsp butter
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.
Cut your bacon into lardons (sticks, 1/4 inch thick and 1 1/2 inches long). Heat a large Dutch oven (or heavy and deep casserole dish) over high heat and fry the bacon until it is just crisp on the edges, about 5 minutes. Remove the cooked bacon using a slotted spoon (letting most of the grease reside in the pan), and reserve it to the side.
Gently pat your beef dry with paper towels – it will not brown if it is damp. Season it generously with kosher salt.
Add just a bit of olive oil to the reserved bacon grease, and reheat the Dutch oven until the fat is almost smoking. Carefully add the beef cubes in batches, taking care not to crowd the pan at all, and brown the beef cubes very well on all sides. As the beef becomes golden brown and caramelized, reserve it to the side, and continue to brown a fresh batch, till all of the beef cubes are very golden brown and crusty on all edges. Take your time doing this, as you are developing a very important flavor layer and do not want to skimp during this step.
When all of the beef is browned and reserved to the side, add the sliced carrot and onion to the pan and saute them till almost tender, 5-6 minutes, adding a bit more olive oil if it is needed. Return the browned beef and cooked bacon to into the pot with the vegetables, season with a good pinch of kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper, and sprinkle the flour over the top. Give the pot a good stir to distribute the flour, and then place the casserole uncovered in the middle of the preheated oven for 4 minutes. After 4 minutes, remove the pot, toss the mixture, and return to the oven to cook again for 4 minutes more. This process helps to brown and flavor the flour (which will thicken the sauce) and also reinforces a light crust on the beef. Remove the Dutch oven and reduce the oven’s temperature to 325F.
Stir the wine and enough stock to just barely cover the meat into the pot. Add in the tomato paste, minced garlic, whole sprigs of herbs, and bay leaf. Stir the mixture to combine it, and cover the pot. Set the pot in the lower third of the preheated oven, and cook it for 2 1/2 – 3 hours. During the cooking process, peek into the pot once or twice to make sure that the liquid is simmering slowly and gently (ie, it is not at a rolling boil). Adjust the heat lower if it appears that the mixture is bubbling violently; however in a well-calibrated oven, 325F should be the perfect temperature. The meat is done when it yields very easily to the prick of a fork, and shreds apart with nearly no resistance.
While the beef is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms. In a cast iron skillet (or other large frying pan), heat 2 Tbsp of butter. Saute the quartered mushrooms with a good pinch of salt till they are golden brown and tender. Reserve them to the side. In the same pan you cooked the mushrooms, add a bit more butter, and add the frozen pearl onions directly to the pan. Cook the onions till they are heated through (and thus no longer frozen), and they are golden brown in spots. Reserve them to the side (you can place them in the same bowl as the cooked mushrooms to conserve dishes).
When the meat is tender, carefully pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve or strainer set over a saucepan or wide bowl; be careful not to spill any of that delicious braising liquid – it is also your sauce! Pick the whole herb sprigs out of the beef and vegetable mixture, wipe out the Dutch oven, and then return the beef, bacon, and vegetables to it. Distribute the cooked pearl onions and quartered mushrooms over the meat.
Skim as much fat as you can off the sauce. In a separate sauce pan, simmer the strained sauce for a few minutes, skimming off any additional fat as it rises. You should have about 2 1/2 cups of sauce thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. If the sauce appears too thin, boil it down rapidly until it is the proper consistency. If too thick, mix in a few tablespoons of stock or canned bouillon. Taste carefully for seasoning, and adjust your salt and pepper levels as needed (I add a good pinch of kosher salt here). Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables. *Note that the entire recipe may be completed in advance to this point.*
To make the smash, peel and cut the white sweet potatoes into 1″ chunks. Bring a pot of well salted water to a boil, and boil the potatoes until they are fork tender, about 10-15 minutes. Heat the buttermilk, minced rosemary, and butter in a separate saucepan till the butter is melted and the buttermilk is very warm to the touch (but do not let it boil). Using a hand potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon, gently crush and smash and break apart the cooked sweet potatoes. Drizzle the buttermilk mixture over the crushed potatoes, and stir well to incorporate, seasoning the potatoes with a good pinch of salt and pepper. Keep a slightly chunky and rustic texture to the potatoes – they are best when they are not completely smooth.
For immediate serving: Cover the Dutch oven and simmer the finished Beouf Bourguignon for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring to combine the meat and vegetables with the sauce several times. Serve a heaping spoonful of the bourguignon over a pile of the smashed potatoes.
For later serving: When the stew is cold, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate. About 15 to 20 minutes before serving, bring to the pot to a simmer, cover, and simmer very slowly for 10 minutes, occasionally basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce.