One of my favourite dishes to cook is Sauté de Boeuf à la Bourguignonne. I can think of no reason why this is, except that I just love to eat it! It’s one of those dishes you can’t hurry; maybe the time it takes increases anticipation and hence the enjoyment. It does require a fair amount of work and some skill – or should I say understanding? – to get the right result. It’s one of the many classic slow cooked dishes of rural France. A peasant dish originating in Burgundy which is now commonly seen in the most prestigious restaurants of London…including French Kitchen.
There are really only two cuts of beef you can use for this dish in my opinion, and they are the toughest cuts available (and sadly not the cheapest these days). The cheek – more on which later – and the tough sinewy shin (sinew being the secret ingredient) that only a very sharp knife can cut through. This sinew dissolves with long gentle cooking to produce a beautiful syrupy sauce and really tender meat that can be cut with a fork but also holds together well.
This dish always reminds me of the film Julia and Julia. Meryl Streep stars as Julia and is fantastic. The film is based on the life of Julia Childs, author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She describes Boeuf Bourguignonne as ‘certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man’.
There is a scene in which Julie makes Boeuf Bourguignonne. The great tip she shares with us is that drying the meat before frying it is essential. This is very good advice because this helps the meat to brown – put scientifically it aids the Maillard reaction*- which gives all the flavour. Another tip – which might have been in the film but I can’t remember- is not to overcrowd the pan when browning. I will throw in my own tip here: let the meat reach room temperature first as this helps the pan retain its heat, which encourages browning.
The spelling of Bourguignonne seems to be a contentious point. There seem to be many different variations. Customers at The French Café took great delight in telling me that I had spelt it wrong and promptly gave me the correct spelling… which was wrong. I never bothered to argue the point. However if I were to, I would ask them to refer to Le Repertoire de la Cuisine. This was the first book I bought when I went to Westminster College to train as a chef. I was told that this little purple book was the bible of all cook books. It’s not a cook book at all really, more like a reference book for professional chefs. Written by Edouard Brunet (chef to the Duke and Duchess of Roxburghe) from the inspired and great Auguste Escoffier’s work, it contains around 7,000 recipes which are probably only understood by well-educated cooks and chefs.
Another spelling I am frequently corrected on is Oeufs Bénédictine. I am told not only that I spell it wrongly but that I make it wrongly. Apparently I should not be putting my poached eggs on grilled back bacon but on ham. Well, it is true that bacon is not the right ingredient according to the great Escoffier, but then neither is ham. I think the dish is better with grilled bacon than reheated – or in many cases, not- ham. However I am willing to concede that this is wrong. The correct ingredient is tongue. Yes, that’s right, tongue. This was the first thing I was taught at college and agrees with the repertoire. You always believe what you were taught first, have you noticed that?
Anyway back to Bourguignonne. We don’t always use shin, sometimes we use ox cheek, equally tough, but then turning meltingly tender after cooking. This cut probably presents better than shin as you can cut it into nice slices after cooking, but the sauce is never as syrupy and shiny.
At French Kitchen we marinate the beef in Burgundy wine overnight with a mire poix (roughly chopped onions, carrots and celery) garlic and herbs. I will usually cook it on a very low heat in the oven for around 3 hours. A very important point which many people don’t know is that most casseroles, once cooked, should be left at least 24 hours before serving. This allows the sauce to penetrate back into the meat and avoids that dry result you may get without the 24 rest.
I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but…wait for it, because you know I am about to, I have never tasted a Bouef Bourguignonne as good as the one we make at French Kitchen anywhere in this country or in France. I will tell you why I think this is. Most importantly shin has not been used but also- and this was not mentioned above- we use a quality, homemade, beef stock. This helps enormously with the syrupyness (not a word but should be) of the sauce.
* Maillard reactions are the complex combined reactions of amino acids and sugars during cooking at high temperature (plus 140 degrees).Molecules generated by this reaction are volatile enough to count as ‘flavour’ molecules and over 1,000 have been identified. Physician: Louis-Camille Maillard.