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Throwback Thursday: Beef Bourguignon

Tony Jackman’s Beef Bourguignon. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Beef, cooked slow and soft. Red, red wine, in which to stew the beef. Mushrooms, cooked to nutty deliciousness. Pearl or baby onions, simmered in beef stock and herbs. Oh, and bacon of course. That’s as pleasantly peasanty as food gets.

I can’t think of Beef Bourguignon without thinking of Julia Child with her self-conscious grandness, every inch the ambassador’s wife cast abroad into the world and wondering what to do with herself, then alighting on a fine idea: I shall become a television cook! And, ever more, bestowing culinary largesse on the viewer in her classic and inimitable The French Chef cooking series, of which one can never tire.

Child likes chuck the best when cooking with beef, which comes from the shoulder blade, having tried the dish with various cuts and deciding that chuck fits a Bourguignon best. It makes, she says, for “an awfully nice stew because the meat doesn’t get stringy”. “Awfully” occurs frequently in her discourse on camera. “I find these wooden spatulas awfully useful,” she says in explaining why meat should not be crowded in the pan when browning it, otherwise the meat will steam rather than cook in the hot fat.

I like her sensible head about quantities too. This is one of the things a recipe writer has to get their head around. Instinctive cooks don’t measure much at all; we just cook and add as needed, unless it’s the likes of a cake for which measurements have to be precise. So more often than not the number of tablespoons or teaspoons of something in a recipe is the writer’s estimate of what they’re using, without necessarily actually measuring it in those spoons themselves. You get to know how much of a glug is about 2 Tbsp. But we understand that many people need exact measurements, so we do the job required of us. Do feel, though, that you can interpret many recipes in your own way, using a little less or more of a given ingredient, and you’ll find that cooking becomes increasingly instinctive to you.

“I’m gonna put a little bit more oil in … you can’t really give proportions for this, because you just add the oil as you need it,” Julia tells us in her episode on Boeuf Bourguignon. She’s browning the chunks of beef, some of which I can see is short rib, which she used alongside her preferred chuck. My own preference is short rib all the way. It’s one of my favourite cuts of beef as it has wonderful texture, is very neat and tidy when cut into the fairly large cubes you need for this dish, and it has much more flavour than many other cuts of beef.

“Bourguignon means Burgundy, and that’s where this dish was invented, in Burgundy, and they usually use Burgundy wine with it, but you can use any kind of nice red wine,” waxes Child. Of which she uses three cups, which she says is about two-thirds of a bottle. But, a cup being 250 ml, that means it’s a 750ml bottle. It doesn’t matter much, really, if you use two thirds or the entire bottle. It’s going to have an intensely winey flavour once you’re done, either way. Using a little more certainly cannot detract from the completed dish.

Now, there are chefs who will tell you that “the secret” to a good Boeuf/Beef Bourguignon is to use only red wine for the stewing of it, and no beef stock at all. But think about it: as long as it’s a quality beef stock, how can it not enhance your beef stew? A good stock needs to be made with roasted beef bones and lots of reduction cooking of the carrots, onion, celery and leeks, and most likely garlic, and preferably a little tomato paste, boiled for a long time so that the third or quarter or so of stock you have, once strained through a fine sieve, is intensely flavourful. So, if it’s my opinion you want, of course you should use beef stock as well as a decent bottle of red wine in Beef Bourguignon.

But there’s another important ingredient in this and any dish for which meat is first browned. I once heard someone complain about how their mother would scrape up “all the nasty bits” at the bottom of the pan and then add liquor (stock, wine) and cook it down to get the advantage of all the intensely caramelised flavour it gives. To ignore those bits, or to wash them down the sink, is to throw away some of the dish’s biggest flavours. This is the glaze and what Child aptly describes as “part of your treasure of cooking”.

For Beef Bourguignon, it’s once you’ve browned all your meat and removed it to a casserole (in my case the large cast-iron Le Creuset pot that I picked up at my local second-hand store for R400; don’t hate me) that you deglaze those “nasty bits” with a bottle of red wine and begin that reduction process. Once the wine has turned brown by its association with the deglaze, it gets poured into the casserole with the beef, and the stock is added. Enough, as Child points out, to “barely cover” the meat. So, though my recipe below might call for a particular quantity of beef stock, stop adding any more once your meat is well, but only just, covered.

As for the mushrooms and pearl or baby onions, they are cooked separately, including from each other. It’s best to drop the onions into boiling water first, then drain in a colander, to make the skins easy to remove. (We don’t get the tiny pearl onions in my small town, but there’s nothing wrong with using baby onions anyway. They tend to be of varying sizes, so just pick out the smallest ones. I never add raw mushrooms to a stew; that’s a recipe for them turning to mush and all but disappearing. It also destroys any possibility of the mushrooms attaining the nutty taste they get by cooking them down until they release their juice (they’re full of water), then cooking those juices away so that you are left with brown flavour bombs with a shiny coating of those reduced juices. That’s the secret to a mushroom.

A Beef Bourguignon is one of winter’s finest dishes, simple, if time-consuming, and ravenously moreish. Here’s how.

Ingredients

200 g bacon lardons

A little olive oil

1 onion, halved and then sliced

2 medium carrots, sliced thinly

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 kg beef short rib cut into 3 cm thick cubes

2 heaped Tbsp flour

1 x 750 ml bottle good red wine

1 Tbsp tomato paste

4 thyme sprigs

1 bay leaf

For the onions:

12 to 14 baby onions or 24 pearl onions, peeled

1 bouquet garni of 2 or 3 sprigs each of parsley, rosemary, and thyme, tied together with kitchen string

½ cup beef stock

Salt and pepper

For the mushrooms:

2 Tbsp butter

250 g button mushrooms (whole if small, halved if larger)

Method

Preheat the oven to 230℃, with the rack placed low down.

Cut rindless bacon (preferably quite thickly cut) into small lardons. Oil a pan very lightly and fry them off until cooked all over, and keep to one side.

Make sure that the beef is dry, and brown the pieces a few at a time, being sure that they don’t touch one another in the pan. They must fry, not steam. Remove them to a casserole.

Add your sliced onion (not the small onions) and thinly sliced carrots to the same pan, and sauté, stirring, until the onions are softened.

Add the vegetables to the casserole with the beef. Add a crumbled bay leaf. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Go easy, you can always add more salt later.)

Pour the wine into the pan from which everything has been removed (except those “nasty bits”), and scrape the bottom vigorously with a wooden spoon. Bring to a simmer and let it cook for a couple of minutes. (Keep this pan for use later when you cook the mushrooms.)

In the casserole, sprinkle the flour over the meat and vegetables, give it all a stir, put the lid on the pot, put the lowest heat on under it, and leave it for four minutes. Take the lid off, stir again, put the lid back on and leave it for another 3 or 4 minutes.

Now pour the wine/stock into the casserole, stir, and add the tomato paste, chopped garlic, bacon lardons and fresh herbs. 

Put it on the hob on a moderate heat and bring it to a simmer. Put it in the preheated oven, lid on, and cook for 10 minutes before turning the heat right down to 170℃ or 160℃ to cook for 3 to 4 hours. If it seems to be cooking too quickly (that is, if the liquid is cooking away too much), reduce the heat a little more.

An hour before you expect it to be ready, put the peeled onions in a pan with the bouquet garni, ½ cup of beef stock, and a little salt and pepper. Bring it to a simmer and let them cook gently and sweetly for about 45 minutes or until the liquid has mostly simmered away, leaving you with onions turning a nutty brown in the pan. Discard the bouquet garni.

Using the pan in which you browned the beef and cooked the onion and carrots, and in which you have just cooked the onions, wipe it with kitchen paper and then add 2 Tbsp butter and melt it on a moderate heat. Turn the heat to high, add the mushrooms all at once, and cook vigorously while stirring until the mushrooms first release their juices and then cook that azway. Keep to one side.

Serve a goodly portion of the stew and spoon onions and mushrooms on top. A side of creamy mashed potato would be perfect, but polenta is good too. Be sure to spoon the deeply flavourful sauce over too. Garnish with thyme or rosemary. DM/TGIFood 

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected] 

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