Those seemingly effortless concoctions that speak of long Parisian evenings and deeply satisfying food aren't that effortless, as I discovered while paging through Bistro Cooking at Home by Gordon Hamersley with Joanne McAllister Smart (Broadway, 2003 $35).
The bistro fare featured in Hamersley's book, such as Curried Zucchini Risotto or Grilled Mackerel With Beets, Fennel and Lime Vinaigrette, doesn't so much require culinary school-level skills as patience for steps and stages and backstage preparation of sauces, rouille and stocks. Rustic doesn't mean easy.
While various dishes can be prepared ahead of time, many of the book's recipes seem to require a cook's full attention, precluding the simultaneous production of a full meal.
That said, Bistro Cooking is a wonderfully evocative book that distills French casual elegance and allows home cooks to aspire, if for one evening, to the same. In his preface, Hamersley, a Boston bistro owner himself, captures the cuisine's essence: "Bistro cooking is bold and fully flavored and yet it feels more like the best home cooking than restaurant fare." That means "long, slow-cooked stews; exquisitely roasted chickens," as well as tarts, gratins, confits and, naturally, creme brulee.
On a recent snowy Sunday, I devoted much of an afternoon to the preparation of Beef Braised in Red Wine With Mushrooms and Smoky Bacon a la Bourguignonne, and served it over egg noodles (not buttered, as the recipe recommends). The dish nearly exhausted our red-wine supply.
It was worth it. The fragrant harmony among the bacon, wine, beef stock (not homemade) and a dab of tomato paste carried this dish beyond pedestrian beef-stew status to a dark, rich alloy of flavors. Tres bien!
Beef Braised in Red Wine With Mushrooms and Smoky Bacon a la Bourguignonne
3 1/2 cups (about 1 bottle) red wine
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
1 head of garlic, cut in half crosswise
3 bay leaves
3 sprigs fresh thyme
12 black peppercorns
3 to 4 pounds beef chuck, large pieces of fat removed and cut into 2-inch-cubes
about 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 pound bacon, cut into 1/4 -inch strips
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
24 pearl onions, peeled
2 carrots, cut into a 1/2 -inch dice
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups red wine
3 cups beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned, stems trimmed, and cut into quarters
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch watercress, washed and dried well (optional)
To marinate the meat, combine all of the marinade ingredients, including the meat. Refrigerate, tossing the meat occasionally, for 12 hours. Drain the wine from the meat. Retrieve just the meat and pat it dry with paper towels. (This drying will allow the meat to brown without steaming.) Discard the rest of the marinade ingredients.
To make the stew, in a large, heavy-based, ovenproof pot, heat about 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until much of its fat has rendered but it has not browned, about 5 minutes. Remove the bacon from the pot with a slotted spoon and reserve.
Season the beef lightly with salt and liberally with pepper. Working in batches, add the meat to the pot and brown well on all sides. Remove the meat from the pot and reserve.
Heat the oven to 275 degrees.
Add the pearl onions and carrots to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until they take on a little color, about 5 minutes. (Add additional oil, if needed.) Lower the heat to medium-low.
Add the flour and continue to cook, stirring continuously, for another 5 minutes. Add the bacon and the beef back to the pot and toss them well with the flour and vegetables. Add the red wine, beef stock and tomato paste. Season with a little salt and some pepper and stir to combine.
Bring to a boil, cover the pot, and put it in the oven. Cook until the meat is fork-tender, about 3 hours. Remove the cover and cook for an additional 15 minutes. (If you want to prepare this dish a day or two ahead, stop here. Cool the stew as quickly as possible and refrigerate it. On the day you plan to serve the stew, remove any cooled fat from it, reheat it in the oven, and then continue with the recipe.)
For the garnish: Just before serving, heat the oil in a large saute pan over high heat. When the oil is very hot, add the mushrooms and cook without stirring until they're well browned on one side. Stir and continue cooking until the juices from the mushrooms have released and evaporated and the mushrooms are tender, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook for another 2 minutes. Reserve.
When the beef is done, add the mushrooms to the stew pot and stir briefly to combine.
Serve in large bowls with steamed potatoes, buttered egg noodles or spatzel. Garnish with watercress sprigs, if you like.