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Reclaiming our peasant heritage

First We Eat: Don’t be intimidated by Boeuf Bourguignon — just a fancy name for beef stew

Yesterday I walked home from morning coffee at my neighbour Sharon’s house, my passage closely observed by a leggy Black Angus calf. She bounced up to the barbed wire fence, her head high as she gave my dog and me the once-over. Jake stopped in his tracks, uncertain what this until-now-predictable creature was up to. “Nothing,” I told him. “She’s just curious. Like you. Let’s go home.”

At home, a pot of beef stock simmered, made from bones harvested from that calf’s cousin, and I had plans for some chuck and round, the meat also harvested from my neighbour’s herd — a pot of beef stew, enriched with a generous glug of decent red wine.

Beef stew made with red wine was the essence of subsistence cooking for French farmers who were perhaps foragers, perhaps cattle farmers, perhaps grape growers or vintners. But call that same stew by its true name — Boeuf Bourguignon — and serve it in a bistro or fancy white-tablecloth resto, and what was simple peasant fare is appropriated — and priced to match — for the upscale diner who perhaps can’t cook it for herself.

The whole idea of stew sounds unremarkable, I agree. It can be. I have eaten my share of beef stew tough enough to go for a walkabout in the pasture, with gluey, characterless gravy. But it’s just as easy to make a great stew as to make that boring, pedestrian, plain-Jane-do-we-have-to-eat-this-stuff-again version. So what rescues beef stew from ignominy? What makes it a yum-worthy dish?

Just a couple of things: good ingredients and good technique.

Get good beef. Get some bones, too. Make stock: simmer it for at least 12 hours. It is essential. Yes, you can use canned or packaged stock, and yes, you could get away with making beef stew with chicken stock. But at a price. That beefy bubbling pot full of liquid covering oven-browned beef bones and caramelized vegetables is the heart of the dish. While the stew simmers, the house will fill with layers of flavour, and the finished dish will taste rich and incredibly beefy. Definitely yum-worthy.

The wine needs to be good enough to drink, but I would never pour a name brand fancy bottle of Pinot Noir or Burgundy or Cab Sauv into my stewpot. I would use an entire bottle — cheap and cheerful Chilean Merlot, for instance — saving a single glass for myself as the pot simmers.

As to technique, use a couple of pans. Sauté the bacon, onions and garlic, transfer them to a heavy pot, then pat the beef dry. Working in small batches, salt it, brown it well, deglaze the pan with some of that wine, and pour the whole shooting match into the pot. Add the rest of the bottle and a few ladles of stock. Cover. Simmer until tender. Peek and stir from time to time. It really is that simple.

Put some spuds and root veg into the oven to roast. Fry some wild or cultivated mushrooms and add them to the pot at the last minute. Sit down, fill your glasses. First we eat, then we thank the cook, the calf, the farmer.

Boeuf Bourguignon

You can add a dab of tomato paste to the pot, but I prefer the unadulterated flavour of wine and beef stock. Serve with roasted potatoes and root vegetables and a simple salad with a sharp vinaigrette. Serves 8.

  • 6-8 slices bacon, chopped 2 heads garlic, sliced
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • Olive oil for the pan
  • 3-5 lbs. stewing meat, cubed and patted dry
  • Salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
  • 1 bottle red wine
  • 4 sprigs fresh rosemary, minced 1 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1 tsp. dried basil
  • 4-6 c. beef stock
  • Sliced mushrooms (rehydrated dried wild or fresh cultivated)
  • Oil or butter and garlic (for the mushrooms)
  • Minced fresh parsley

Fry the bacon until almost crisp, add the garlic and onions, and cook for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a brazier or heavy ovenproof casserole. Reheat the sauté pan, add a drizzle of oil, and enough beef to almost cover the bottom of the pan. Season with salt and pepper. Turn the meat as it browns. Transfer the browned meat to the pot, add a splash of wine to the sauté pan, deglaze it, and tip the scrapings and liquid into the pot. Cook the meat in multiple batches to avoid crowding the pan, repeating until

all the meat is browned and in the pot. Add the rest of the wine, herbs, and enough stock to cover everything nicely. Bring to a boil, cover with parchment and a lid, and cook on low for several hours, until tender. When the meat is done, simmer uncovered until the sauce thickens. Sauté the mushrooms with oil or butter and garlic, and stir into the pot. Serve garnished with parsley.

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