Originally published on CultureBitch, October 2009
Like most foodies (which in my definition simply means anyone who loves and appreciates a truly well-cooked meal), I owe a lot to Julia Child. She was an inspiration to many, and continued to entertain, enlighten and encourage many a home cook well into her 80s as she cooked her way through classics and updated dishes alike. Her autobiography, My Life in France, was, for me, one of the most inspiring books on perseverance and living life to the fullest.
With the recent movie Julie & Julia, there has been a resurgence of interest in Julia’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It seems the reprints are on every bookstore’s front table, and there are numerous reviews of the book and its recipes. A good bit of the discussion centers around whether the recipes contained therein, which Julia worked on for many, many years with her co-authors, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, are really applicable to the modern home cook in 2009.
While the movie touched upon it some, her autobiography gives a much fuller picture of Julia’s goal with that book. She was attempting to make French cuisine – which at the time almost no American wife even considered making at home – accessible and realistic, without dumbing down the recipes. They are still authentically French in spirit, but sometimes substitute ingredients that would be more commonly found in a suburban supermarket in the 1960s. For example, she regularly lists dried herbs where now it is more common to find fresh.
I’ve had the cookbook for some time, but had yet to really try any recipe in full; I use it more as a reference/resource. After seeing the movie, however, I figured I owed it to myself to try the boeuf bourguignon recipe. Now, I’ve made boeuf bourguignon many times…but not Julia’s recipe. The only recipe I ever use is the one from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles cookbook. (Actually, I did once try a Cook’s Illustrated recipe that was ridiculously complex (7 hours! 4 pots! Egads, even Julia’s recipe takes only 4 hours and three pots) and which resulted in a good, but not spectacular, stew.) I’m a huge fan of Tony Bourdain, his cooking, his personality, his style. The cookbook is well laid out, every recipe is wonderfully written, and the ones I’ve tried produce classic bistro dishes that make you feel like you’re in France (the soupe a l’oignon, for starters). His irreverent style comes through, but does not get in the way of explaining the details you need to understand to do things correctly.
Tony’s boeuf bourguignon recipe is incredibly easy and consistently produces one of the best plates of food I’ve ever had. I have no qualms about making this for company, as it always turns out perfectly. So, yesterday it was with some trepidation and feelings of disloyalty that I set out to make not Tony’s, but Julia’s boeuf bourguignon.
As with many “classic” recipes, especially a rustic country dish such as this one, there are many variations on the recipe. (Do you know any two people who make a chicken pot pie the same way?) Some use pearl onions, some don’t; amounts of wine vary; some use bacon, etc. The basics don’t change, however: cubed beef is seared in some type of fat, some aromatics are added, wine/water/stock is added, and it is left to cook for hours until the beef is fork-tender.
So, some general observations about the differences between the recipes: Where Tony’s recipe uses only one cup of wine, Julia’s uses a bottle. Julia’s calls for a good amount of bacon, none in Tony’s. Tony’s recipe includes carrots as a true ingredient of the finished stew (6 whole carrots added near the beginning, to Julia’s one); Julia’s includes mushrooms, sautéed separately in butter and added at the end to the finished pot, and Tony’s does not. And then there’s the matter of onion: while Tony’s recipe has you add four thinly sliced onions at the beginning, which cook down with the stew and almost melt into the sauce, Julia’s adds only one, but then includes pearl onions (once again, cooked separately in butter and then braised in beef stock) added to the finished stew at the end.
The verdict? Well, Julia’s was good, there’s no doubt. But overall, not better than Tony’s, if I’m being completely honest. I like the un-fussy-ness of the Les Halles recipe. I’m not really a fan of pearl onions, so for me there’s no reason to add an hour-long sauté-and-braise step into the mix. I also like carrots as a real presence in the final dish. What I will steal from Julia, though, is the full bottle of wine (is anyone reading this surprised?). This undoubtedly added to the body and texture of the finished sauce, which was excellent. I also think I will continue to add in the sautéed mushrooms at the end; this was an easy enough step that did add something wonderful to the flavor.
So, in the end, I may end up with something of a hybrid recipe, but you can bet it will be delicious.