Like a lot of North American home cooks in the 1970s, my mother’s introduction to French cooking came from two of the world’s most prolific food icons: Julia Child and Jacques Pépin. She turned to Jacques and Julia for instruction and technique, but I suspect she was also drawn to their remarkable approachability – the former, with his warm smile and smooth French accent, and the latter, with her eccentric wit and contagious laugh, made them the antidote to pretentious French cuisine. As a pair, they were a force of nature. And from them both, my mom – along with half of North America – learned how to cook all things savoury and sweet, à la française.
As her French cooking skills evolved through the 80s and 90s, it became commonplace to find mom hovering over the stove, dousing chicken thighs with wine for coq au vin or caramelising onions in a slurry of butter for soupe à l’oignon without batting an eye. After years of following Jacques and Julia on PBS, these recipes had now become her own. She didn’t need to follow a list of ingredients, or look to her TV hosts for guidance. She could practically make these recipes blindfolded. She still can.
These years also coincided with our family’s acquisition of a Rival Crock-Pot, a clunky beast of a machine that occupied a large corner of our kitchen counter for the better part of our childhood. In the fall and winter, my brother and I would come home from school, to the smell of heady aromatics and braised meat. After having had a whole day to meld together, the contents of the Crock-Pot filled the whole house with a deep, rich scent that made us happy to be home and out of our snowpants.
On days like these, when it’s -20 with the windchill, I think most of us are keen for slow-cooked, full-bodied dishes that we can ladle into a bowl and eat slowly, until we’re warmed through after being outdoors. One of my favourites is boeuf bourguignon, that rich, Burgundian stew made with beef stock, mushrooms and red wine. Our mom used to serve it on a bed of buttered egg noodles, which is still the way I like it best, even if I lose points for authenticity. But the stew can be eaten on it’s own, or – in classic French style – with a piece of crusty bread, to sop up all those intensely-flavoured juices.
Classic Boeuf Bourguignon (makes about 6 servings) – lightly adapted from Saveur and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol.1
- 5 whole black peppercorns
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig parsley
- 1 sprig thyme
- cheesecloth and cotton string, for tying herbs
- 4 lb. beef chuck, cut into 2” pieces, best quality you can afford
- 1 (750-ml) bottle Burgundy or Chianti
- 6 oz. bacon, sliced into ¼” thick batons
- 5 tbsp. olive oil
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 2 medium carrots, cut crosswise into 1” pieces
- ⅓ cup flour
- 2 cups beef stock (if you have time to make homemade, see recipe here
- 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 lb. white button mushrooms, quartered
- 12 pearl onions, peeled (or: 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and chopped)
- crusty bread or cooked egg-noodles (like pappardelle), for serving
Note: in this recipe, the meat marinates overnight, so make sure to plan ahead.
1) Place peppercorns, bay leaf, parsley, and thyme on a piece of cheesecloth; tie into a tight package and transfer to a large bowl. Add beef and wine; cover and chill overnight.
2) The next day, remove beef from marinade with tongs, allowing the marinade to drip back into the bowl. Pat the beef completely dry using paper towels and set aside. Reserve marinade and the herb package.
3) Heat half the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat; add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly crisp (about 8 minutes). Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a bowl and set aside.
4) Season beef with salt and pepper and working in batches, cook, turning as needed, until browned (6–8 minutes). Using a slotted spoon, transfer beef to bowl with bacon and set aside. Add garlic and carrots; cook until garlic is soft (about 2 minutes). Stir in flour; cook for 3 minutes. Add reserved marinade, beef, bacon, herb package, and the stock; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, covered, until meat is very tender, about 2 hours.
5) Heat remaining oil and the butter in a 12” skillet over medium heat. Add onions; cook until golden and tender, 4 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until golden, 7 minutes more. Stir onions and mushrooms into beef stew. Serve with crusty bread or over cooked egg-noodles.
Note: boeuf bourguignon freezes really well; if you find yourself with leftovers, just allow it to cool and then transfer it to freezer-proof containers.