One of my goals when I became a mom was to learn to cook. When I left for college, my signature meal was a bowl of cereal. When I boiled spaghetti, I would get so frustrated with how long it took to finish that I took the meaning of ‘al dente’ to a whole new level. I also have ruined many a pot just by letting something boil to hard for too long, or for not using the right utensil on the right thing, or by putting something in the oven/microwave that didn’t belong there.
Maren is almost a year and a half old, and I’m very proud to say that the majority of her meals have been cooked at home. The only fast food she’s ever had is french fries that were frantically thrown at her when she woke up on a road trip, noticed we were eating, and proceeded to snarl. I can count the number of jars of baby food we bought on one hand– we even made our own cereal, rather than buying the boxed powdered rice stuff. Giving her a variety of food was always a priority for us, and for that reason, we are now blessed with the only non-picky child eater I’ve ever known. In fact, if we go to a restaurant and I order something and don’t like it, I’ll just trade with Maren. Because that kid will eat anything.
So I decided that it is time to cast aside the popular idea that I don’t know how to cook. Plus I’m kind of on a kick right now where I feel like I need to do crazy things just to prove to myself that I can. So I picked a Friday night, invited some friends over, and attempted Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon.
Boeuf Bourguignon is, even by Julia Child’s account, really just a beef stew. But it’s also an artform. You have to put an entire bottle of french wine in the sauce– what we Americans call gravy. You have to make something called an herb bouquet. You have to simmer the stew to perfection for three hours.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking was written in the fifties, back when times were simple and the meat you bought at the grocery store came from someone you went to church with or ran into when you and your family were out for a stroll. My experience buying the meat for BB was not very Rockwell-esque, in fact, it was highly unromantic. When I asked for rump roast, the butcher at HyVee reached for something called Bottom Round. Now, Julia Childs had prepared me for this. Right there at the top of the recipe is a list of cuts of meat in order of preference, with rump roast being very top and bottom round being very bottom.
So I protested, “I’m sorry,” I said, “But the book says rump roast, and that says bottom round.”
Guys– I’m not exaggerating here. I did not get an even slightly annoyed look, or a quizzical expression, or a slight sigh of frustration. Nay. He looked at me like I had lost my damn mind.
“They’re the same thing.” He insisted, and asked how much I wanted.
Internet! I can read. The meat he was holding CLEARLY said bottom round. My grocery list, held aloft in my fist, CLEARLY said rump roast. And yet…. I don’t know. I guess I figured that the man spends most of his day elbow deep in carnage, he must be able to identify it better than me. Maybe even better than Julia.
So he cut me a three pound chunk of it, and then we moved on to the next problem. The recipe calls for a six ounce chunk of bacon, which I am then supposed to remove from the rind and cut into lardons.
I made Mitch explain this to the guy, since I seemed to have lost all credibility. The man informed us that no one sells bacon in ‘chunks’ and that the best we could do is get some bacon from the meat counter, because that was higher quality.
“Where is the chunk you cut these from?” Mitch asked him, but the man just grabbed us 6 oz of bacon strips and we accepted them, docile as the next meat-eater, and went gleefully to the vegetable section, where I was now happily on my own turf.
After you’ve cut your bacon into strips, OR, as in our case, after you’ve accepted the strips that have been given to you, you simmer them in a quart and a half of water for about ten minutes. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.
While this was happening, I was busy sawing away at the roast, making it into bite-sized pieces. Mitch is a chef and owns a fantastic set of knives, but every time he gets around to sharpening them something comes up, and they never get sharpened. So fabricating this meat was turning into quite a messy job, not to mention, I’m pretty sure I have a nasty case of carpel tunnel as a result.
Next, you con your husband into cutting up an onion and a carrot. While he does this, you put a tablespoon of oil into what Julia calls a ‘casserole’ and what Mitch calls a ‘stock pot’ and saute the bacon, then the meat, then the onion and carrot that your husband has just finished cutting up. I guess it’s pretty important that you dab all the excess gore off the meat before you saute it, because otherwise it won’t brown very well. I gave it a few halfhearted swipes and it turned out just fine.
At any moment now, your toddler is going to wake up from her nap and realize that something delicious is happening in the kitchen. So, first, you will try to con her into thinking that she is ‘helping:’
Which gives you slight palpitations, and Presto/Chango– the ottomon is now a baby gate, and is put up in the kitchen door and your toddler is now being forced to play with her toys and watch classic Popeye cartoons.
This is not pleasing to anyone, but you console yourself with the knowledge that in ten years she will thank you for the use of her fingers, having not burned them off at age 1. In about fifteen minutes, your child will suddenly discover that she knows how to vault the ottoman, which she has never done (nor attempted to do) before, so your husband will add a chair, thus barricading you into the kitchen for the next part of the cooking process.
Next, you put all the stuff in the stockpot/casserole together and put in two tablespoons of flour, and some salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Put this in the oven for four minutes or so, take it back out and toss it again, and put it back in for another four minutes. While this is happening, you get out all of this stuff:
This is tomato paste, garlic, bay, thyme, and parsley. Also beef stock, which you will use twice, and French Beaujolais wine, which you will wish you drank most of before the afternoon is over. Alas, the entire bottle of wine goes into the pot, along with the herbs, and then enough stock just to cover the meat. Lower your oven to 325. Bring the contents of the pot to a nice simmer, and then put the whole shebang into the oven for three hours.
This is about when I left to go get my hair cut. When I got home, Mitch was waiting with our barefoot daughter in the yard, begging to go to Dairy Queen (that’s Mitch doing the begging, not Maren). So we loaded up the car for Maren’s next fast food experience.
We live in a good sized city, and happen to have at least a thousand Dairy Queens in our midst, but the one closest to us also happens to be one that people only go to because its like a cultural experience. The service is terrible. You wait in line for days– you could starve. The parking lot is structured such that you have to back up into the drive-thru lane, and then wait while all the cars go through the aforementioned dastardly long line before you are allowed to escape. I never remember this in time, and that is how we found ourselves in line at Dairy Queen, sandwiched between a car that had yet to order, three cars that felt peer pressured by us and decided they needed a blizzard as well, and a dangerous obstacle course of very young children and very elderly grandmother types all trying to back out of the parking lot. Guys. We waited TWENTY MINUTES for our ice cream. I had to switch to the passenger seat because I was too afraid that once I got to the window I would scream, “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW HARD IT IS TO CUT UP A THREE POUND ROAST INTO STEW MEAT WITH A DULL KNIFE?” And be arrested for making terroristic threats.
Once home, Mitch put Maren in her high chair and fed her a Dairy Queen sandwich, which made perfect sense, seeing as how we were about to feed her a beef stew that packs nine hundred calories a serving. Beautiful smells were coming out of our kitchen.
At this point, you are going to braise some onions and saute some mushrooms. Do the onions first, because it takes a lot longer.
You need to use 18-24 pearl onions. We had a bunch from our CSA, so that worked out, but you can also use frozen. Just make sure they are defrosted and thawed all the way through. Heat butter and oil (yes, butter AND oil) in a pan. Wait until the butter has stopped foaming, and put your onions in. Julia goes on for awhile here about being very careful not to break their skin, and how you can’t expect to brown them all uniformly. This is a lady who likes her onions. Once they are sufficiently browned, put in a cup or so of beef broth and let them simmer for about 45 minutes. This is where you add the herb bouquet:
To saute mushrooms, you need a pound of mushrooms, butter, and oil. Once again, Julia gets very into her technique here and discusses how the mushrooms will soak up the fat at first, but then the fat will– as if by magic– reappear on the surface of the mushroom, and then begin to brown. I did not notice any of this fat exchange, but since swiss mushroom burgers are possibly my favorite food on the planet, I’ve browned a few mushrooms in my day. Check and check.
Here comes the worst part of the whole stew. It’s very misleading, because you’re reading through this recipe in the book and it tells you– it TELLS you, straight out– that you will have to simmer this stew for three to four hours in your oven. It lets you in on the little by-the-by that you actually have to do three recipes, not just the one, in order to complete the madness. But then it skips through the last steps as if its no big deal, the hard part is over. You start congratulating yourself and calling your Mom and having dreams of a Food Network reality show– friends– I am here to tell you that the WORST PART OF THE WHOLE THING happens in the last hour, AND that you will most likely finish the stew mere seconds before your company gets there.
Pass the stew through a sieve. Wash out the casserole/stock pot, and put the meat and vegetables back in it. Bring the sauce/gravy to a simmer, and begin skimming the fat. AS MORE FAT ARISES, skim that too. Repeat. FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. This is about where I quietly opened up a bottle of cabernet and began drinking.
The sauce is supposed to thicken up such that it will coat a spoon– and become more sauce-like, I’m assuming. But mine just kept boiling and boiling and boiling, and nothing happened. It reduced, but didn’t get any thicker. You’re supposed to end up with about 2 1/2 cups of sauce, and we were dangerously close to that amount, but the sauce was pretty weak. So…. on a whim, I threw in a dash of corn starch.
Are any of you cooks? Can any of you explain to me why the corn starch just clumped up, rather than making my sauce into a nice, thick gravy? Because then I spent the next fifteen minutes frantically skimming out corn starch clumps, and then the doorbell rang.
At this point, slam everything you have in your kitchen into the stock pot and simmer for another two minutes or so, to make sure it is all nice and toasty.
And there you go– your first Boeuf Bourguinon– a dish so tasty that I didn’t take a single ‘all done’ picture, because we were too busy eating it. Seriously.
Then put the baby to bed, and deal out the Killer Bunny cards. Cross it off your bucket list, and make yourself the promise that next time you have company coming you will be serving your world famous beef enchiladas and diet coke.