classic boeuf bourguignon

Boeuf bourguignon is a classic French beef stew made famous by chef Julia Child in her cookbook "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." She called it "certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man." It requires time, effort, and numerous ingredients - but the payoff is unbelievable and completely worth it. It is the perfect dish for a cold winter night, to serve to a crowd of friends or just to yourself with a big goblet of red wine.

The key to a good beef stew, and in particular boeuf bourguignon, is the layering of flavors. Each step of the recipe is intentional: the browning of bacon, the searing of the beef pieces, the deglazing of the pot with brandy. You should not skimp on these steps, for they provide depth and complexity of flavor to the sauce.

Particularly when you are searing the beef, it is important to let the beef sizzle over high heat until a deep brown crust forms on the outside of each piece. You do not want to burn the beef, but it should rest in the pan untouched until it is easy to turn. Many cooks make the mistake of crowding the beef pieces (which will result in steaming rather than searing) or turning to soon. You want the beef to be evenly seared, and you also want to allow the "fond" to develop on the bottom of the Dutch oven. The "fond" is the deeply flavorful brown layer that forms in your pot after searing meat. As it gets scraped up into your sauce, it helps to flavor the liquid. Do not be afraid of letting your meat cook properly and deeply to yield proper fond formation.

After your beef is cooked and you have deglazed your pot, you will add what seems to be a large quantity of red wine - almost a full bottle. You want to use a wine that you would be happy to drink on its own, but it does not need to be very expensive. I used a $12 bottle of Cote du Rhone (and naturally I poured myself a glass while preparing the stew). After adding the wine and stock, along with a few other flavorful ingredients, the stew must cook for over an hour in the oven. Beef stew meat needs time to braise. The connective tissue of the beef, known as collagen, breaks down over time into a soft gelatin that makes the beef much more tender and melt-in-your mouth delicious after cooking.

The final critical step of the recipe is to strain. As the onion, garlic, and bouquet of herbs simmer happily for over an hour, the ingredients begin to break down in the sauce. This yields delicious flavor, but a murky stew. Using a chinois - a cone-shaped stainless steel fine mesh strainer - you can remove all these bits, leaving behind a glossy brown sauce that becomes thicker as you cook the stew uncovered just before serving.

While this recipe may seem time-consuming and difficult at first glance, it is truly heart-warming and belly-satisfying. It can be made a day in advance, and the flavors will just keep developing.