Celebrating Julia Child and French version of beef stew

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Four decades ago, television was a minor but growing presence in American life, and "educational" television was just that - educational and even somewhat dull.

But it proved to be the perfect vehicle for a tall, cheerful woman with a warbly voice and unencumbered enthusiasm. The French Chef, Julia Child's first cooking series, debuted 40 years ago this month on WGBH, Boston's public television station, with an episode devoted to that classic French stew, boeuf bourguignon.

Around the country local chapters of the American Institute of Wine and Food, co-founded by Julia Child, gathered last night to celebrate that cultural milestone by watching a tape of the show and dining on boeuf bourguignon.

Child chose this French stew for the first episode because the show's goal was to introduce viewers to classical French cooking techniques, and nothing is more basic to good French cooking than a well-prepared stew.

"It's a technique, not so much a recipe," says her longtime assistant, Stephanie Hersh. "People were eating beef stew, and this is the French version."

Ironically, in the years since food television was in its infancy, Americans seem to have become both more interested in watching the preparation of good food and less willing or able to spend more than a bare minimum amount of time to make it themselves.

But as boeuf bourguignon reminds us, long, leisurely cooking can be its own reward - nourishing a household with its rich smells even when there's no need to be standing over the stove. Few aromas can pique the appetite or stir the soul more deeply than those released when chunks of beef simmer in a full-bodied red wine.

Yes, it's French and it's classic. But it also epitomizes the best of simple home cooking. And as Child demonstrated 40 years ago, just about anybody can pull it off with a few basic skills, a pinch of planning and a big dollop of patience. The reward is a memorable meal, one that can help heal the cares of a busy day.

Although the cooking time for boeuf bourguignon is a few hours, the actual preparation is considerably less - especially once you master those basic techniques for browning beef, braising small onions and sauteing mushrooms.

"It's time-consuming only in the sense that you need to be around the house, but not necessarily standing over the stove," says chef Cindy Wolf, who periodically features boeuf bourguignon at her two restaurants, Charleston and Petit Louis. But the time is worth it, she says. "My favorite thing about cooking is making a great sauce, and this is the greatest sauce there is."

Lack of time (or patience) and inexperience with basic techniques are not the only challenges the dish presents for contemporary American cooks. There is also the matter of lardons, or pork fat, traditionally used in the dish to add flavor and to protect the surface of the meat while it cooks.

In these fat-fearful days, cooks might shy away from chunks of the stuff, even small pieces like lardons. But as Wolf points out, the fat added to boeuf bourguignon is minor.

Lardons hark back to a time when most meat was tough and dry, and pork fat was a good way to make it tender and flavorful. Long strips of pork fat were often threaded through pieces of meat with larding needles to baste the meat while it cooked.

Nowadays lardons are hard to find, says George Janouris, manager of Graul's Market in Ruxton, in part because hogs are bred much leaner, but also because most meat arrives in stores pre-cut, reducing the need for meat cutters at every store. However, if you're in search of traditional lardons, most specialty stores can order them with a few days' notice, Janouris says.

You also can use sliced bacon or salted pork, provided you first blanch it to remove the smoky or salty taste.

Fernand Tersiguel of Tersiguel's in Ellicott City, who prepares the dish for private parties, follows the classic technique described by Child of first simmering the lardons to remove the smoky taste, although not every chef does that.

If you don't have a source of lardons or chunks of bacon, you can improvise and cut regular breakfast bacon into squares. Or, if you prefer, you can skip that part of the recipe.

In recent years, lardons have become optional, even for Julia Child. "Boeuf a la Bourguignon" in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961, is described as "beef stew in red wine, with bacon, onions and mushrooms." The recipe calls for a 6-ounce chunk of bacon and includes detailed instructions for blanching it.

But by the end of the century, when Child included a master recipe for the dish in Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes From a Lifetime of Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, $19.95), both the name and the description were simpler: "Beef Bourguignon -Beef in Red Wine Sauce."

In that version, lardons are listed as "optional, but traditional for added flavor," so don't let the unfamiliarity of lardons, a scarcity of fatback or even a fear of fat discourage you from trying one of the great stews of all time.

And in between those two books, her heavily illustrated instruction manual, The Way to Cook, doesn't even mention lardons in its version of beef in red wine.

That's because Mastering the Art of French Cooking and The French Chef were intended as instruction books in classical French techniques, explains Hersh, while The Way to Cook is not French, but rather "careful American cooking."

Lardons or no lardons, beef in red wine is worth the effort. For the beef, you'll want about a pound of 2-inch cubes for every two people - or about four pounds for eight people. In general, the better the ingredients, the better the finished product. But the beauty of braising is that all those hours of slow cooking can turn even tougher cuts of meat into something sublime.

You'll also want to pick a decent wine because it is a key ingredient. The wine need not be expensive, but it should at least be one you don't mind drinking. The alcohol will burn off, of course, but the flavor of the wine will pervade the meal.

Tersiguel and Wolf always use a burgundy, the traditional wine for the dish, although Child says any decent, young, full-bodied red wine will do. Most good wine shops can steer you to a good, affordable choice, especially now that a glut in wine supply is pushing prices lower for many labels.

As for techniques, you'll first saute the beef over high heat, taking care to dry it first (otherwise it won't brown). And, as Child cautions, be sure not to crowd the meat in the pan.

Once the meat has browned and you've added the liquids and other ingredients for simmering, you'll need to turn your attention to the small, white onions and the mushrooms, the simple but elegant garnishes that raise this dish from an ordinary stew to the full glory of boeuf bourguignon.

When those are ready, you simply need to let the simmering broth work its miracle before you proceed to a few final steps.

Remember that ingredients in a stew need time to get to know each other to develop more complexity and richer flavor. So if you can carve out time to prepare it one day, you'll find that your stew only gets better when you reheat it the next.

Remember, too, that as Child herself reminds us in her careful instructions, "There are more ways than one to arrive at a good boeuf bourguignon."

Beef Bourguignon -- Beef in Red Wine Sauce

Serves 6 to 8

Cooking time: about 2 1/2 hours

6 ounces blanched bacon lardons (optional, but traditional for added flavor -- see Note 1)

about 4 pounds trimmed beef chuck, cut into 2-inch cubes

2 to 3 tablespoons cooking oil

salt and freshly ground pepper

2 cups sliced onions

1 cup sliced carrots

1 bottle red wine (such as zinfandel or chianti)

2 cups beef stock or canned beef broth

1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned

1 medium herb bouquet (see Note 2)

BEURRE MANIE FOR THE SAUCE: 3 tablespoons flour blended to a paste with 2 tablespoons butter

GARNISH: 24 brown-braised small white onions (see Note 3) and 3 cups quartered, sauteed mushrooms (see Note 4)

If using lardons, saute them to brown lightly in a little oil; set them aside and add to simmer with the beef, using the rendered fat in browning.

Choose a large frying pan and brown the chunks of meat on all sides in hot oil, season with salt and pepper, and turn them into a heavy casserole.

Remove all but a little fat from the frying pan, add the sliced vegetables and brown them, and add to the meat. Deglaze the pan with wine, pouring it into the casserole along with enough stock almost to cover the meat. Stir in the tomatoes and add the herb bouquet.

Bring to the simmer, cover and simmer slowly, either on the stove or in a preheated 325-degree oven, until the meat is tender -- eat a little piece to check.

Drain through a colander set over a saucepan and return the meat to the casserole. Press juices out of the residue into the cooking liquid, then degrease and boil down the liquid to 3 cups. Off heat, whisk in the beurre manie, then simmer for 2 minutes as the sauce thickens lightly. Correct seasoning and pour over the meat, folding in the onions and mushrooms. (May be completed a day in advance to this point.)

To serve, bring to the simmer, basting meat and vegetables with the sauce for several minutes until thoroughly hot throughout.

Note 1: To blanch lardons, drop 6 to 8 slices of the fat into 2 quarts of cold water, bring to a boil, and let it simmer for 6 to 8 minutes. Then drain, rinse it in cold water and dry on paper towels.

Note 2: For a large herb bouquet, tie 8 parsley sprigs, 1 large imported bay leaf, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 4 whole cloves or allspice berries and 3 large cloves of smashed, unpeeled garlic together in washed cheesecloth.

Note 3: Brown-braised onions: To peel, drop onions into boiling water for exactly 1 minute. Drain and refresh in cold water. Shave off ends; slip off skins. Pierce a cross 1/4 inch deep in root ends to prevent bursting.

Melt some butter and a little oil in a saucepan large enough to hold the onions in one layer and saute them until they are golden. Add enough chicken stock to half cover the onions, season with salt and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Cover and simmer slowly for 25 minutes, or until tender.

Note 4: Sauteed mushrooms: For 3 cups of quartered, sauteed mushrooms, heat 2 tablespoons butter and 2 teaspoons oil in a large frying pan until the butter foams. As the foam subsides, add the mushrooms. Saute for several minutes, tossing frequently as the butter is absorbed and then reappears on the surface when the mushrooms begin to brown. Toss in 2 teaspoons of chopped shallots, season with salt and pepper and saute another 30 seconds.

-- "Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes From a Lifetime of Cooking" by Julia Child (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, $19.95)

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