It is undeniably stew weather. I am, I’m afraid, one of those people who grimace all the way through summer, longing for autumn, thinking of fall-clichés: big cosy jumpers, afternoons spent reading on the sofa with a blanket, an excuse to bring out my knitting, rain drumming on the windows. Predictably, my greatest reason for embracing this time of year is the food it brings with it, and above all, is the presence of a casserole on the hob, bubbling away, slowly gaining body and flavour, and filling the kitchen with boozy, meaty, smoky smells. I have a lot of love in my heart for all kinds of stews, but boeuf bourguignon probably takes the crown.
Boeuf bourguignon was rightly famous before Julia Child came along, but in the cookbook that shot her to fame, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, it became synonymous with her, and with the French cooking that she introduced to American kitchens. In doing so, she described boeuf bourguignon as ‘certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man’. It is, as she acknowledges, slightly more complicated than other beef stews (the daubes, the estouffades and the terrines), requiring browning of the meat, which adds additional stages to the cooking process. But it also this which makes it one of those most delicious beef dishes, eliciting a depth of flavour and a glossy mahogany-coloured sauce that those other beef stews could only dream of.
Boeuf bourguignon (in our house simply and blasphemously ‘beef bog’) is one of those dishes I’ve been making for years without regard to a recipe, and haven’t really interrogated. It was, to me, simply a pretty great beef stew with all my favourite things in it: beef braised until tender alongside tiny onions, button mushrooms, and smoky bacon, all cooked in a lot of red wine.
Serendipitously and, given the sheer amount of variation of ways to cook this dish, surprisingly, my version is pretty close to Julia’s. I have (I like to think) streamlined a couple of her stages, and reflected the fact that a single chunk of streaky bacon with the rind on is tricky to come by today, unless you have a good local butcher. Julia cooks hers in the oven, and I tend to mine on the hob, as I like to be able to see how much the sauce in my dish has reduced more easily, but if you’re more of an oven-person like Julia, you can simply cook the dish for the same amount of time at 150°C in a fan oven.
Makes: Serves four, generously
Takes: 30 minutes preparation
Bakes: Four hours
4 rashers smoked, streaky bacon
750g braising steak or beef shin
50g plain flour
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
2 ribs celery, roughly chopped
1 bottle French red wine
2 sprigs fresh thyme
150g Pearl onions or small shallots, peeled and topped and tailed
150g button mushrooms
200ml Beef stock
1. First, cut the bacon into finger width strips, and place the raw bacon in the base of a heavy-bottomed pan. Place over a medium heat and cook until golden on both sides. Set to one side.
2. Season the flour with half a teaspoon of salt and dredge the beef through the flour. Add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil to the pan and, still over a medium-high heat. Brown the meat in batches: don’t put too much meat in the pan at one time, or the beef will stew rather than brown. Set each browned batch to one side.
3. Add a splash of the red wine to the pan and use a wooden spoon or non-metal spatula to scrape up all the dark bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Return the bacon and beef to the pan, and add the onion, carrot and celery, along with the thyme and the rest of the bottle of wine. Bring to a simmer, drop the heat to low, pop the lid on the pan, and cook for four hours.
4. Melt the butter in a shallow frying pan, and, as it begins to foam, add the mushrooms and pearl onions or shallots. Once the mushrooms and onions have browned, spoon out the mushrooms and set to one side. Add the hot stock to the onions and allow to bubble for 40 minutes.
5. Once the main stew has cooked, and the sauce has thickened to a glossy gravy which coats the meat, add the mushrooms and onions and cook for a further fifteen minutes. Serve immediately.