france: March 2009 Archives

Boeuf bourguignon

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I firmly believe that old classics are old classics for a reason - they’re utterly delicious - and therefore should not be overlooked on the assumption they’re either too boring or too fussy and antiquated.  Boeuf bourguignon is the perfect example; you just can’t beat slow cooked beef with the simple additional flavours of red wine, bacon, onions and mushrooms.  For maximum flavour, make this a day in advance.

Smboeufbourguignon0001.JPGWhile staying in Paris at the start of our culinary travels in 2008, I took a class with chef Eric Fraudeau.  On my request, and despite having made them all many times before, we cooked boeuf bourguignon, gratin dauphinois and tarte Tatin.  It’s always fascinating to see how different people approach the classic dishes; there’s always more than one way.  Sometimes they turn out equally delicious but for different reasons; other times you come to realise there’s a reason behind the original recipe.  (That’s assuming you can put your finger on an ‘original’ recipe; such dishes are usually highly contested.)  Boeuf bourguignon is traditionally served with boiled potatoes, but if you’re up for a really rich meal, the gratin dauphinois works a treat.

Eric’s bourguignon was pretty standard, with all the usual suspects for ingredients.  I have only made some slight alterations for the recipe here.  Eric recommends beef cheek - it will cook down to the most unctuous, tender and tasty mouthfuls you can imagine.  However, I was disappointed to find that I cannot get beef cheeks where I live.  In Paris it was easy - Eric took us to a series of wonderful butchers selling all kinds of things, including horse.  In England, my local butcher tells me, EU laws are applied more strictly and due to the additional regulations surrounding carcass heads (think BSE and the rest ...) there are more steps and inspections in the process.  The result is that what should be one of the cheapest cuts becomes too expensive for most butchers to bother with.  

In place of cheek, my butcher recommends chuck steak, which is from the shoulder.  If not that, then any good stewing cut - such as rump, round or shin - would do.  For the wine, the only book I have that actually recommends using a Burgundy is the little ‘recettes bourguignonnes’ cookbook I found in Beaune.  Everyone else recommends something fuller bodied, such as a Côtes du Rhône.  Finally, I can’t tell you what a difference good bacon makes.  Try to avoid those packets of pre-cut ‘lardons’ in supermarkets; they’re full of water and taste of little.  Instead, see if your local butcher sells bacon bits leftover from his own slicing.

Gratin dauphinois

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Creamy or crusty?  That is the question.  The answer is, both, of course, but in what proportions?  Everyone seems to have their own way for making this, perhaps the most classic of potato dishes.  And they’re almost always delicious; it just depends which kind you prefer.  My extensive research and testing (you can’t eat too much gratin dauphinois) has followed the two main schools of thought, both of which I love, but for different reasons…

Smgratindauphinois20001.JPGFirst up is the ‘thin ‘n’ crispy’ version, as perfected by American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, who points out that ‘gratin’ comes from ‘gratter’, to scrape, which hints at the true form and in fact whole point of the dish - it should be really sticky and crispy, requiring much scraping so as not to leave behind a scrap of that wonderful brown goo encrusted on the potatoes and the dish itself.  His version is only one layer deep, resulting in much stickiness both above and below.  The flavours end up quite concentrated, with salt, pepper, nutmeg, garlic and reduced cream combining into an intense savouriness, not dissimilar to parmesan cheese, despite the absence of cheese in the recipe.  In fact, Jeffrey considers the addition of cheese “a gross and pitiful imposture, an admission of failure.”  I would agree entirely.

Equally delicious, just in a different way, is what I call the ‘deep ‘n’ creamy’ version, which chef Eric Fraudeau in Paris (with whom I took a class at the start of our culinary travels in 2008) assures me is the correct method.  The question of how to correctly and authentically cook a gratin dauphinois was apparently so aggressively contested that Charles de Gaulle held a competition to determine the definitive recipe.  Eric is adamant that the potatoes should first be cooked on the stove in milk, which is then discarded, and then baked in cream.  Also, the potatoes are cut lengthways, slightly thicker, and arranged in more than one layer.  The result is creamier, with the notes of nutmeg et al appearing only as hints.  You still get the wonderful crispy crust on top of course, essential to any and every version of the dish.


Culinary Anthropologist