Stew is one of life’s easiest dishes. All you do is brown the meat, add vegetables and broth, put it in the oven, and come back a few hours later to a delicious dinner. That is how our family has made stew for generations. But we are not French, we are Irish. Today, I am making the iconic stew of France, Beef Bourguignon or “Burgundy Beef.” I’m so happy to see that this quintessential dish of Burgundy will be taught at Le Cordon Bleu and so early in the course. Stew is something I’ve made for my family for years, and I’m sure Le Cordon Bleu will bring it to a whole new level.
The stew process at Le Cordon Bleu process is much more involved than mine, requiring a variety of cooking techniques. The impressive ingredient list calls for an entire bottle of red wine, as well the usual carrots, celery, garlic, mushrooms, potatoes and smoked bacon. This should be a day full of great smells, wonderful tastes and lots of learning.
The first part of the dish is to marinade the beef in wine overnight. The meat is marinated to give it more flavor, and to break down the fibers making it more tender. I did this yesterday in the practical, so today everything is ready to cook. I start with the ingredients in the marinade, slowly cooking the carrots, onions, garlic and celery until sweet. Next, I brown the beef to a rich caramel color. It’s only 9:00 in the morning, but the smells of the browning meat and the sweet vegetables from the wine marinade are already making my stomach start to growl. I’m already anticipating and imagining the succulent tastes accompanied by a glass of Burgundy’s other famous export, Pinot Noir.
After the meat is caramelized, I thicken the wine with a roux (flour and butter), add the veal stock, and transfer it to a cooking dish with the browned meat and vegetables from the marinade. At this point, I can put it in the oven for two hours to simmer and thicken.
Although most people eat stew with a generous amount of crusty bread, traditional Beef Bourguignon comes with a heart-shaped crouton on top. Chef, who is from Dijon, the center of Burgundy, doesn’t know why the crouton is heart-shaped, even though he’s tried to find out for years. This crouton is actually fried bread that’s cut, slowly cooked in a generous amount of clarified butter, and finally, seasoned with salt.
The next ingredient to prepare is the onions and they get a very special technique called glacer a brun. This is the first time I will try to do this and I need to keep an eye on them as they are easy to burn. This process transforms an astringent little vegetable into a sweet glazed bite-sized morsel. First, the small onions are cooked slowly in a little bit of water, sugar and butter. Once the water has evaporated, the sugar begins to caramelize. By then the onion is fully cooked and has a depth of flavor that is both savory and sweet.
While the onions are slowly cooking, I can work on my next ingredient and technique, the Pommes Vapor. These are potatoes that will be tourner, or turned into 6 cm in length with seven sides, and boiled in salty water. This is my second time turning potatoes so I’m feeling a little more comfortable with the knife and potato carving. I have four potatoes to turn and should take a bit of time to prepare. Once they are ready to cook, they boil for 10 minutes. And now I have time to start another ingredient and technique, the lardon and mushroom mixture.
The French do not use the same bacon as Americans; instead they used an uncooked, lightly-cured pork belly that looks like a slab of American bacon but doesn’t have the same smoky taste. The bacon is cut into small rectangles (7mm X 7mm X 3cm), so when it’s sautéed it has a delicious, crisp, salty ham taste. Today, my mushrooms, which are have been quartered, are sautéed in the lardon drippings along with a noisette of butter. And here, a magical transformation happens. The butter will change from a sweet and a creamy texture into golden nutty color with the taste and smell of hazelnuts. All these rich flavors of bacon, nut and salt are infused into the lovely mushrooms, making them a true gourmet delight.
And now, with the aromas in the room smelling of mouth-watering perfection, I can almost taste the rich history and tradition in this ancient dish. It’s a busy practical, but not one that feels rushed or panicked. I am able to work at a comfortable pace and even find moments to enjoy the soothing aromas of the stew.
The final technique is the sauce. Once the meat and vegetables have cooked for two hours, the wine/broth sauce reaches a beautiful thick consistency. Once it is strained and degreased, this sauce is now the rich, satiny, dark purple color of this classic dish.
After all the attention to the various techniques and ingredients, the final plating also will highlight the effort put into making the dish. The turned potatoes are are dipped in parsley and placed at the top of the plate (not a bowl). The meat is centered on the plate and covered with sauce. The lardon/mushroom mixture is placed atop of the sauce with a few mushrooms in front. The glacer a brun onions are placed next to the meat, and for the final touch, the tip of the heart shaped crouton is dipped in sauce and dipped in parsley. And there it is! Burgundy Beef Stew, the Le Cordon Bleu way!