I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the recipe for ‘boeuf bourguignon’ in Mastering the art of French cooking: many hundreds of articles in newspapers and magazines; cross-references or modified versions in numerous subsequent cookbooks; and, in more recent times, countless mentions in blogs and other online settings.
Is there anything left to say that warrants adding another 600 words to the pile? Well, yes, because two of the joys of cooking are that you have the opportunity to add your own twist to a recipe, and that the exercise of using a recipe for the first time will add something significant to your store of knowledge and skills. As was the case when we applied ourselves to this famously popular recipe last week.
Firstly, I can say that the dish we prepared had wonderful balance, texture and flavours. From just under half of the recommended beef, we served two generous dinners for ourselves, with sides of fresh green beans and mashed potatoes. The dish was noticeably richer than the result produced by the recipe we developed in the winter of 2014; perhaps a little too rich for my late-middle-age digestive system. Sigh!
Here are some observations, variations and lessons from our experience of Julia Child’s recipe.
Cut of beef: for braised beef dishes such as this, or beef goulash, we use what is called ‘gravy beef’ in Australia; I believe it is cut from the shin. Other popular options here are ‘chuck’ or ‘blade’. The quality of the gravy beef our butcher supplies is very high and we like the gelatinous texture it produces.
Bacon: for some years, we have been using what is known as ‘kaiserfleisch’ in place of bacon in French braises, including ‘coq au vin’; the difference is probably not great, but it works for us. For the step of browning, we cooked this together with the carrot and onion; cooked by itself, it splatters and spits its own fat all over the place. (We were a bit casual about the quantity of kaiserfleisch; see final note below.)
Vegetables: we used ‘dutch’ carrots, slender and sweet, halved lengthways then cut into segments
Browning the beef: we cut our beef into pieces averaging about 10% less than recommended and we browned them, in four batches of 150-200g, after we had browned the vegetables
Flour cooking technique: this was new to us and we quite enjoyed it
Liquids: Although we had just under 50% of the beef quantity, by the time we had added one-third of both the wine volume and the lesser volume of stock, our meat was well covered, so we didn’t use any more
Tomato paste: we replaced this with some of the tomato sauce we had made according to Julia Child’s recipe
Cooking time: in our case, just under two hours plus the final steps was sufficient to achieve tender meat and a delicious gravy
Small white onions: we used brown (French) shallots instead of onions; it’s an established personal preference. We enjoyed the technique of brown-braising the shallots, and expect that we will use it in other circumstances
Straining and skimming: we had used less liquid, so the cooked dish was quite thick, but not at all dry, and any fats were well integrated into the gravy; so, these steps were not applicable. Our own recipe adds flour just before the end, after straining and skimming; we think that works well, for us
Reducing the richness: if we used this recipe again, I would be strict in relation to the weight of kaiserfleisch and delete the rind. And I would use a tomato passata or puree – we don’t like to use tomato paste in such dishes but our homemade French tomato sauce was too rich for this dish