Boeuf from memory

The first time I was in France, I arrived sometime in the middle of the night, and we continued to drive through the black and wooded countryside until we found a place that was still serving “Boeuf Bourguignon.” Bless the French for cooking way past the hour that I would have kissed everyone good night and hung up a sign that said, “YOU COOK.” Jonathan has amazing food memory. He had been to this place before, a massive cafeteria that was part of a shopping mall, primarily for car parts and washing machines close to the Swiss border. I had no faith. I pulled a bowl of yogurt from the line, a baguette, a cup of tea, and a bottle of evian. When we got to the tiny table amongst hundreds exactly like it, the aroma coming from the next tray was too much for me; I made Jonathan give me his fork. The bouef was beautiful. Absolutely and perfectly beautiful. The smoothness of a deep red wine surrounded gentle bits of beef that had been seared and stirred and loved for an undeniably major part of the day. I drank from his wine glass and then ate some more. “This”, I said, “is ridiculous.” “You have yogurt”, he said. I got my own bouef and we sat and ate until they closed and then slept in the car.
To recreate food memory is it’s own dark and dangerous road, and my first attempt was a misery. I bought a nice looking package marked “organic stew meat”. Don’t do it. Lord knows what the butcher throws in a pile and then chops up for unsuspecting dream seekers. I worked magic on that stew for three hours, and at the end of it I had a pot of tough tasting liver chunks. The problem is that, you can never be sure that the butcher isn’t putting in cuts that should be cooked in a flash, along with the slow stuff. The liver effect can happen from chopped up round, and who can tell what’s what when it is all pushed together and under plastic? Buy either chuck or top blade and cut it up yourself. You need the connective tissues that are in these cuts, to work their melting wonders for you.
Dice an onion and get it going over a slow heat in a good drizzle of your best olive oil. Add a sprig of thyme and a bay leaf. Season with salt. When it is seriously soft and completely irresistable, remove from the pan. Add another drizzle of olive oil. Cut your chuck (about 3 pounds) into large chunks and season them with salt. Toss them with flour, and brown on all sides. Pour off any fat. Add the onion, along with about 2 cups of a good–very, very good–deep red wine. Try a pinot noir. With the first cup, deglaze the pan, just working up any bits of anything stuck to the bottom, and let it simmer a little. If you have the kind of life that will allow to make a dark stock (roasting bones and vegetables under caramelized, then simmering until delicious) then add a cup of that, along with the rest of the wine. (If don’t make dark stock, you can always use your own chicken stock that you made without roasting the bones, or even water. Don’t even consider a stock cube). You want the liquid to just cover the meat. People add things like a piece of carrot, or bits of a tomato, or even salt pork, but I just like it straight. Let this simmer for about two hours with the lid ajar. Taste. Swoon. You can swirl in a little nugget of soft butter that has been mushed with equal parts flour at the end to thicken. Serve with noodles or rice or even just baguette, if you have a good one.

Leave a Reply