It had been a long time since I pulled from the bookshelf my copy of the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by the master herself, Julia Child. There was a time when it was the bible of all special meals and certainly of any experimental challenges. My copy of the 1961 masterpiece is yellowed with age and dabbed with a few sauce stains.
But at a recent food writers conference in Houston I was reminded of the genius of that cookbook when Judith Jones, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, spoke about her years working with Child. A single recipe, she said, such as beef bourguignon, was a lesson in itself in French cooking. How true, I realized. A simple beef stew prepared in the French style becomes a magnificent meal, and cooking it by Child’s instructions takes you from boring toil to creating a work of art.
So I delighted in reuniting myself with a dish that was once a top choice for dinner parties in New Orleans as well as a legacy from our ancestors in France. Of course red wine, bacon, onions and mushrooms would give any old cheap cut of beef a transformation. Says Child, “Carefully done, and perfectly flavored, it is certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man, and can well be the main course for a buffet dinner.”
As usual, Child is at her best when completely unabashed and uninhibited. I interviewed her once at Café du Monde while a photographer snapped pictures of her drinking coffee and sampling our French doughnuts. “How do you like the beignets?” I asked. “Oh,” she said, “a beignet is a beignet.” I was taken aback with such an honest, no-frills answer. And Jones recalled that Child’s great talent began to shine when she relaxed and wrote about her cooking exactly the way it was.
Another locally popular dish from that volume was Child’s version of the classic onion soup. The key, she says, is long sautéing in butter, followed by a slow simmering in stock “for the onions to develop the deep, rich flavor which characterizes a perfect brew.”
Busy schedules may prohibit cooking Julia Child-style today, but once in a while it’s nice to relax over a slow brew of ingredients that sends wonderful smells through the house on a Sunday afternoon. Particularly in winter, the coziness of a fire and something on the stove creates a family situation begging to happen.
Here are my versions of Child’s painstaking dishes with a few steps and some time reduced. They are just right for colder weather when most people are indoors anyway.
3 pounds beef stew meat, or a
3-pound boneless rump roast
cut into 2-inch chunks
6 pieces bacon, cut into
1 large onion, sliced thin
Salt, pepper and Creole seasoning
1/2 cup flour
2 bay leaves, crumpled
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup baby carrots
2 cups red wine
2 cups beef broth, homemade
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup pearl onions, frozen or in
a jar (not pickled)
1 8-ounce package whole mushrooms such as white or baby portabellos
2 tablespoons butter
Small boiled potatoes, buttered noodles or steamed rice
Flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Trim beef of any excess fat.
In a large heavy pot or casserole, cook bacon until brown. Remove bacon from pot. Over medium heat, sauté the onion in the bacon fat until wilted and remove onions from pot.
Place beef in a large bowl and sprinkle with seasonings, tossing until all is lightly seasoned. Add flour and toss until meat is lightly floured. Over high heat in the same pot, brown meat gradually in batches one layer at a time, turning until meat is browned on all sides. If bottom of pot becomes dry, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil. When meat is browned, return all meat to the pot, stirring well.
Cover with onions and bacon. Sprinkle with bay leaves and garlic and top with carrots. Pour wine and beef broth over all. Sprinkle lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove. Cover and place in a 325-degree oven for 2 1/2 hours. Stir once halfway through the cooking.
Meanwhile, sauté mushrooms in butter in a skillet on top of the stove. Prepare pearl onions according to package directions if frozen or drain onions if jarred. Prepare your choice of small potatoes, noodles or rice. Stir mushrooms and onions into beef when finished cooking.
If serving buffet-style, place beef in the center of a very large platter, surrounded by potatoes, noodles or rice. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Or, serve separately from the stove onto individual plates with beef served over noodles or rice, or with potatoes served on the side. Or, serve from separate serving dishes at the table. In any case, sprinkle the final presentation with chopped parsley.
Accompany with buttered peas or green salad and a full-bodied red wine.
Serves 6 to 8.
FRENCH ONION SOUP
3 tablespoons butter
6 medium yellow onions,
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons flour
2 quarts beef stock, homemade
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Freshly ground pepper
2 cups grated Swiss or
Melt butter in a heavy medium pot or ovenproof casserole and sauté onions over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Add salt and sugar and continue cooking until onions have caramelized, about 15 minutes. Stir in flour and cook, stirring for several minutes. Remove from heat and add beef stock, wine, thyme and pepper. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Taste and check for seasonings, adding if necessary.
Meanwhile, slice French bread into 1-inch slices or croutons. If serving in individual bowls, cut one slice for each bowl. If serving from a pot, slice enough to cover the top of the pot. Brush bread slices lightly with butter and toast in a 400-degree oven until brown.
Just before serving, pour soup into individual oven-proof bowls, or leave in the casserole. Top with the croutons and sprinkle with the cheese. If using bowls, place on a baking sheet. Place in the oven, at 350 degrees, and bake until cheese has melted and browned slightly. If not browning after 10 minutes, place under a broiler until bubbly and brown. Serve hot.