French cooking

Rich and soulful, classic beef bourguignon is the ultimate dinner party dish

For as long as I've been a cook, I've been making boeuf bourguignon – the classic French wine-braised beef stew with mushrooms, lardons and baby onions. There's something so deeply soulful about the dish, which simmers for a couple of hours in the oven, filling the kitchen with an incredible aroma.

Those transporting scents always deliver on their promise: Beef bourguignon, a dish that coaxes maximum deliciousness from humble ingredients, is a dreamy dish to serve to friends – with good red wine and a loaf of crusty French bread for soaking up the fabulous, richly flavored sauce. It's impressive enough for any important celebration – such as New Year's Eve – or no occasion at all. Maybe it's just what you want to eat on a cold winter evening with a fire going in the fireplace. It's a dish that never shows off, but always thrills. And while it may look like a lot of steps, it's no more complicated or time-consuming than making chili.

And because you can completely make it ahead – even the day before – it's the ideal (stress-free!) dish to serve at a dinner party, along with boiled or roasted potatoes or buttered noodles.  Precede it with a wintry salad, céleri rémoulade, or, as I did this Christmas Eve, a super easy-to-make yet luxurious and velvety roasted cauliflower soup swirled with brown butter

I must have originally learned to make beef bourguignon from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but over the years, I've played with the recipe, trying to answer the questions that inevitably nip at a cook's heels: What's the best cut of beef to use? What kind of wine? Should you marinate the beef or not? 

After so many years, and so many versions – abetted by a recent round of reading and more playing – I think I finally have my be-all-and-end-all version. 

Let's start with the red wine. You use a whole bottle, so you'd better use something really good, right? Well, no – happily, it doesn't much matter what you use, as long as it hasn't turned to vinegar. I never spend more than $8 or $9 dollars on the wine for this dish.

For the beef cuts, I had to abandon my beloved Julia, who calls for "lean stewing beef." Mais, non! – what you want is a fattier cut, like beef chuck, which will become super-tender as its collagens break down through its long braise. Lean stewing beef becomes hard and tough. 

From Anne Willan, author of many wonderful cookbooks and head of La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy, I gleaned the idea of using a combination of chuck and beef shank. In her fine recipe in The Country Cooking of France, Willan calls for boneless beef shank. Why not keep the bone to cook in the stew, I thought, as it (arguably) adds body and flavor? Better than throwing it away, right? I was glad I did.

I read with great interest Serious Eats' thorough story on how to make a great beef bourguignon, and pulled from it other great ideas. Author Daniel Gritzer writes about extensively testing using a marinade versus not, concluding that there's no point in marinating a long-braised dish such as this. I will gleefully accept his assays, as I've never noticed a difference in marinated verses non-marinated versions, and it's a pain to dry off the meat before browning it.

And here's something even more interesting Gritzer concludes: Browning bite-size cubes of beef dries out their surface too much. That's definitely something I've noticed over the years. His solution is to cut the meat into big slabs, and brown just two sides of the slabs, then cut up the meat. I took a different (and simplified) approach, cutting the meat into large-ish chunks (around an inch and a half is ideal), and browning just one side of the cube well, then a quick sear on another side and that's it. It's much less time-consuming (and boring) than thoroughly browning the cubes, as I used to do, and it resulted in a texture that was definitely softer and more appealing, while still getting some of the wonderful, flavor-enhancing caramelization of browning. It's a lazy man's solution that pays off! 

Yes, I know; this is a lot of bla bla bla. But it's all in the service of trying and testing and experimenting so that you (and I!) get the best possible result with the least possible effort.

Ready to cook?

Here's the way it'll go, in a nutshell. Brown the meat, then lightly cook your aromatic vegetables – onion, celery and carrot – which you don't even have to dice (just cut 'em in a few pieces – another labor-saving idea I got from Serious Eats), and a little garlic. Deglaze the pan with a little wine, then add back the meat, the shank bone, the rest of the bottle of wine, a little chicken broth and a bouquet garni, bring to a simmer, then shove it in a slow oven for almost two hours, nearly unattended (just just want to stir it once or twice). Skim off the fat, discard the aromatic vegetables and bone, strain the sauce and add the meat back in, then add the garnishes you've prepared: lardons, mushrooms and baby onions, and braise another half hour.

It's more time than work, and the payoff is nothing short of awesome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One way to honor France: cook up some of its culture

So sad. 

France is so close to my heart. My husband is French. My son – that's him a few years ago in the photo above – is French. Well, half-French, but he's a citizen. 

One feels so powerless in the face of such evil – a Bastille Day attack that left so many people, people who were celebrating what's wonderful about France – dead. And more wounded. 

There's nothing to do. Except maybe what we can do: continue celebrating what's wonderful about France. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. What it means to be French: a love of life, of food, of the world. An open spirit. An embrace of beauty. It has so much in common with what's wonderful about being American.

I'm going to become French, too – as soon as I get off my butt and do the (ridiculous amount of) paperwork. What happened in Nice inspires me to get off my butt. 

But for now –  tonight –  I just want to cook something French. I think it'll be a niçoise salad – yes, for what happened in Nice. I'll try to post a pic and a recipe this weekend.

Meanwhile, maybe you, too, feel like cooking something French. For France.

I can't think of anything more à propos than a pissaladière. The onion and anchovy tart with niçoise olives is definitely something you might eat in Nice. It's really good as an appetizer (entrée, in French, as it's your entry into the meal . . . ) with a glass of pastis. Ricard – an inch or so poured into a tall glass, then diluted with about three times as much ice water – is very very French. Or you could have it with a glass of rosé.

On the other hand, you could do something really simple to start, like cut up a fabulous ripe cantaloupe and serve that as an entrée – that's what my mother- and father-in-law do. They live in Bordeaux most of the year, and spend summers at their house near the beach at Lacanau-Océan. Or trim some radishes, and serve them with sweet butter and salt. 

An artichoke vinaigrette makes a great entrée if you feel like doing a little cooking. 

After that, you could make deviled duck legs. They're super-easy, and crazy-good. Serve them on a bed of frisée, if you like. 

A simple green salad could follow, maybe some cheese, if you want to over-do it. 

For dessert, consider a stone-fruit tart with thyme.

Though you don't want to make that if you're scheming a pissaladière – too many crusts! In that case, or if you really want to keep it simple, and still very French, peel a ripe peach and slice it into your glass of red wine. Eat the slices with a spoon, and sip the wine.

Life is so precious, and so fleeting. As long as we can savor it, we have something no one can take away.

 

How to be French: First get your hands on some duck legs

Have you ever wanted to be French? It's not that hard. Here's how to do it without breaking a sweat.

First get your hands on some duck legs, maybe six of them, or eight. Finding them is not as challenging as it used to be. 

Open a jar of Dijon mustard. Salt and pepper the duck legs and rub them with herbes de Provence. Now slather some of the mustard all over them. Sprinkle them liberally with panko, then drizzle a little melted butter over them. Slide the duck legs into a slow oven and forget about them for an hour and a half. Take them out.

Et voilà. Now you are French. I don't even need to tell you to grab a glass of red wine, as you are already French. 

If you're feeling contrary (hey – you must be French!) you can leave out the herbes de Provence. 

It was my friend Regina Schrambling who created this dish. Regina credits the great cookbook author Madeleine Kamman, citing a Kamman recipe for Dijon-rubbed duck legs sans herbes de Provence, and with standard bread crumbs instead of panko. But I love Regina's Reginafication of it; the herbes de Provence definitely add that certain je ne sais quoi

It's a great dish for entertaining, as it requires minimal effort yet delivers fabulous flavor and marvelous crunch. Plus you shove it in the oven and forget it, so it's absolutely stress-free. 

Because you're French, if it's a proper dinner you're scheming, you'll start with asparagus vinaigrette or leeks vinaigrette or an artichoke vinaigrette.

Or begin with céleri remoulade or a little frisée salad with walnuts and Roquefort, and serve some butter-braised asparagus avec. Just use this recipe and substitute frisée for the escarole. You could roast some potatoes in duck fat, if you had it – which you will after you make the duck legs, so next time. Haricots verts blanched then finished in butter are very French too, and here's a bonus: You could serve any old green beans and call them haricots verts

If you want to blow your friends' minds and be super-French, serve a salad after the duck legs, then some cheese, then some fruit. 

Or make a lemon-raspberry tart, and call it a day.

Bonne nuit.

 

 

 

 

Artichoke vinaigrette: an easy, elegant, French (and vegan! and healthy! and make-ahead!) appetizer

Growing up in California, I took fresh artichokes for granted. After all, Castroville – the town that bills itself as "the artichoke capital of the world" – is right there in the central coastal part of the state, not far from Monterey. I used to love stopping there on road trips and seeing the giant concrete artichoke sculpture that greets you at the edge of town.

In the spring and summertime, my mom always steamed artichokes and served them as an appetizer with melted butter to dip the leaves in. I love them even more dipped in mayo, or a mustardy red wine vinaigrette. Wylie loves it with balsamic vinaigrette.

A classic French way to serve artichokes is  à la vinaigrette – that is, actually dressed in the vinaigrette; shallot vinaigrette suits them particularly well. Pouring the sauce over them while they're still warm lets the vinaigrette penetrate the leaves – no additional dipping sauce required. An artichoke vinaigrette is also pretty beautiful. It's great as a sit-down starter at a dinner party or as a sharable treat before the dinner gets started. 

A few years ago, I served boiled artichokes as an appetizer to new friends in Texas, and was surprised that they found them exotic. "How do you eat them?" they asked. We showed them how to pull off a leaf, dip it in sauce, scrape off the meaty part (closest to the crown) with your teeth and discard the rest of the leaf. When all the leaves are gone and only the thin, prickly ones at the heart remain, you pull those off, scrape the fuzz off the crown with a spoon, and eat the heart  – the prize! – which is also delicious dipped in mayo or vinaigrette.

 

Many cooks boil artichokes rather than steaming them. I've prepared them both ways, and find that boiling them in plenty of salted water gives them the best texture. Acidulating the water with lemon juice (as some cooks do to prevent discoloration) is unnecessary; I find the results to be the same with unacidulated water. Instead, after I trim them, I simply rub the cut surfaces with half a lemon.

For a party of four to eight, I often make two artichokes and serve it with another app or two. For a dinner party, you can serve one per person, or for a more casual dinner, one for every two to share.

So, how to trim them? You can get all fancy, and remove the chokes if you want to, but I usually don't. 

Once you do it once or twice, it's easy. Using a sharp serrated knife, slice off the stem, creating a flat surface for the artichoke to rest on. Then slice off the top straight across – removing the tops of the inner few rows of leaves. Next use your fingers to break off the tough row or two of small leaves around the bottom.

 

Finally, use kitchen scissors to snip off any remaining leaf tips (be careful – there's a prickle at the top of each). Rub the cut surfaces with half a lemon and they're ready to cook.

Boil them in lots of salted water in a covered pot. Don't worry if they bob up to the top; flip them over with a spoon once or twice so they cook evenly. While they're cooking, whisk together the vinaigrette. 

Drain the artichokes upside down, then dress them with the vinaigrette. Voilá. Easy, chic, delicious and healthy. And there are a couple of bonuses: You can serve them warm, or make them ahead, serving them chilled or at room temperature. And . . . they're vegan!

Ready to try? Here you go!

 

 

Gribiche, gribiche, gribiche: A different take on the sauce that jazzes up everything

Boiled shrimp with four-minute egg gribiche

Last month I wrote about a modern take on sauce gribiche, promising to follow up right away with more about gribiche. Forgive me – I got sidetracked by a startling hummus development

So, back to gribiche. I don't know how long gribiche has been around, but I do know August Escoffier gave a recipe for it in his 1903 Guide Culinaire. You've gotta love the way recipes were written then:

"Crush in a bowl the yolks of six hard-boiled eggs, and work them into a smooth paste, together with a large tablespoon of French mustard, the necessary salt, a little pepper, and make up the sauce with one pint of oil. Complete with two teaspoons of parsley, chervil, and tarragon (chopped and mixed), as many capers and gherkins, evenly mixed, and the hard-boiled whites of three eggs, cut in short, Julienne strips. This sauce is chiefly used with cold fish."

A few notes: First, this is the 1969 American English translation of the French; today it would no doubt say "Dijon mustard" rather than "French mustard." Second, I love the phrase "the necessary salt." Third, by "make up the sauce with one pint of oil," I'm pretty sure he meant whisk the olive in slowly, as in a mayonnaise – though I was surprised not to find vinegar or lemon juice in the recipe. "Gherkins": no doubt Escoffier was referring to cornichons. 

Anyway, the effect would have been like a chunky mayo – and that's what sauce gribiche meant for the better part of the century. (Excuse me while I geek out on culinary history; if I'm boring you, just skip down to the modern part!) 

Fast forward to The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, which the late great Judy Rodgers published in 2002. In it Rodgers included a recipe for Four-Minute Egg Gribiche. 

"This one is inspired by the mustardy gribiche the Troisgros brothers drizzled over beef carpaccio," she wrote, "and crowned with a pile of crispy hot fried potatoes, as an alternative to the familiar raw-egg steak tartar. " She goes on to describe the grillions of things you can do with it, from serving it with grilled fish or poultry to slathering it on sandwiches to putting it in potato salad.

Her version is much more like a mayonnaise than my modern take is. But it's much zingier, herbal and zesty than mayo, with wonderful texture.  Here's my adaptation of Rodgers' recipe:

It requires more a bit more concentration and technique than my easy modern version; you need to whisk all that olive oil in slowly so the sauce emulsifies (getting that mayonnaise consistency) and doesn't "break." But for some people it'll be worth it: Thierry loved it even more than he did my new-wave version. 

Roasted romanesco with four-minute egg gribiche

Roasted romanesco with four-minute egg gribiche

And if right about now you're thinking it would be fun to live with me because I cook, think again: I must have fed him gribiche twenty times that weekend! That day for lunch we had the gribiche three ways: with boiled shrimp (excellent); with boiled asparagus (wonderful) and with roasted slabs of romaneso (also very good!). Insanely weird all together: We had gribiche coming out of our ears! But that shrimp would be really nice as a main course for a Sunday lunch, or as a starter at a dinner party (the shrimp can be served warm or chilled). Or it would be great with cracked crab. Or roasted ham. Maybe even a roast tenderloin of beef. 

I'm not providing formal recipes for those very simple things, but happy to walk you through the three I made:

Roasted romanesco (feel free to substitute cauliflower): Slice the romanesco into slabs about 1/2-inch thick, place on a baking sheet, brush with olive oil, sprinkle on a little salt and pepper and roast in a 425 degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until just tender. Serve with sauce gribiche – the four-minute egg version or the new wave version

Boiled shrimp: Devein the shrimp, but leave the shells on. Drop them in court bouillon or boiling salted water and cook just thill they're pink and firm, about three minutes or so, depending on their size. Drain and serve. To make a quick court bouillon, fill a medium sauce pan about half way full with water, add a few glugs of white wine, half a sliced onion, a peeled and sliced carrot, salt, a few black peppercorns, celery leaves, thyme and parsley, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 15 or 20 minutes. Don't worry if you're missing an herb or two. Serious people would tie the herbs and peppercorns in a bouquet garni, but I see no harm in the stuff floating around. To me it's easier to fish out the shrimp than look for the cheesecloth. 

Boiled asparagus: Trim the bottoms, and use a vegetable peeler to peel the asparagus to an inch or three below the tips. Simmer in a pan of salted water until the asparagus are floppy but still firm-ish, about four minutes for average-size asparagus – longer for jumbos and quicker for pencil-thin. Don't want to peel? Roast them instead: 17 minutes in a 400 degree oven, et voilà.

Best potato salad ever – thanks to new-wave gribiche

 

Oh: I almost forgot to mention. I had friends over for burgers last weekend, and made a batch of new-wave gribiche to see how it would do in a potato salad. Success! Here's an actual recipe:

 

 

Sauce gribiche makes every simple thing you cook instantly delicious

Seared barramundi with gribiche

How about an easy-to-make sauce that can turn the simplest grilled fish into a dazzling dinner party dish? Or that can dress up boiled or roasted asparagus? Or that you can add to sliced boiled potatoes to turn them into the snazziest potato salad ever?

That's the beauty of sauce gribiche: It can make every simple old thing deliciously new again. 

Poached leeks. Poached chicken. Boiled shrimp. Cold cracked crab. Fried or pan-fried soft shell crabs. Steamed mussels. Thick roasted slices of cauliflower. Sliced rare roast beef or lamb or ham. The possibilities are, you know, endless.

Traditional sauce gribiche is a mayonnaise made with hard-boiled egg yolks instead of raw ones, dressed up with herbs, capers and cornichons. (It's French, which is why it's called "sauce gribiche" instead of "gribiche sauce.") That old-style version is just as tedious to make as mayo, too, as you have to dribble in the oil while you constantly whisk, being careful not to let it "break." (Don't worry, though: Our new-wave version is super easy!)

The traditional style of gribiche bears little resemblance visually to the new-wave versions turning up in restaurants these days, though the ingredients are the same. The reason? Instead of whisking the ingredients into an emulsion, you quickly stir everything together. Using soft-boiled eggs instead of hard-boiled ones, and lots of herbs, brings it irresistibly into the 21st century in terms of looks and taste. 

Grilled jumbo asparagus with gribiche and bottarga from Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California

I stumbled on one as I flipped through Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California – the new book from chef Travis Lett. Lett uses it to sauce jumbo asparagus that he first parboils, then grills; the dish is finished with lots of grated bottarga, dried cured mullet roe. I love bottarga, and I happened to have some in my fridge, so I made it – and loved it. (Note: in case you happen to make it, boil the asparagus longer than he tells you, or it will be crunchy-hard. Also, I substituted panko for the garlic crouton crumbs that added a bunch of extra steps to his recipe, and the panko worked great.) But bottarga is hard to come by, and it's expensive, so before I added it to the dish, I tasted it without. Good, but not great. It wanted a little more zing. I decided to develop a recipe that would be zingy enough to jazz up simple, plain food without the help of bottarga. 

I pretty quickly hit upon the answer: cornichons. Traditional gribiches include them, yet Gjelina's did without them (probably they would taste weird with the bottarga). Adding them did the trick: It was much more vibrant. I made a batch and tried that on asparagus I cooked simmered in salted water till tender:

Asparagus with new-wave gribiche

Bingo! This was perfect! I also used it to sauce barramundi, a delicately flavored fish with nice body. I did nothing fancier than put salt and freshly ground black pepper on the fish, and seared it gently in a little olive oil. Wow – it was really good, something I'd happily serve at a dinner party. 

Want to try it? Here's the recipe:

Seared barramundi with new-wave sauce gribiche

I didn't stop there. I also found a version in one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, Judy Rodgers' The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. I'll tell you about that – and more about gribiche – in my next post!

 

 

 

 

Céleri rémoulade

Céleri rémoulade

Céleri rémoulade

This simple French salad – julienned celery root dressed in mustardy mayonnaise with herbs – is one of my favorite starters. And it's one of my husband Thierry's least favorites. That's because when he was growing up in France, céleri rémoulade was considered to be the worst of the worst: school cafeteria food. 

He always groans when I make it. And then he tastes it, and gobbles it up. 

Though you can use store-bought mayonnaise in this dish, making your own mayo for it transforms it into fabulous dinner-party food.

I think I've tried every possible way to make mayo – whisking it by hand, using a blender, a food processor and a mixer. Easiest and most reliable, I think, is a hand-mixer. My recipe for mayo makes about a cup, and you won't need that much for the céleri rémoulade; you can use what's left over to slather on sandwiches and make tuna salad. Or flavor it and pretend it's aioli, as so many restaurants do! 

Once that's done, prepare the celery root. Also known as celeriac, it's the ugly duckling of the vegetable world.

First, use a small, sharp paring knife to peel it. Don't worry if it seems like you're cutting too much away – you want to get rid of all the ugly hairy stuff. Then slice it into julienne matchsticks. You can do this using a sharp chef's knife by first cutting it into 1/8 inch slices, then stacking those slices up and cutting them into 1/8 inch julienne. 

The whole thing's much easier if you have a mandolin to get those first slices. Set it on 1/8 inch slicing, slice up the whole celery root, then make stacks and use your knife to slice into 1/8 inch julienne. If you have a hand-guard, be sure to use it. With their super-sharp blades, mandolins can be vicious!

Chop herbs and other flavorings for the sauce. Parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil are all nice in it, but even just parsley is delicious in the rémoulade. You can also chop up some capers and even cornichons, though those are optional. You'll want to give it a bracing dose of Dijon mustard, for sure. And sometimes I lighten it up with crème fraîche, though that's optional too. 

Once the sauce ingredients are combined, dress the julienned celery root with enough of the sauce to moisten it, then taste it and adjust the seasonings. Let it sit for an hour or two – or overnight – so the flavors meld and the sauce soaks into the celery root. Then serve it as a first course with a simple French dinner.

Ready to try it? Here's the recipe!