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Simple Pleasures, Simple FoodClassic Beef Bourguignon

Escalating food prices during tough economic times can make it difficult to feed a family, let alone entertain or eat out as in more prosperous days. I’ve been reworking recipes using less expensive cuts of meat and featuring lots of seasonal, locally grown vegetables and fruits for best flavor, nutrition and economy.

Last week several friends suggested a long walk through the Marin Headlands to relax before facing another stress-filled week. I agreed and invited them back to my house afterward for a simple early supper. I’d been thinking of making my favorite beef bourguignon, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

This classic French stew is braised in Burgundy wine and stock and filled with earthy carrots, mushrooms, pearl onions and herbs. With economy in mind, I passed over my usual favorite sirloin tip for the more affordable chuck sold as stew meat.

I started the bourguignon a day early so that the flavors would meld, infusing the meat and gravy with rich, complex flavor. Plus, cooking ahead would allow me to spend as much time with my friends as possible.

As I seared the big chunks of meat, I had to laugh, realizing how this dish has come full circle. It began humbly in the Burgundy region of France, where the poor used their local wine to tenderize tough, cheap cuts of meat. Over the decades beef bourguignon evolved into a “fancy” French specialty promoted by the likes of Auguste Escoffier and Julia Child. Now today, I turn to bourguignon once more as an affordable-yet-delicious staple.

When I first began cooking, like many, I embraced Julia Child as my guru. Guided by Julia’s books, I found myself cutting slabs of bacon into lardons, dusting, sprinkling, searing and braising meat in wine. Who knew anything could taste so good. My early success with beef bourguignon inspired me to embark on a culinary adventure that continues today, even as I write these pages.

Beef bourguignon is not at all difficult, but it is one of those dishes where patience and attention to detail really pay off. Here are a few suggestions that will make your version a memorable success.

  1. Braise your meat until it is fork tender and not a minute less. Patient cooks are rewarded with melt-in-your-mouth morsels, while others end up with chewy mediocrity.
  2. Use a nice, drinking-quality wine in your bourguignon. Don’t waste your money on the expensive stuff, but never buy cheap swill or “cooking wine,” as they’ll compromise the flavor of the dish. Burgundy wine, while classic, is not always readily available so I use Cabernet Sauvignon, Beaujolais or Merlot.
  3. Know that good quality stock makes all the difference when braising meats. While I prefer rich, homemade beef stock, you can substitute a good-quality store bought chicken stock. Skip canned beef stock as it fails to deliver the flavor you need.
  4. Replace the labor-intensive bacon lardons of the more traditional recipes with crisp strips of bacon and their rendered fat for searing the meat and adding a subtle layer of flavor. Know that meats sold today are well-marbled and don’t require lots of extra added fat to flavor them.
  5. Buy fresh carrots—ideally at your local farmers market where you can find them just-harvested, full-flavored and economical. Don’t even consider the limp dying carrots in the back of your refrigerator.
  6. Add flavor and texture to the bourguignon with pearl onions. I used to buy them fresh at the market and painstakingly cut and peel several dozen each time. Please—life is too short! Head to the frozen food section of your supermarket and buy a bag of them fully prepped. I prefer to thaw and brown them before adding them to the stew, but you can dump them in frozen in a pinch. (But be warned, they will be an evil pinky-purpley wine color in the final dish.)
  7. Mushrooms—I love them! Many cooks depend on the white button supermarket variety, but I find the small brown button mushrooms have the best flavor. These are actually baby Portobello mushrooms, and are significantly cheaper than the mature ones.

On the day of our walk in the hills I set the table and organized all the last minute details before heading out to the trails. Later we returned, rejuvenated and appreciative of the beauty and tranquility that surrounds us when we take the time to look.

Everyone gathered in the kitchen for a glass of red wine and lively conversation. I warmed the beef bourguignonne, made a big pot of buttered noodles and some green peas and set out a huge basket of warm crusty bread and sweet butter. For now, the woes of the world were at bay as we reveled in the camaraderie and joy of a simple shared meal.

Get a printable copy of  Beef Bourguignonne—French Burgundy Stew for easy reference.