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I’m so food-obsessed, when it comes to eating, that my laziness in the kitchen strikes me as incongruous with my willingness to drive four hours to get a bucket of French fries (which I did, and would happily do again—they’re mighty fine fries). So I’ve made a resolution and decided with FDL to write a column, a cooking along of the most classic dishes.
As a professor of art history and a writer, I work best when I plan out projects, structure them into rounds of research and execution, and then write about the experience afterward. We begin here with a French classic: Beef Bourguignon. This is a dish that will introduce us to braising—a technique that is truly a man’s best friend.
Braising is the easiest sophisticated cooking method. It’s simple as can be: meat is slow-cooked in a liquid, any liquid you like, in a sealed container, preferably a Dutch oven-style pot, like those made by Le Creuset. The meat is cooked until tender enough to cut with a fork. Inexpensive cuts of meat, flavorful but tough if under-cooked, all thrive in this method. Accompanying vegetables are likewise loaded with flavor, and for those with lazy tendencies (guilty as charged), this process couldn’t be easier to make, to supervise (you really don’t have to supervise it at all), or to clean (all the action takes place in one pot). Beef Bourguignon is the most basic, yet subtly sophisticated, of the braised meat, one-pot dishes.
The name comes from the Burgundy region of France and, at its core, this is a stew of cubed beef slow-cooked for at least two hours in red wine (ideally Burgundy, if we’re being authentic). It’s a peasant dish, as so many of the tastiest and most satisfying are. Any cut of meat will do, and you also needn’t use a lot of meat. Meat provides the flavor, but the stew is made filling with carrots, yellow onions, and the optional additions of pearl onions or mushrooms just before serving. Crusty bread for dipping, and you’ve got a meal in a bowl. Recipes vary very little, which means that this dish has been honed to perfection, and needs little decoration.
A good trick is to brown the meat on the stovetop before you start braising. Older recipes recommend lardons (cubes of fatty bacon) as the base for the browned meat, which adds flavor for sure (but is not on everyone’s diet). Once the meat is browned, you add vegetables (any root vegetables will do, though carrot and onion are the traditional accompaniments), pour in red wine until the meat is just submerged, cap your pot, and braise in a 180 degree oven for at least two hours. The beauty of such a dish is that you can’t really overcook it. Some braising recipes run as long as 8 hours. As long as enough liquid remains in the pot, so nothing dries out, you can leave this on for 3, 4, 5 hours without a worry, as you go about your day.
I enjoy dishes that have a flavor of their pedigree in the taste and methods of preparation. This is a fine example of just what I mean. One can imagine peasants centuries ago, putting their pot over a fire, adding a meager portion of tough meat, whatever they had to hand, and letting it braise while they set about their day’s work. Hours later they’d return, exhausted, to a rich, scented stew, perfectly cooked without supervision, over which to break their bread. Now you can do the same, by choice rather than necessity. The results will taste just as good.
One thing I’ve learned already from my adventures in cooking. I’d rather eat a peasant meal than the lofty delicacies of a king any day. This is the first in a series of columns called Cooking the Classics. Join me every month, as I cook a different classic dish, research its origins and cultural history, and write about the process.