Saturday, 20 March 2010

Mastering the art of French Cooking (or not)

For Mother's Day I was given the Julie & Julia DVD, which I was very excited about. It's the perfect film for me as it involves cooking and blogging, two things I enjoy rather a lot. Based on true stories, it shows how blogger Julie Powell attempts to cook every recipe in legendary Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking recipe book - all 524 of them in 365 days.

Included with the DVD was a snippet of the famous cookbook featuring some of the recipes that were shown in the movie. My husband and I both drooled over the boeuf bourguignon and given that we have friends coming round for lunch tomorrow, I figured I'd have a go.

But then I read it.

OMG. How did Julie Powell possibly do it? I thought I knew how to make boeuf bourguignon, but apparently I had no idea.

So I've made a little photo blog plotting my journey through the process. I apologise for the length of this post. It's not me, it's the sodding recipe!

Step 1
Figure out how much stuff you need.

We will have 4 adults and 4 children at lunch. Her recipe is for 6. Could 2 adults count for 4 children? Dilemma. Sod it, going to follow her recipe and that's that.

6 people apparently require 3lbs of beef, 1lb of mushrooms, 6oz of lardons (more on these babies in a minute) and 24 small onions. Not to mention a lot of wine. And other stuff that I won't list verbatim in case I get sued for copyright. Here is all the stuff including cookbook.

Step 2
Lardons. Apparently you need a whole piece of bacon which you then have to separate from the rind, cut into lardons (which are not cubes as I always thought but sticks) and simmer for 10 minutes. I don't know where you find a whole piece of bacon like this but it's not in Sainsburys. Also, this fell into the category of 'Can't be arsed'. Which is why my lardons came in a cling film box already chopped, no rind in sight. So part 1 of the recipe and I've already failed the authenticity test.

Step 3
The book calls for 2 inch cubes of beef. But shoring up the 'can't be arsed' pile, I avoided going to the butchers to get a wodge of beef which I could chop up into cubes and instead bought 2 for £6 packs of stewing beef from the supermarket. This was a bad idea. Because whoever does the chopping of stewing beef for Sainsbury's obviously uses a blender. The meat is shredded, rather than cubed. But hey ho, away we go onto the next weird bit.

Apparently, unless you dry your meat, it will not brown. I refused to believe this. In all my years of making stew, I have never dried my meat. And it has browned. So not being as au fait with Julia as I am with Delia, I referred to the British goddess of all things knowleagable. And damn her eyes, she too suggests that one dries one's meat before browning. For the love of God.

So here I am drying my meat with kitchen towel.

Step 4
Now that my meat was free of all moisture, I proceeded to brown it, in small batches (of course) in piping hot oil. Except two problems arose. First, the bottom of my Le Creuset casserole dish (in orange as specified by the movie) burnt. I couldn't believe that this would add tremendously lovely flavour to the end product, but if I turned the heat down, despite now being bone dry, the meat wouldn't brown, it would bubble instead.

Second, after removing the meat (with the specified slotted spoon), I found there was no oil left in the pot and kept having to add more. In contrast, the recipe says that after you've browned all the meat, you should pour off the browning fat. What browning fat?? Obviously this was due to my corner cutting approach to lardons that was making the difference.

For your viewing pleasure, browning meat in batches with burnt bottom of pot. Steady on before the excitement kills you.

Step 5
Having already browned my vegetables (carrot and onion) and not being able to drain off all this mythical excess browning fat, I added the beef and lardons back in and then had to add flour. Now in most Delia stews, she does this too. But here's Julia's secret twist. After adding the flour and swirling it all around, you put the casserole dish into a super hot oven for 4 minutes, take it out, stir it, and put it back in again for a further four minutes before you can continue on your merry way with the rest of the recipe.

Now I was all ready to add this to the 'Can't be arsed' pile, but thought I'd give it a whirl. After all, Julia must have known what she was doing right? But she didn't specify whether to leave the casserole lid on or off. I opted for off. And whaddaya know? It actually does make a difference. It gets all crusty and brown and looks good enough to eat at that point. Don't. Obviously. But for any of you out there who might feel this is a step towards madness, fear not. Putting the flour covered meat uncovered in the oven rocks.

Sadly in my excitement about learning this new cooking truth, I forgot to take an after picture, but here's a before pic - prior to crusty loveliness.

Step 6
Now we get to add the lovely flavoury bits - the thyme, tomato paste, garlic, bay leaf (which apparently should be crumbled but mine was fresh and didn't fancy being crumbled, so got torn instead) - stock and critically, wine. The recipe calls for 1 and a quarter pints of wine - which funnily leaves just enough in a standard sized bottle for the chef to have a little glass to fortify themselves before embarking on the next stage. See exhibit B below. Exhibit A shows where the rest of the wine went (doesn't look massively appealing at this stage, but I had a sneaky taste and it was good.)

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Step 7
Now you pop your casserole into a much cooler oven and have a sip of wine while it bubbles away for 3 to 4 hours. And then you start preparing 1 billion mushrooms and attempting to peel 1 squillion onions. Actually, I had shallots because Sainsburys doesn't believe in stocking tiny silver skinned onions unless you like them already pickled.
Julia's recipe (having been very specific all the way through) suddenly seems to run out of steam, as though she too is enjoying a glass of wine at this point and can't be arsed to spend too much time talking about mushrooms and onions. Basically she says: saute mushrooms in butter, brown braise the onions.

So, how much butter? Given it's a French book I went for LOTS and managed to sautee my mushrooms beautifully. See below

Brown Braising. What exactly is that? Not a term I'm overly familiar with, but I figured it meant braising in stock. So using the mushroomy juices and the rest of a pack of beef stock (leftover from the rest that had gone in the pot) I braised the onions. Only I forgot about them (might have had something to do with mid-afternoon wine) so they were probably slightly softer than they needed to be.

But the end result was a luscious bowl of mushrooms and onions just waiting for their turn to get jiggy with the beef.

Step 8
I just interrupted this blogging session as my beeper went off. It's been simmering away now for 3 hours (I had to add a little water after 2 hours). It looks and smells utterly divine. Ready to eat. HOWEVER, according to Julia, we still have a way to go.

Now I am supposed to pour the contents of the casserole dish into a sieve and catch the liquid. I then have to wash the casserole dish and put the meat back into it and then scatter the mushrooms and onions over the top. Meanwhile, I'm supposed to skim the fat off the top of the 1 pint of sauce and thicken it till it coats the back of the spoon.

Bollocks to that.

I have ignored it all. My sauce already coats the back of a spoon, there isn't that much fat on top and this is a French meal after all so what the hell. (I think maybe her oven was less feisty than mine, hence more liquid and my lack of excess fat probably comes down to not using the bacon rind - which you are supposed to add at the wine stage, to be removed later).
Instead, I have calmly, and assuredly, put my mushrooms and onions into the beef, giving it a stir. Now it shall sit quietly waiting until tomorrow lunchtime, when it will be gently re-heated, served with steamed rice, buttered green beans and crusty french bread. And wine. Obviously. To be followed by a sticky apricot pudding. Ah yes, we're all about the slimming in this house.

So here is the almost end product. I've tasted it.
It. Is. Gorgeous.
Definitely worth the effort. Sure it might have tasted even better had I followed the instructions to the letter, but a little creative license doesn't seem to have done it any harm.

Wish I had smellternet so you could get a whiff of it. Bon Appetit!
P.S. Cooking this recipe was easier than trying to upload photos to blogger. I won't be repeating this photo blogging experiment!


Helen said...

Beautiful! I think you should try more pictures, even though it does take time... after a while, you get used to it!! I hope the dinner goes down well with your guests!

Sarah Cooper said...

mmmm - looks delicious! You've inspired me to get my cooking books out to attempt a new recipe - won't be choosing one as complex as you though lol!

Alice said...

I loved that film! It really inspired me to buy the book as soon as I'd watched it, but after reading a couple of recipes online... eeek!

The boef bourguignon does look lovely though.

Iota said...

I like the idea of a smellternet. Love your photos too.

I loved that film too, and there was recently on tv over here a programme about it, which showed some original Julia Child shows. Meryl Streep did a good job.

Home Office Mum said...

THanks Helen - if I'm going to be doing more photos, I need to change blogging platform. This just about drove me nuts.

Sarah - if you skip off the faffy bits, this isn't actually that complicated. happy cooking

Alice - I know, I don't know how Julie Powell possibly got through the whole book.

Iota - Smellternet is something that needs developing I feel. A fortune waiting to be discovered.

katyboo1 said...

Looks delicious. i recently watched the film too. I loved it. Meryl Streep was awesome, and I had to have a little snack afterwards, just like I'm going to have now.x

angelsandurchinsblog said...

That's not cooking, that's dedicating your life to a cause. Num num, though. Reminds me of the time I decided to make 'real' Coronation chicken. First, poach your chicken for hours in white wine and some weird stock you have to make yourself with bayleaves (you probably get the picture). It took about 24 hours, and didn't, like your beouf, taste that much different to the usual mayonnaise and curry powder gunk I whip up!