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"Boeuf bourguignon is one of the most delicious beef stews concocted by man.”
— Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking
What Makes a Chef Famous?
There are good chefs, great chefs, and chefs who are known not only by how they cook but are acknowledged, remembered, and immortalized for a "signature dish," a meal synonymous with its master chef.
Today we'll discuss Julia Child and how she created boeuf Bourguignon.
A Brief Biography of Julia Child
In 1963, television viewers were introduced to a new personality—a robust woman over six feet tall with a warbly sing-song voice, a down-to-earth personality, and a flair for making even the most complex French dish seem easy to achieve. Julia Child had a broadcast career of four decades; she authored more than one dozen cookbooks, and she received a Peabody and numerous Daytime Emmy awards, but none of those goals were on her list when she was a young girl in Pasadena, California.
Julia grew up in a well-to-do home (her father was a Princeton graduate and successful real estate investor; her mother was an heiress to a paper company). Family meals were prepared by a cook, and Julia had little to no interest in the kitchen.
However, that changed with her marriage to Paul Childs. An artist and a poet with a sophisticated palate, Paul Childs met Julia at the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) where they worked during World War II. In 1948, he joined the United States Foreign Service, and so Mr. and Mrs. Child moved to Paris, France. Julia's first meal there was an epiphany. She described the sole meunière as "an opening up of the soul and spirit for me." Fine foods and cooking became her passion. In 1951, she graduated from the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris.
Julia then joined a women’s cooking club, and it was there that she met Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. Louisette and Simone were in the midst of writing a French cookbook for the American audience, and they recognized that Julia could help make their book more appealing to Americans.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1961, and the 726-page cookbook quickly became a best seller. A year later, Julia and her two co-authors appeared on a book review show on WGBH-TV, Boston (now a PBS affiliate). With her delightful personality and cheery enthusiasm, she was a natural in front of the camera. The French Chef television show debuted on February 11, 1963, and it was an immediate success. And that was just the beginning.
The Story of Boeuf Bourguignon
In stark contrast to the privileged upbringing of Julia Child is the humble beginnings of the beef burgundy stew (also known as Boeuf Bourguignon). The practice of simmering tough cuts of meat in cheap wine to create a stew dates back to the Middle Ages; but back then the wine was used not just to tenderize an otherwise unsalvageable hunk of meat, it was also a means of covering up the taste and smell of food that was perhaps well past its prime. Cabbage, onions, and root vegetables provided the bulk of the meal.
In 1903, Auguste Escoffier, the French culinary genius, re-invented the beef stew. With the addition of a good-quality wine, savory herbs, and mushrooms, he elevated it from bourgeois fare to haute cuisine.
Main Components of Boeuf Bourguignon
There are four main components of this dish: beef, wine, mushrooms, and herbs/seasonings.
This is not the place for tenderloin or a prime rib of beef. You want meat that can handle long cooking and still hold together. Pieces from the round are good, but Julia prefers the chuck. It has an excellent beefy flavor and is usually less expensive than the round.
Did you know that:
- Burgundy is a wine region in France
- Red burgundy is made in the eastern Burgundy region of France using Pinot Noir grapes. Yes, red Burgundy is just Pinot Noir with a sassy ruby glint.
What makes Burgundy so special, what sets it apart from any other wine region is its “terroir.” Maybe you’ve heard someone wax poetic when describing a wine’s “sense of place." This interpretation of how a wine translates geology, weather, and other factors known as terroir is everything in Burgundy. Of course, this is true. We know this of chocolate and of coffee beans. Every nuance of climate—the elevation, the geologic composition of the soil, the soil nutrients, the minerals in the rain or irrigation water, and even the atmosphere all play a part in the unique flavors of the foods we eat.
Herbs and Seasonings
- Tomato paste: Tomato paste is a thick concentrate of tomatoes, cooked down to evaporate most of the water. It thickens, colors, and intensifies the meaty flavor of the liquid in which the beef has been simmered.
- Thyme: Thyme is not meant to be the star of the show. As a member of the mint family, it might overwhelm in a solo performance. But, when paired with onion, garlic, parsley, or other herbs, it lends subtle warmth and complexity to dishes that would otherwise have just a single note.
- Garlic: This member of the allium (onion) family is a simple herb with a complex personality. It can be sweet and mellow or sharp and pungent depending on how it is used in a dish. The low, slow simmer in the oven tames garlic's fire, making it sweet and mellow.
- Bay leaf: Sniff a crushed bay leaf and you might shrug your shoulders are say "why bother?" But something magical happens when you steep it in hot liquid. Bay leaf isn't a bold flavor—it doesn't beat a drum or shout from the rooftops. It's a subtle minty flavor (some have compared it to menthol or Christmas tree pine). It imparts a slight bitterness that balances the heavy flavors in soups and stews. You might not taste its whisper, but you will miss bay if you leave it out.
Although edible mushrooms have been gathered for many centuries, it was the French who can be credited with the successful domestication of the Champignons de Paris. In 1600, renowned agriculturist Olivier de Serres proposed that some mushrooms might be cultivated; in 1678 French botanist Jean Marchant demonstrated that mushrooms could indeed be raised by transferring the thin filaments that spread underground into a receptive compost and thus repropagate. In time it was discovered that the dark moist environment of caves was even more conducive to mushroom growth, so old stone quarries were converted to mushroom farms.
Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon Recipe
It seems that every “authentic” recipe for Julia’s Boeuf Bourguignon begins with bacon, prosciutto, or some other form of smoked pork. I won’t argue that bacon adds another level of flavor, but it’s not a part of Julia’s original recipe. Here is my interpretation of the dish as Julia presented it on her television show.
For the beef:
- 3 pounds of beef chuck cut in large chunks
- 3 tablespoons olive oil or peanut oil
- 3 cups Burgundy wine
- 2 cups beef stock
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/2 teaspoon dry thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 large clove garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 tablespoons softened butter
For the braised onions:
- Small pearl onions (about 24)
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
For the braised mushrooms
- 3 cups quartered crimini mushrooms (include stems)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
For the beef:
- Preheat the oven to 325°F.
- Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over high heat. Blot the beef chuck with paper towels to dry it thoroughly. Damp meat will not brown properly. Place the beef chunks in the pan and cook for about 5 minutes, turning occasionally, until all sides of the beef are well-browned. Don't crowd the pan. If necessary, brown the beef in several batches; you want it to sear, not steam.
- Remove the browned beef to an oven-safe baking dish with a lid. A Dutch oven is perfect for this.
- Deglaze the pan with the wine; stir and scrape the bottom of the pan to release those yummy bits from the bottom of the pan—they add tons of flavor. Next, stir in the beef broth.
- Bring to a boil; stir in the tomato paste, thyme, bay leaf, garlic, and salt. Pour over the beef in the Dutch oven. Cover and place in the preheated oven. It should take 3-4 hours for the beef to become tender.
For the braised onions:
- While the beef is simmering in the oven, you have time to work on the onions. To easily remove the skins, Julia plunges them into a pan of boiling water. Here's a short video to show you how to do it.
- When the skins are removed, return the onions to the saucepan. Add enough water to cover. Add the butter and salt. Cover and simmer for about 25 minutes, or until easily pierced with a knife. They will be tender but should still hold their shape.
For the braised mushrooms:
- Julia washes her mushrooms, but I prefer to simply brush off any dust/dirt with a damp paper towel. Remove just a scant amount of the stem end and then chop your mushrooms. Cut off the stems and cut them into two or three pieces (Julia uses a bias cut). Cut the caps into quarters.
- Over medium-high heat, add the olive oil and butter to a large saute pan. You will know that the pan is hot enough when the butter stops foaming. Add the prepared mushrooms and cook, stirring, until they give off their liquid and begin the brown, about 2-3 minutes.
To complete the dish:
- Drain the liquid off of the braised meat. (Julia uses a colander to separate the meat from the braising liquid). Return the liquid to the Dutch oven. You should have about 2 1/2 cups of liquid. Skim off any grease with a spoon. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.
- Cream together the flour and softened butter to make a paste. (This is a beurre manié). Whisk into the braising liquid. When thoroughly absorbed return the Dutch oven to the stovetop. Bring briefly to a boil and the sauce will thicken.
- Add the sauteed mushrooms and onions into the Dutch oven with the beef. Pour the sauce on top and stir to blend the flavors together.
- Serve with steamed potatoes and a green salad, just like Julia.
Watch Julia Child Make Her Famous Boeuf Bourguignon
© 2021 Linda Lum