Celebrating Julia Child and French version of beef stew

In series debut 40 years ago, chef showed techniques

February 12, 2003|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Four decades ago, television was a minor but growing presence in American life, and "educational" television was just that - educational and even somewhat dull.

But it proved to be the perfect vehicle for a tall, cheerful woman with a warbly voice and unencumbered enthusiasm. The French Chef, Julia Child's first cooking series, debuted 40 years ago this month on WGBH, Boston's public television station, with an episode devoted to that classic French stew, boeuf bourguignon.

Around the country local chapters of the American Institute of Wine and Food, co-founded by Julia Child, gathered last night to celebrate that cultural milestone by watching a tape of the show and dining on boeuf bourguignon.

Child chose this French stew for the first episode because the show's goal was to introduce viewers to classical French cooking techniques, and nothing is more basic to good French cooking than a well-prepared stew.

"It's a technique, not so much a recipe," says her longtime assistant, Stephanie Hersh. "People were eating beef stew, and this is the French version."

Ironically, in the years since food television was in its infancy, Americans seem to have become both more interested in watching the preparation of good food and less willing or able to spend more than a bare minimum amount of time to make it themselves.

But as boeuf bourguignon reminds us, long, leisurely cooking can be its own reward - nourishing a household with its rich smells even when there's no need to be standing over the stove. Few aromas can pique the appetite or stir the soul more deeply than those released when chunks of beef simmer in a full-bodied red wine.

Yes, it's French and it's classic. But it also epitomizes the best of simple home cooking. And as Child demonstrated 40 years ago, just about anybody can pull it off with a few basic skills, a pinch of planning and a big dollop of patience. The reward is a memorable meal, one that can help heal the cares of a busy day.

Although the cooking time for boeuf bourguignon is a few hours, the actual preparation is considerably less - especially once you master those basic techniques for browning beef, braising small onions and sauteing mushrooms.

"It's time-consuming only in the sense that you need to be around the house, but not necessarily standing over the stove," says chef Cindy Wolf, who periodically features boeuf bourguignon at her two restaurants, Charleston and Petit Louis. But the time is worth it, she says. "My favorite thing about cooking is making a great sauce, and this is the greatest sauce there is."

Lack of time (or patience) and inexperience with basic techniques are not the only challenges the dish presents for contemporary American cooks. There is also the matter of lardons, or pork fat, traditionally used in the dish to add flavor and to protect the surface of the meat while it cooks.

In these fat-fearful days, cooks might shy away from chunks of the stuff, even small pieces like lardons. But as Wolf points out, the fat added to boeuf bourguignon is minor.

Lardons hark back to a time when most meat was tough and dry, and pork fat was a good way to make it tender and flavorful. Long strips of pork fat were often threaded through pieces of meat with larding needles to baste the meat while it cooked.

Nowadays lardons are hard to find, says George Janouris, manager of Graul's Market in Ruxton, in part because hogs are bred much leaner, but also because most meat arrives in stores pre-cut, reducing the need for meat cutters at every store. However, if you're in search of traditional lardons, most specialty stores can order them with a few days' notice, Janouris says.

You also can use sliced bacon or salted pork, provided you first blanch it to remove the smoky or salty taste.

Fernand Tersiguel of Tersiguel's in Ellicott City, who prepares the dish for private parties, follows the classic technique described by Child of first simmering the lardons to remove the smoky taste, although not every chef does that.

If you don't have a source of lardons or chunks of bacon, you can improvise and cut regular breakfast bacon into squares. Or, if you prefer, you can skip that part of the recipe.

In recent years, lardons have become optional, even for Julia Child. "Boeuf a la Bourguignon" in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961, is described as "beef stew in red wine, with bacon, onions and mushrooms." The recipe calls for a 6-ounce chunk of bacon and includes detailed instructions for blanching it.

But by the end of the century, when Child included a master recipe for the dish in Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes From a Lifetime of Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, $19.95), both the name and the description were simpler: "Beef Bourguignon -Beef in Red Wine Sauce."

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