A good friend of mine had a baby, her second, on Mother's Day. I don't know about you, but I like to cook for people when they have babies. Is this a dying tradition? When I had my daughter, I assumed people would be bringing lots of food, but it wasn't exactly a parade of casseroles. We ended up eating a lot of take-out. It shouldn't be that way.
My friend lived in Paris for years and since I know that Boeuf Bourguignon is one of her favorite dishes, I decided that this was the meal I should carry around the corner to her apartment. It's hearty, reminiscent of the good life in Paris, and gets better day after day. In other words, the perfect birthday dish for a hungry Francophile new mom.
So I turned to my grease-splattered Essential New York Times Cookbook, and discovered that it had not one but two Boeuf Bourguignon recipes. Score.
The New York Times has published recipes for over 150 years and food writer Amanda Hesser set out to compile, test and update the favorites. In the end, over 1,000 made the cut and the result is The Essential New York Times Cookbook, a big red brick that now wears a big brass James Beard Award around its neck.
The two techniques for Boeuf Bourguignon in Hesser's book are from a column Craig Claiborne wrote in 1960 called "When Beef Becomes Boeuf." One method, and arguably the more popular, involves browning the beef, then adding the vegetables and wine then adding a beurre manié (mixture of soft butter and flour) to the mix. If you've ever made Beef Bourguignon before, this probably sounds familiar. In the book it's called "Boeuf Bourguinon II."
The other method, and the one Hesser prefers, is much easier. Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec, who wrote about food for Elle back in the 1960s, called this the "true" recipe. It's also how Julia Child makes her daube de boeuf in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking. You simply build the dish by layering the ingredients, much like a trifle, in a large casserole or Dutch oven, finishing with a bacon topper and some wine and brandy, and cooking stove-top for a couple hours. Aside from its easy preparation, the big difference is that this method produces a very pale brothy sauce versus the thick, winey sauce in the traditional version.
To the printed recipe — called "Boeuf Bourguignon I" — I added two things: some dried morels and a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Otherwise, I followed Amanda's words exactly. I loved the permission to cook everything together at once, but I also loved the composure and orderliness of building the dish in layers. It is French, after all; there should be something slightly restrained about it. Knowing the layers run deep, serving it calls for a deep dive with a serving spoon, again just like a trifle.
Two important things about Boeuf Bourguignon no matter whose recipe you're using: make it a day ahead so the flavors can come together (this way you can also chip away the layer of fat that rises to the top and coagulates) and serve it over a bed of liberally buttered fresh egg noodles.
I asked Amanda, a mother of twins, what she thought of my birthday gift to the new family. "Parents will get plenty of tiny socks, but what they really need those first few weeks is food to sustain them." Amen, mama.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large slices salt pork or 6 large slices of bacon
1 1/2 cups diced carrots
One 2-pound boneless chuck or beef rump roast,cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 shallots, finely chopped
1/2 pound mushrooms, trimmed and chopped
1/2 bottle (750-ml bottle) Burgundy or pinot noir
1/3 cup Cognac
1. Pour the oil into a large casserole and add 1 slice salt pork (or 3 slices bacon). Add the diced carrots and cover them with one-third of the sliced beef in a single layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the meat with half the onions, garlic, shallots, and mushrooms. Cover with a layer of half the remaining beef and sprinkle with more salt and pepper. Add the remaining onions, garlic, shallots, and mushrooms and cover with a final layer of the remaining beef. Top with the second slice of salt pork (or remaining 3 slices of bacon). Pour the Burgundy and Cognac over all. Season with additional salt and pepper.
2. Place the casserole over high heat, and when it begins to simmer, cover and lower the heat. Cook for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, or until the meat is tender when tested with a fork.
From The Essential New York Times Cookbook, by Amanda Hesser (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010)
• Find it! The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century by Amanda Hesser (Amazon.com)
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(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)