Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Julia Never Made Alpo in her Bare Feet

Gold-diggers, children, animals and old people all get distracted by shiny objects. And so do I. Wave that glittering, sparkling aspiration in front of me and I'm instantly distracted. I have to have it. This time the aspiration was a big one. And even was food.

Boeuf Bourguignon is the quinessential comfort food recipe from the first American culinary goddess: Julia Child. Beef Bourguignon is a succulent, warming, indulgent beef stew whose first step in preparation is the rendering of fat from 8 ounces of bacon. Bacon is never on my grocery shopping list, but I decided that if I could simply follow the recipe, I too, could join the ranks of Julia and change our lives with this meal. Surely, we'd think to ourselves, "How did we ever deign to consume anything less than Boeuf Bourguignon?"

I set out to construct the ultimate weekend meal. This is far from a food blog, so bear with me. I started with the Barefoot Contessa recipe for Beef Bourguignon. Ina Garten, a contemporary culinary goddess who hangs in the Hamptons, typically offers excellent recipes that are easy to execute and that live up to your expectations. With my high expectations in tow, I skipped over Kroger and headed straight to Publix, living large with every push of the buggy. Veggies, broth and seasonings made their way to my cart. I think I even looked down my nose at other shoppers; after all, I was about to make Boeuf Bourguignon... what were they going to make? Chicken and rice casserole?

I approached the deli and decided that I could half the fat in the recipe by using 4 ounces of pancetta in lieu of the bacon. I'm a budding food snob, and anything Italian sounds much better to me than pedestrian American bacon. Freshly sliced pancetta in tow, I headed to the meat department. Determined to select the perfect cut, I even consulted a friend I found in the aisles of this exclusive food market. Once again distracted by shiny objects, my eyes went to the cut of beef that was all bright, succulent red. I decided I'd even butcher the three pounds down to cubes myself. Beaming with all the pride of a kept woman who has just spent her allowance, fun money and mad money in one shot, I made my way home eager to put my plan into action.

The cooking process was fairly straightforward. Chopping carrots and onions, searing beef, adding a bottle of red wine, and allowing the entire concoction to simmer in the oven for a few hours. And now the moment of truth...the results looked like Alpo wet dog food. If I had a dog, I'm sure that he would sniff my beef stew, wimper in distaste, turn his nose and saunter away. Don't get me wrong; I'm not a bad cook and my beef bourguignon was not inedible. It just didn't change my life, and I know it didn't change Paul's either. And, by the way, this isn't a blog about trying each and every one of Julia Child's famous recipes anyway.

The lesson learned is simple. If you're distracted by a shiny object, and you've just got to have it, don't settle and don't cut corners to get there. Pancetta is salt-cured, and this move served only to half my fat and double the recipe's salt content. And that lean, bright red cut of beef had no fat and marbling in it to make it tender. But as a health nut, it sure did look like the best cut!

Julia Child had a goal in mind and she followed simple, straightforward steps to get there. She practiced incessantly, and she developed tried-and-true methods for excellence. So, yes, improvisation has its place. But, substituting for something that "might get the job done" will leave you in the dog house...with dog food. I guess wisdom is in knowing the difference.

Currently Drinking: the last glass of wine from the bottle of Pinot Noir that went into my Boeuf Bourguignon


  1. I suppose I should take some responsibility for this succulent canine delicacy debacle. Perhaps my meat selection skills are lacking too. But then again, I'm usually shoving near raw chunks of it down my throat like a python. I do know one thing to be true....bacon fat is the glue that holds the universe together...and it should never be underestimated. ;)

  2. My mom made this recipe and said the same thing - she was not blown away by it. Especially for all the time and ingredients she put into it.

  3. Great post, Leah. That made me laugh out loud. I had a similar experience when I tried to make a gourmet version of Chicken Coconut turned out a pea greenish/brownish color and tasted about as bad as it looked!