mastering the art of friendship… and french cooking

15 Feb

[i’m apologizing in advance. this will be a very long post. very long. do you hear me? but there’s so much to say and so many pictures of food. pretty pictures of french food. see? better already. (plus, there’s also some pretty great pictures at the end, which will only be visible if you read every single thing i have to say).]

the julia child dinner party took place saturday night (february 13th) and let me just start off by saying that i slept until noon on sunday. that alone says that the party was great. or that i was dead tired by the end of the night. or that i was a tad under the weather. all assumptions are correct.

i went to central market for my shopping. our collective thought was that if we were going to make authentic french food, we would use the best ingredients and really make it something to remember.

while shopping (which was nightmarish – saturday morning the day before valentine’s day? crazy!), i sought answers to many of life’s food questions. first up: will cipollini onions do in place of pearl onions? they would have to; the pearl onions were completely out of stock. who’s eating pearl onions on valentine’s eve?

and while we’re on the topic of onions, when do you use white onions and when do you use yellow onions? i want my recipes to tell me exactly what to use, no guesswork involved. i’m a bit anal like that. julia’s lack of direction on this topic was extremely vexing. in the end i chose white, but i have since come to learn (through the always authoritative interwebs) that yellow onions have a sharper flavor that mellows nicely when heated, which is why they are more often used in cooking than white onions.

then on to potatoes. we decided to make sautéed potatoes for one of the side dishes. the recipe said that if you were living in france, you would procure “smooth, oval potatoes 2 to 2 1/2 inches long, with yellowish flesh, pommes de terre de Hollande.” does that translate to fingerling potatoes? it seemed a probable match at the time, but no, it doesn’t. there actually are potatoes that are ‘baby dutch potatoes.’ oh, well.

one last gastronomic question: what is the difference between beef broth and beef stock? (let’s not even throw consomme or bouillon into the mix).

answer: stock is used in main meat dishes to enhance the existing flavors; therefore, it has less seasoning on its own. broth is used in soups and side dishes to add flavor to other ingredients; therefore, it has a highly seasoned flavor on its own.

i also got a little help on the wine selection. boeuf bourguignon calls for a young red wine, such as a beaujolais, burgundy, or chianti. the wine expert suggested a 2007 nero d’avola, a sicilian red wine, which i gladly took it because i know nothing about wine.

the rest of the ingredients came together quite quickly after those tough questions. except the wait at the butcher’s counter, which i won’t even bother to describe because it just a dull twenty-minute wait. they were very clever, though, these people. they had free tastings of chocolate all over the store and in the meat section? lovely squares of chocolate bacon. nice.

so, after an almost ninety-minute shopping trip, i prepared to make julia child’s boeuf bourguignon. not at all nervous. no, really. what does it matter that the expert foodie at the market said it was quite a challenging dish and that i was very ambitious? ambitious has a very negative connotation when used like that. humph.

i was uncharacteristically organized in making everything. i did most of the prep first off. i think that’s the only plausible way to get through the seemingly endless cross-references in the recipe. she has you going from one section to another, hundreds of pages apart, every few steps. yes, it was best to be prepared.

the first step was producing the bacon fat in which all subsequent ingredients would be sautéed. what could be better? the bacon had to be cut into lardons, or pieces approximately 1/4 inch thick and 1 1/2 inches long. because american bacon has almost always been smoked, the recipe calls for blanching to remove “too strong a taste … for the removal of the salty, smoky taste of bacon.”

if the bacon were not blanched, the whole dish would taste of bacon and all other subtle flavors would be masked. how do i know this? mastering the art of french cooking has a very informative and interesting list of definitions and ingredients preceding the actual recipes. i’m telling you. you have to read everything to understand anything in this book.

while the bacon was blanching, i prepared the vegetables. how do you interpret sliced? as in one sliced carrot and one sliced onion?

like this?

and this? if not, please don’t tell me. again, these are things i like to be spelled out for me. slice it exactly like this, you great twit.

after the bacon had been blanched (approximately ten minutes in simmering water), into the casserole (as julia calls it) with olive oil it went. is there anything better than the smell of sizzling bacon? no, i think not.

because i was very good and organized, the beef, a 3 lb. cut of bottom round, was ready to go into the casserole after temporarily removing the bacon lardons when they had achieved a good amount of frying fat.

i kid you not, the meat cut like butter (i cannot, in good conscience, type buttah)

the meat was further cut into 2-inch cubes. i had difficult decision to make with this one (once again, no specific direction!): keep the fatty layer or slice it off? i sliced it and didn’t look back.

now, i’ll let you in on a little secret. this is, of course, assuming you are not intimately acquainted with mastering the art of french cooking. i don’t want to assume. the key to a perfect sauté is… dryness. the item you wish to sauté must be extremely dry before the sautéing process begins. thus, drying hunks of beef in a paper towel. several towels were, uh, bloodied in this process.

can you see the difference?

the dried cubes go into very hot, almost smoking, bacon fat.

the dryness of the meat, along with the piping hot fat, made the cubes of beef brown perfectly and beautifully. as julia warns against overcrowding, i had to do four rounds of browning before all the cubes were put aside with the bacon.

then i browned the (ahem) sliced veg in the casserole.

the bacon and beef were, once again, added to the pot and tossed with freshly ground black pepper and sea salt before being transferred to the oven for four minutes.

after four minutes, the meat and vegetables were temporarily removed from the oven to be tossed with 2 T of flour. into the oven it went again for another four minutes. at this point, i was beginning to think that all this work was just a bit tedious. and i got a phone call that another random individual had been invited to the jcdp. um, no. dishes had been assigned. quite a bit of money had been spent. nobody was getting a free ride to an authentic french dinner while i was transferring a 15 lb. pot of beef and vegetables in and out of the oven every four minutes.

so. just a few short steps away from hours in the oven.

tomato paste in a squeeze tube. best food invention ever? of course not. but it’s cool.

fresh thyme added to the mix, which also includes beef stock and red wine.

ah, yes, more bacon fat and it’s ready to go in the oven.

and in she goes for a nice three hour sauna. so, done. wait, i’m not done? no, that’s right. there’s more to do. like braise the cipollini onions and saute the mushrooms. geesh.

so in the middle of all the good prep work and organization, i forgot to peel the onions. it took forever to peel twenty-two paper-thin skins off these tiny things. it was enough to make me cry. (cry. heh, get it?) i found out later that it would have been so much easier to chop off the tops and bulbs before peeling. where’s that little tidbit, huh, julia?

the onions went into a pan to brown as evenly as is possible with a rolling 1-inch ball.

while the onions were browning, i tied up the herb bouquet, which included parsley, thyme, and a bay leaf.

when the onions began to look like eyeballs, i added a reserve of beef stock and the herb bouquet. covered, the pan was left to slowly simmer, or braise, for fifty minutes.

i openly admit that i don’t much care for mushrooms. something about the texture. too spongy. but they are a core ingredient in boeuf bourguignon, so i carefully washed, thoroughly dried (remember dryness and sautéing?), and meticulously quartered 1 lb. of fresh mushrooms.

do you know how to tell when butter is hot enough for sautéing? if it’s frothy and foamy, it’s still not hot enough.

when the foam starts to subside, it is ready for sautéing.

as much as i dislike them, preparing the mushrooms was by far the most satisfying step in the whole five hour shenanigan (yes! five hours). as soon as the mushrooms are in the pan, they absorb every last drop of liquid. the pan was instantly bone dry.

but after a few minutes of shaking and tossing, the mushrooms begin to emit the moisture again and they begin to brown beautifully. it was exactly, word-for-word, as the book said it would be. amazing. that usually does not happen in my attempts to follow a recipe.

after the mushrooms were finished, i had a few minutes before the onions would need sorting, so i made the clarified butter for the potatoes. julia specifies that, unless noted for baking purposes, butter should be salted. so i purchased salted straight-from-europe butter.

to clarify butter, you let it melt over moderate heat.

almost immediately, a white foam will begin to rise to the top of the pan.

skim the foam off of the top. you will be left with a clear, golden liquid. pour the clarified butter into a small container, leaving any milky residue at the bottom of the pan.

after fifty minutes of braising on low heat, the onions were all but falling apart. they were perfectly tender, but still retained their shape (besides the little middle bits poking up on some of the onions).

i had just enough time to take a quick shower before the casserole was due to be removed from the oven. see that handle? my finger felt how hot it was.  on accident, of course.

i can now say with confidence that my enamel cast iron dutch oven is perfectly seasoned.

please tell me that’s what the brown markings mean.

the next step called for straining. i think… no, i know i made a mistake here. the instructions say to “pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a saucepan.” done.

then it says, “wash out the casserole and return the beef and bacon to it.” done.

it continues with, “distribute the cooked onions and mushrooms over the meat.” done.

and finally, “simmer sauce for a minute or two, skimming off additional fat as it rises.” yes, check.

you are then instructed to pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables. so i did. but, and here’s where i think i missed something, what about the sliced carrots and onions? doesn’t boeuf bourguignon have carrots and sliced onions? there are carrots galore in a google image result list. but nowhere does it say to add back the carrots and onions. so everything ended up very… brown.

brown as it was, it was done. as we were going to transport the dish and reheat on a gentle simmer for twenty minutes before eating, i put the lid on boeuf bourguignon.

i picked up sara and we headed out for the party house. we were both a bit nervous about others eating the food we had laboriously prepared all afternoon. when we got to our friends’ place, we started in on the potato prep. have you ever tried to peel a fingerling potato? nuts, i tell you. and speaking of nuts… we found this potato, which is a heart. but if you turn it upside down… it’s definitely not a heart anymore.

to make the sautéed potatoes, you melt the reconstituted clarified butter in a large pan. the way clarified butter melts is something to behold. i can’t even explain it. you just have to do it.

i added the peeled fingerlings to the pan and let them sit for two minutes. they were then tossed and turned and left to sit for two more minutes.

this searing process continued for another five or six minutes, long enough for a protective seal of butter (how awesome is that?) to form, which would protect the potatoes as they cooked. coarse sea salt was added before the lid was put on for fifteen minutes.

while the potatoes cooked, sara prepared the salad, which was dressed with a fresh french vinaigrette.

and the peas, which were doused with the remaining clarified butter.

did i mentioned that el vino did flow? yes, it was quite necessary.

the glorious potatoes. the highlight of the party for me. i will never make potatoes another way. they were perfectly crisp, perfectly seasoned, perfectly tender. they were perfick.

after hours and hours of cooking, the meal was ready. everything was served in vintage pyrex and fire king dishes.

a full plate of french food.

sautéed fingerling potatoes + meat juice = insanity. nothing like it.

i couldn’t even finish all my food. everything was delicious and filling.

sara’s crème plombières au chocolat. declared good enough to sit in. and with that the silliness really began…

the potato heart makes its rounds in the hold-your-own-camera-and-take-a-blind-picture game that is inevitable between friends and alcohol.

i would have to say that, though it was time-consuming, expensive, tedious, and confusing, the experience and results were well worth it: a fantastic french meal with fabulous, though not french, friends. and a hearty appreciation for bacon fat and clarified butter.

so, now the magic pictures that are only visible if you really read every single thing i said (trust me, i don’t want to write a post this long ever again). the heart that is most definitely not a heart if turned upside down.

it would be nuts to tell you who this was.

we’re just classy like that. i think julia would have laughed. and speaking of classy, we’ve decided on our next dinner party: white trash. expect store-brand boxes, jello molds, sausages on a stick, wife beaters, and trucker hats.

bon appétit!

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3 Responses to “mastering the art of friendship… and french cooking”

  1. Sara February 16, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    Oh Megan, I potato you! (Clever? Didn’t think so.) Oh, and I’m finding it hard to separate White Trash from the Fashions of the 80s. Jellies- WT or 80s? Bright, poorly applied make-up- WT or 80s? We need to set some boundaries…

  2. Holly Boone Curran February 18, 2010 at 9:36 pm #

    Bonjour!
    Oh this was GREAT!! We’ll be following your blog when we start making ours. So excited. You’re simply marvelous! Cant wait. Sara sent me the link to your blog (which was perfectly written might I add…) cause I’ve been trying to get the nerve to attempt it. My insecurities are no more! Boeuf bourguignon here I come! I’ll keep you updated. Thanks so much for sharing….you rock (& sara too)!

    bon appétit! muah!
    ~Holly

    • Megan February 18, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

      oh, i’m so glad you enjoyed the post – writing that was almost as much work as making the actual boeuf bourguignon! it really is pretty easy if you give yourself enough time to enjoy it (cooking, not writing). make sure you have lots of wine, too! i can’t wait to hear how yours turns out!

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