August 2010

Boeuf Bourguignon

This is by far my most ambitious Paestry post yet — tonight, I made boeuf bourguignon! I hope you enjoy this post and I hope it will inspire you to make it, for braised meat dishes are delicious and most of all, quite easy to make.

It’s the ultimate comfort food. Warm, savory and filling. Boeuf (or beef) bourguignon has been rendered famous by Julia Child’s recipe in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and from movies about her and her foray into French cuisine. I studied various recipes from her classic one here, and Ina Garten’s version here. After reading through the basics, I decided to whip up my own version based on my experience with preparing pot roasts in the past. Child’s and Garten’s recipes probably remained faithful to the classic way of preparing BB, but I was not going to buy a bottle of Cognac for the flambé step, nor was I gonna go out of my way to buy lardons of smoked bacon. So here we go. This is my version.

Basically, this dish calls for the following important steps:
1. Use a large hunk of beef. Chuck roast works well.
2. Give the beef a good sear.
3. Use good red wine.
4. Simmer for a very long time.

As long as you follow these fundamental steps, you’ll have yourself a very decent beef bourguignon. Pay particular heed to the quality of the wine you use. I am discovering tonight that better wine will lead to a better stew.

Getting the wine was the first challenge. I dashed to Trader Joe’s to see what they have and spent a good amount of time choosing the right one. This time around, I was not going to use two-buck Chuck, as I’ve done in the past. I suspected that poorer wines didn’t quite make the best pot roasts so I decided to use Pinot noir, the grape varietal that characterizes Burgundy’s famous wines, of which this dish is named after. I busted out my iPhone app that lists good wine years at various regions but I still could not be sure. Thankfully, a lady beside me was re-stocking bottles of Pinot.

“Which of these would go nicely for cooking?” I asked her.

“What are you cooking?” she asked. “A pot roast, or the like.” I replied.

“Follow me,” she said, as she invitingly showed me to another section of the aisle and presented me with this Black Mountain California Pinot noir.

It cost about $6. Not bad, I thought. She said it had light tannins and would go beautifully with my boeuf bourguignon. She knew exactly what I had in mind, and I didn’t even have to tell her! After exchanging a few niceties about having spent time in Paris, and a few more Pinot recommendations, I picked up two more bottles, the ones you see pictured above, and left to embark on my beef. This lady, by the by, was very helpful and seemed very knowledgeable about wine in general. She wasn’t like the usual younger, 30 or 20-something Trader Joe’s employees around. She was older, with gray hair and had an accent that I could not distinguish — perhaps British. When she said she spent the ’70s in Paris, I decided to trust her.

It’s a very good thing that I did because the wine was rather fantastic. I opened it the moment I got home to taste it. After a couple sips, I almost did not want to cook with it because I liked it that much.

Good wine is important but another factor that helps with braised dishes is using a heavy pot. I used my cherished Le Creuset dutch oven, as you see here.

I’ve had this since college and it has produced countless wonderful dishes! The iron-clad pot gets very hot — perfect for searing the meat and later, even more perfect for slow-cooking over low heat.

So to begin, get your mirepoix ready. Mirepoix is, as I’ve heard Emeril Lagasse call it, the holy trinity of cooking — celery, onion and carrot. Traditional BB won’t call for celery but I like it very much in my stews so I tossed them in. Then get your bacon, or lardons if you’re fancy. I used slices of fatty unseasoned pork bacon that I had in the freezer. Saute the bacon in olive oil until it’s crispy, like so.

In the leftover grease from the bacon, get your beef (make sure they are dried with paper towels for a good sear) and brown it on all sides. Once browned, take the meat out out of the pan, set aside and cover. You should have a good amount of delicious melted grease in the pan. Cook your chopped vegetables until they become soft and the onions, translucent.

Tuck the meat back in the cooked mirepoix, and pour the entire bottle of red wine into the pot. You should see it bubble up gloriously…

When beef meets red wine, something magical happens. It’s pure poetry, to be honest. Those of you who like to enjoy a glass of red with a perfectly cooked rare steak will understand. And when you cook beef juices and wine together under low heat for a long period of time, the sparks fly. Fine music suddenly comes to mind. An ideal marriage is made.

A note about the wine: I saw that a spoonful of the wine sauce appeared more on the brick-red side and had clarity. I’ve used Cabarnet and Shiraz in the past with less appealing results. The wine looked purplish and opaque once added to the meat. I did not like that. The reddish brown beginnings of the wine sauce you see here, was encouraging.

Next, mix in heaping tablespoon of tomato paste. This will add additional richness to your roast. And so, after simmering for about three hours, the sauce turns to this:

Aren’t you amazed? I was! Once the meat is very tender and the sauce reduced, mix a tablespoon of softened butter with some flour for an uncooked roux. Add this paste to your bubbling stew. This will thicken the sauce. I did not take picutres of this step but I wish I did because miraculously, the beef juices thickened and became viscous like a proper sauce. If you prefer your pot roast to be on the thinner side, you could skip the roux.

Lastly, add sauteed mushrooms into the pot and let it simmer for an additional 15 minutes before serving.

I had mine with some nice quinoa. You could eat the roast as is with some crusty bread or you could it put it on top of pasta or a nice heap of mashed potatoes. Anything goes.

Upon tasting the finished dish, the following crossed my mind — what just happened? This is the best tasting braised beef dish I have ever made. Could it be because of the wine?

I think the wine was indeed the key to tonight’s success. I can’t say the same outcome will happen in the future when I make this dish again but regardless, I guarantee you, I will make it again and again and again…

Bananas are rotting, time for banana bread

As promised, I will write about the one thing I find myself baking all the time — banana bread! Instead of tossing overly ripe bananas, or even eating them for that matter, I make banana bread out of them. This is the single-most important factor in a successful loaf of banana bread. Near-rotten, very brown, very spotty bananas. They simply have a deeper banana flavor and will come through in your bread better.

I’ve discovered that recipes using vegetable oil vs. butter tend to be tastier and more moist. You could also add various nuts like pecans or walnuts. This recipe is the best I’ve used so far — it turned out more like banana cake, which is fine by me.

Butter, for greasing pan
1 cup flour, plus more for pan
3⁄4 tsp. baking soda
1⁄4 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup canola oil
1⁄3 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
2⁄3 cup chopped pecans
3 very ripe bananas, mashed

Heat oven to 350°. Grease a 9″ x 5″ x 
2 3⁄4″ loaf pan with butter and dust with flour; set pan aside (see link for full recipe).

This recipe uses only vanilla for additional flavoring, but I added a few dashes of ground cloves for that extra oomph. Cinnamon works nicely too. First, whisk the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl. Then in a mixer, beat the eggs, oil and sugar together for a couple minutes until it becomes fluffy and pale yellow. This is an important step — beat the living daylights out of the eggs, sugar and fat (oil, in this case) until enough air is incorporated. This will make your bread or cake light and fluffy.

Use a fork to mash your ripe bananas and mix into the egg and sugar mixture. Then slowly stir in the dry ingredients. Once the flour is combined, stop right there. Don’t over beat the batter, or else your bread will become tough.

Pour batter on a greased loaf pan and bake for about an hour or so. The most delicious fragrance of baked banana bread goodness will soon permeate through your house — I guarantee it! Enjoy!

Farm-fresh egg story

As you know, there’s been a massive egg recall. More than half a billion of them have been recalled, or so I’ve read. That’s a lot of eggs! What irked me the most about it, even more than the salmonella scare itself, was that the tainted eggs came all the way from Iowa. No wonder supermarket eggs are so lackluster — it’s because they’ve traveled cross-country to get here. That is why I try to buy local eggs from the farmer’s market, pictured above.

Just recently, however, I really needed eggs and I considered buying the supermarket variety because my swiftly ripening bananas demanded to be baked into bread. So off I went to Vons. It shouldn’t be that bad, right? Lo and behold, a sign was posted above the cartons saying that the particular brand — Lucerne, to be exact — is NOT part of the Iowa egg recall, despite the fact that Lucerne is one of the brands on the recall list. I looked at the what few shoddy egg cartons remained, some of them soggy with who knows what…and peeped inside. They were cracked and ugly. I desperately wanted to bake banana bread but I just couldn’t risk using these tired-looking eggs, salmonella-laced or not. I decided to wait another day and go to the farmer’s market for the farm-fresh variety.

I had a sneaking feeling this would happen: I got to the market and the egg guy said they were sold out. The egg recall had everyone in a hizzy and cleaned out his supply quicker than usual. I was crestfallen. I drove through downtown La Jolla traffic just to get eggs and now they’re all gone! The egg guy must have seen my disappointment because a couple minutes later after I walked away, he came up to me and said, “ma’am, if you’d like some eggs, come see me later this afternoon at 12:45.” He had eggs on reserve somewhere in that van of his!

Of course I said I’ll think about it. Since I ran into a couple friends at the market, I dilly dallied and had some lunch to kill time. I then went back at 12:45 and as promised, Egg Guy sneaked a carton of a dozen jumbo eggs in a plastic bag and handed it to me. I couldn’t believe I had just taken part in what seemed like an underground transaction for quality eggs. It was just too hilarious. A black market for eggs? I’d believe it. I also like to believe that Egg Guy recognized that I care. I care enough to deserve his backdoor farm-fresh egg supply.

Watch out for my next post, in which I baked these bad boys for banana bread.

Monster bloody mary

Take a look at this gigantic bloody mary! Nevermind that it’s in a Guinness glass — isn’t it gorge? It is the signature brunch-time drink at Small Bar in University Heights. Yes, that is shrimp you see skewered on a stick along with olives, a pearl onion, a gherkin and pepperoncini, among other things. Just a lone celery stalk wasn’t going to do it for this guy. A fellow bloody mary drinker saw the bartender adding finishing touches to the robust drink and said, “it looks like my backyard!” Amen to that.

Happy birthday to Vince, who organized the splendid brunch there. Cheers!

Late-night food craving

Things I want to devour at this precise moment, RIGHT NOW:

a stack of pancakes with butter and real maple syrup or
Swedish pancakes with lingonberries
a damn juicy cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate millkshake
tacos with cilantro
quinoa salad
New York-style cheese pizza
peach pie with vanilla ice cream
clams steamed in white wine

Oy vey!