Monday, November 29, 2010

Project Downscale: Beef Bourguignon

These cooks aren't messing around. The first wave of requests for Project Downscale are in, and honestly, they’re doozies. These are dishes that I would never in my right mind think about making just for myself, which means that I’m over the moon with excitement at the prospects of having to do just that.

Am I saying that Project Downscale is going to be evidence that I’m not in my right mind? You be the judge.

Anyway, the request I decided to tackle first comes from Heather Gross (@heathermiriam on Twitter), and here’s what she says:

I'm 25, and I recently moved to Columbus, Ohio, to take a job as the assistant editor of Columbus Alive, a weekly arts and entertainment publication. Before the move I was a copy editor for a daily newspaper in Illinois, so I worked in the evenings and therefore wasn't home to cook dinner. So I'm pretty new to the kitchen! (Who has time to cook in college?) And at least for the near future, I'm single and roommate-less.
She attached a link to a Real Simple recipe and said, “I always feel like I need at least one other person around to make this or any other bourguignon recipe.”

That’s right. She said “bourguignon,” as in beef/boeuf. As in the dish that
takes up the better part of three pages in Julia Child et al’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1.” Let’s just say it’s a multi-multi-step process involving bacon-blanching, separate stages of browning, a couple of trips to the oven (one lasting three or four hours), two separate pans of vegetables, plus skimming of fat and gnashing of teeth.

Others have tinkered with it, or more. In his recently reissued "James Beard's American Cookery,” Beard adds a marinating step, glazes the pearl onions with a little sugar, suggests using beurre manie (a butter/flour mixture) for easier thickening and says the meat will be tender in about 2 1/2 hours.
Ina Garten’s version does away with the bacon-blanching step, uses frozen onions but keeps the beurre manie, and claims to achieve tender meat in 90 minutes.

Ina’s and Julia’s recipes serve 6. James Beard’s book doesn’t say how many his serves.

And then there’s the Real Simple recipe Heather Gross sent me.

It serves 4, which is moving in the right direction but remains exactly four times the amount that Heather wants now that she’s “single and roommate-less.” And it’s simple, all right, leaving out the bacon entirely and employing sirloin instead of chuck or other stewing beef, plus pre-sliced mushrooms, frozen onions and, the piece de resistance, Campbell’s Golden Mushroom Soup. (Memories of my mother's meatloaf recipe are streaming back....) Gross apologizes for it: “I hate admitting that I ‘cheat’ by using a recipe with Campbell's soup, but I like recipes that are relatively painless!"

No fear, Heather: I’ve got your back. Relatively painless it will be, but Campbell’s soup will not be used.

In its defense, the Real Simple recipe reminded me of something fairly obvious: The easiest way to streamline something like a long-cooking stew is to turn it into something quick-cooking. I suppose I could’ve pulled out my pressure cooker, but frankly the stopping and starting required for experimenting with the time it might take to cook stew meat didn’t appeal to me. Or I could’ve gone the
slow-cooker route, using my smallest-capacity insert and starting it up before I went to work.

But why bother, when I could just pan-fry a steak instead? All the elements of beef bourguignon could be pulled in: wine, mushrooms, onions, bacon, and, of course, beef. And with a steak as marbled as rib-eye, it would be just about as soft and tender as long-cooked stew meat.

I had one last thing to answer: WWDD? What would Dorie do? I opened up
Dorie Greenspan’s fantastic new “Around My French Table” and looked in the index. No Boeuf Bourguignon, but there was Bistrot Paul Bert’s Steak a la Bourguignonne. A bistro classic, of course: steak with red wine, garlic and shallot sauce.

Shallots. So obvious. Why bother trying to find pearl onions when these babies are everywhere? I didn’t really use her recipe – I wanted to keep the bacon and the mushrooms, neither of which are in there – but I took the mere fact that it appears in her cookbook as a sign from the universe that I was on the right track.

Heather, I hope you agree.

-- Joe Yonan

Steak Burgundy
1 serving

This single cook’s take on the flavors of the classic beef Bourguignon keeps the principle elements: mushrooms, onions (here, shallots), bacon, wine and beef. But it treats them like a quick bistro dish instead. A single cook may find smaller rib-eyes hard to find; just cut a larger steak in half lengthwise and freeze the second piece for another day.

Serve with a salad or roasted potatoes.

1 slice smoky bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces
5 or 6 ounces boneless rib-eye steak, preferably no more than 1 inch thick, excess fat trimmed (see headnote)
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large or 2 small shallot lobes, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 garlic clove, cut into thin slices
3 or 4 ounces shiitake mushrooms (may substitute button or other mushrooms of your choice)
1/2 cup pinot noir or other fruity red wine
Leaves from 1 sprig thyme (optional)
1 to 2 teaspoons unsalted butter (optional)


Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels.

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bacon pieces and cook, stirring frequently, until the bacon is crisp and dark brown
and the fat has been rendered, about 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon pieces to the paper-towel-lined plate. Keep the heat at medium-high.

Season the steak generously on both sides with salt and pepper. Place in the skillet and cook to develop a seared crust, about 2 minutes, then turn the steak over and cook until lightly browned on the second side, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a serving plate and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm.

Pour out all but a film of oil from the skillet; reduce the heat to medium.
Quickly rinse the mushrooms to dislodge any dirt, then pat dry with paper towels. Discard the stems. Cut the caps into 1/4-inch slices.

Add the shallot and garlic to the skillet; saute, stirring, until they start to lightly brown and soften, about 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, just until they collapse, about a minute.

Pour in the wine, stir in the thyme, if using, and increase the heat to medium-high so the wine mixture bubbles. Cook until it reduces almost completely, barely coating the mushroom mixture and becoming thick and sticky, about 2 or 3 minutes, then stir in the butter, if using, until it melts and a sauce forms. Remove from the heat, then taste and add salt and pepper if needed.

Uncover the steak. Spoon the sauce over the top, and eat.


  1. This reminds me a little of Joyce Goldstein's summertime Beef Stroganoff which, if I remember correctly, turns stroganoff into a sort of stir-fry with a gob of sour cream at the end. I'm sure a lot of small scale cooks feel the same way as I do, the more servings I make, the longer I'm willing to spend cooking. Some foods I love so much that I'll happily freeze or eat 5 days in a row. I'll simmer or braise them for hours, especially in the winter. Granted, there is the rare single lamb shank with beans, but that requires a lazy, free afternoon and lousy weather. But for the most part what I really love is the idea of tossing together something quickly and making satisfying meal in 20 minutes.

  2. Proper preparation is the key to a tasty meal. It's all about maintaining the flavor.

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  3. This dish looks expensive but easy to prepare if you're planning to serve it to hundreds of guest in long island catering halls. Slow cooking is one of the tastiest methods anyone should learn to do.