A Recipe for Disaster: Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon
Author & Photographer: Claire Schultz
I grew up with two cooking bibles: Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Anything and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (purchased after watching Julie & Julia, and deciding I was in love and destined to become a French chef). While Bittman was kind and straightforward and practical, Julia was my eccentric aunt--benevolent but stern, a bit chaotic but precise, and maybe a bit too fond of butter and wine. I quickly realized that I was never going to master the art of French cooking, and so the book was relegated to the shelf above the microwave to gather dust.
I was headed home for a week--done with finals and already feeling purposeless--so it seemed like the perfect time to finally crack open the book, attempt something unnecessarily ambitious, and make Julia proud. So, naturally, I went straight for the big guns: boeuf bourguignon. It is effectively just a beef stew simmered in red wine, but Julia’s recipe involves some seventeen ingredients and three pages of instructions (not counting the separate reference pages and sub-recipes for preparing the vegetables). My mom made it once and called it a “once-in-a-lifetime dish,” and, years later, I can still remember it perfectly. It’s an endurance test, a marathon, but if Julia Child calls it “certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man,” it must be worth it.
So, I cleared an entire afternoon and got to work. The ingredients alone took up almost my entire counter (and thanks, Mom, for buying me some decent wine), but I wouldn’t need most of them for a few more hours. First up, prepping the bacon, which, of course, took three separate steps in itself: slicing into lardons, blanching, and sauteing. I think I was also supposed to remove the rind and cook that separately, but my bacon was already trimmed, so I skipped that. Sorry, Julia.
Then came the beef, each piece individually patted dry and sautéed in small batches in bacon fat until browned. Next up, a carrot and onion, treated the same way, but--strangely confusing--the recipe never mentions them again. She calls for the meat to be tossed with flour, salt, and pepper, and then roasted in the oven for a few minutes. I just left the vegetables in the mixture because I didn’t know what else to do with them.
By this point, I was well over an hour in and had barely reached page two. I was still optimistic, but my strength was beginning to wane. I had done so much, and had so little to show for it. What had I learned? How to chop an onion “lightning fast,” maybe, but I don’t know how much better it was than my normal dicing. I guess it made me cry less, and I felt like a real French chef, if only for a second.
After adding the sauce to the toasted flour and bringing it to a simmer, the house started to smell like France, and I had a sudden overwhelming sense of calm and rightness; that Julia was going to take care of me and everything was going to be okay. The whole pot went back into the oven, and I was ready to take a two-and-a-half-hour nap.
Never mind--there’s an additional hour and a half of individually preparing the mushrooms and “18 to 24” small onions. I was getting used to the concept of cooking every ingredient separately, and nothing had been overly complicated or surprising so far, so I was doing fine. The onions alone, brown-braised in stock (I used water; I didn’t have the energy to prep more bouillon base), took 45 minutes of sautéeing and simmering with a bouquet garnis in a cheesecloth that I definitely didn’t own--my original plan to use a tea ball didn’t work, so I just threw in the herbs--in a pan that was probably too wide and shallow, with frozen pearl onions. I think if you soak anything in enough butter and oil, it’ll come out okay, but I felt like a disgrace. By the time I hit the mushrooms, which very specifically cannot be crowded and must be shaken for four to five minutes, I was losing steam, and physically couldn’t stand the smell of more simmering butter. I reduced the suggested fat, and the second batch wasn’t quite as pretty as the first.
I finally got an hour break, which I spent roasting potatoes, preparing green beans, doing dishes, and watching Netflix. My kitchen was covered in splattered oil and spilled stock and discarded spoons and bowls; I didn’t have it in me to deal with it. Nothing had gone disastrously wrong yet, but I could only do so much. It was a sunny, 80 degree summer day, and the house smelled fantastic, and I was so, so tired.
The timer went off, and I thought I was done--I should have been done, right? That’s how stews work; you throw everything in a pot and let it slow-cook for a long time. Nope, it was time for the strangest part: “pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a saucepan,” set the meat aside, wash the pot, and put everything right back in. I still don’t know what I was sieving for, or how to skim the fat off the top of the sauce, or why I was spending half an hour deconstructing and reconstructing a stew that had already taken half a day of my life. Presentation, maybe? Texture? Considering how much Julia loved butter, I don’t think it was a health choice.
But that was it. I had--hopefully--made boeuf bourguignon. Exhausted and ready to be anywhere but the kitchen, I plated and garnished it, and somehow it looked and smelled and tasted right. There was something almost alchemical in the process, and the stew was deep and nuanced and soothing, but in the end, I could only eat half a bowl; I’d been around it too long, and it was rich and heavy and I was already full from five hours of its smell. My family, fortunately, loved it. They also got to clean the kitchen.
My foray into boeuf bourguignon was decidedly not a disaster. It was delicious, and like what I remembered from that once-in-a-lifetime meal my mom made so many years ago, but I’m still not convinced that every individual step and uncut corner is worth it. Maybe I’ll test out a simpler recipe for comparison, but until then, I think this might have to be a twice-in-a-lifetime dish.
Sources: I used a physical copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but you can find the recipe online at http://www.oprah.com/food/boeuf-bourguignon or, slightly adapted, https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/member/views/julia-childs-beef-bourguignon-50159695