The Last Boeuf Bourguignon of Christ

Good Friday, 2 April 2010

Since today commemorates the death of my favourite long-haired cheesecloth-wearing homeboy Jesus Christ – and also because it’s freezing cold here in London, despite being April and therefore theoretically late Spring (I now see what Chaucer meant when he said “April is the cruellest month”) – I thought I’d mark the occasion with something completely unfestive, and something I’ve been longing to do for months – make Julia Child’s famous boeuf bourguignon recipe (or boeuf à la bourguignonne, if you’re a one of those people who needs to drop French phrases into conversation). To the untrained eye, it’s just beef in a red wine stew with bacon, mushrooms and shallots. To foodies, it’s one of Julia Child’s signature recipes, and a Holy Grail for all aspiring chefs to perfect. It’s not exactly traditional Easter fare, but I figure that the red bloody fleshiness of the 3 pounds of beef and the 3 cups of red wine the recipe calls for is kinda similar to the body and blood of Christ. I also really, really, really like beef stew, and as the recipe takes something like 2 days to prepare, it’s something I can only attempt on a public holiday when I’ve got a long weekend. So here goes.

I fell in love with Julia Child first as a little boy, when my sister and I used to watch re-runs of her TV cookery show in the early 1980s. We were both transfixed by Julia – me because I was convinced that she was actually a man wearing women’s clothes, and my sister because of Julia’s apparent ability to drink half a bottle of wine and still flip an omlette while she was tipsy. One of my favourite characters in The Muppet Show, the Swedish Chef, was supposedly based on Julia, though maybe not the bit where he fired a shotgun into the air and brought down a squawking chicken.

I tuned out of Julia for 20 years or so until Julie Powell’s book Julie & Julia, sent to me by Marita as a fun read for my last New Zealand Christmas holiday three years ago. The book is Powell’s published, expanded-upon version of a blog she wrote on over the course of a year where she cooked her way through Julia Child’s entire cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in a small, cramped apartment in Queens, with a sympathetic husband, two cats and a pet boa constrictor.

Much as I wanted to hate Julie Powell for discovering literary success through writing a blog, and for being just smart enough to come up with a publishable gimmick and just talented enough as a writer to make it work (though not much more, it seemed), I liked the book: it was perky, occasionally very funny, and a mostly well-observed account of the frustrations of being in an unrewarding job and the heights of desperation that wannabe authors reach when they are hunting for an appreciative audience. Powell isn’t the world’s greatest food writer, but she does capture the joy and strangeness of cooking complex, artery-hardening retro recipes in the age of health food, Weightwatchers and international obsession about cholesterol and heart disease. Reading it also made me very, very hungry, and intrigued by the way we use food as a form of comfort, a form of social interaction and a form of love.

Powell’s blog became a book and she then sold the movie rights, and her success (and my jealousy) made me search around hungrily for my own blog topic on which to base my ascent to literary success. That lead to my long-abandoned My Year of Proust blog, which I’m still planning to re-start one day. Three years later, I still haven’t started the project, let alone finished, and my copies of Proust are now gathering dust on my bookshelf. Marcel’s plaintive ennui-stricken little face stares out at me from the bookshelf, wedged in between Dante’s Inferno, Henry James and a host of other “improving literature” that I’ve bought over the years and never been arsed to read. The final nail in the coffin arrived last week, when my friend Tim mentioned to me casually that he’d “re-read Prowst” over the summer holidays, which made me want to spit blood. We were in Ikea at the time, which is probably why I didn’t. Who needs a headline like “Man Spits Blood in Croydon Ikea Over Proust Re-read Shock”?

Then came the Nora Ephron film Julie & Julia, which I absolutely fell in love with. I anticipated its release so impatiently I’m amazed I didn’t pee my pants in the process, and when I finally saw it – a couple of days after my mugging in September last year – I adored it, promptly re-watched it after I had cheekbone surgery, and then counted the days until I could order it on DVD.

I’m talking about the Julia Child parts of the story, of course, lead by the magnificent Meryl Streep, not the Julie Powell bits, which mostly made me want to throttle Amy Adams for being winsome and Doris Day-ish and for failing to give her hot husband (Chris Messina from Six Feet Under) blow jobs on a daily basis as he deserved. I imagined being the Gay Best Friend (every romantic comedy has one) who drops by to see Julie in her shitty Queens kitchen and has nasty standing-up anal sex with her hot husband in the bathroom while Julie sweats over another aspic.

Seriously, I adored the film for its lightness, its wit, Meryl’s deep compassion for her character, the joie de vivre she brought to every scene, and the film’s unashamed celebration of food as a way of expressing love (a dynamic I’m familiar with because of my own dear mother, herself an impressive cook) and the pursuit of a successful, meaningful career that just happens to coincide with millions of strangers loving you. I’m insanely jealous of anyone who gets to make out with Stanley Tucci on screen, though he does appear to be a midget, and I think I may have broken into a Big Gay Shriek of excitement when Jane Lynch turned up as Julia’s even-taller sister Dorothy.

At long last, the DVD arrived a few weeks ago, and I’m somewhere between proud and deeply embarrassed to admit that I’ve watched it something like 40 times – is there some kind of Julie & Julia support group I can join?

In the meantime, like many a fan of the book, I decided to give into temptation, buy the goddam Le Creuset oval casserole I’d been eyeing in John Lewis for the last 2 years, and then hunt down a copy Julia’s tome and give myself over to the joys of retro full-fat “you can never have too much butter” cooking. I was tickled to read that since the release of the film, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is selling something like 40,000 copies a week, more than in the history of the book’s publication. I’ve bought a nifty two-volume hardcover re-edition, though it has yet to arrive at my door. And so here we are today.

Before I’d even got to the kitchen, even reading the recipe appeared to be a full-fat artery hardening experience. My favourite recipe direction states “Saute [the beef], a few pieces at a time, in the hot oil and bacon fat until nicely browned on all sides.” Ye Gods. Right then – from Waitrose, I bought the stewing beef, the tomato paste, the streaky bacon, the shallots (Julia calls them “small white onions”) and the button mushrooms, and I rescued some parsley out of the mouth of a small middle-class child who was about to eat it.

Discussing my plans with Gay Stephen on the phone last night, he warned me that the recipe uses almost an entire bottle of red wine. Being a non-red wine drinker, I don’t buy it, though I seem to have an impressive collection of bottles that people leave at my house after dinner parties. Of course, I didn’t think to check my booze cupboard before I left home for the supermarket, and so had a moment of agony in the wine aisle trying to channel Julia and remember what the fuck kind of red wine she said to use. I even considered calling Gay Stephen, who’s the only other person I know in London with a Le Creuset casserole, a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and a mobile phone, and then I remembered that I could just find the recipe on my iPhone. Hoorah!

Julia recommends using “a full-bodied, young red wine such as one of those suggested for serving [being a Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhône, Bordeaux-St. Émilion or Burgandy], or a Chianti”. I had no idea which was best, but I settled on a Côtes du Rhône – partially because it sounded French, but mainly because it was on special for £4.29. Thank you, Waitrose. On the way home, I even performed a good civic deed, by spotting a fire in a rubbish bin on the High Street and promptly calling the Fire Brigade. I wanted to hang around and wait for the hot firemen to arrive and see if I could ride their pole for the afternoon, but my shopping bags were heavy, the meat was probably calcifying on the spot, it was cold and I was hungry for something more satisfying than firemen, so I minced home.

Righto. Back home again, and I decided to be extra gay and lay out all the ingredients before I started like I was hosting my own cookery show, which is something I’ve done since I started cooking in Home Economics class at the age of 10. (When I cook, I usually talk through the recipe directions to an invisible camera and studio audience, which I think is kinda fun but which I’m sure most psychiatrists would probably tell me is unhealthy). As I was weighing out the ingredients (remembering the bit in the movie where Meryl-as-Julia trills about the importance of measurements), and realised I was a pound short of stewing steak and also of button mushrooms, that I only had 14 smallish shallots (the recipe calls for 18-24) and I’d forgotten the beef stock. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck.

I decided to try and calm my blood sugar with some Nutella on toast (one of my guilty pleasures, along with needlework and using olive oil as a lubricant), then headed back to Waitrose, and trampled on several disabled people and small children to grab more shallots, and mushrooms, another packet of beef and a litre of liquid beef stock. Back to home base, and no stopping to talk to firemen on the way this time, either. (The rubbish bin had been put out, though it was looking a little scorched).

So, here are the ingredients. Don’t they look pretty?

Now I just need to cook the fucking thing. Wish me luck, darlings!

8.30pm, Friday – O, Recipe of Misery. O Day of Pestilence. What have I let myself in for?

Well, it started simply enough. Julia’s first instruction is to take your 6 ounces of streaky bacon (only 6 ounces seemed a little stingy, given Julia’s love of animal fat), remove the rind, then cut it into lardons, which is Frenchie-speak for little 1/4 inch thick sticks. Just to be sure, I used a tape measure to be sure that they were exactly per Julia’s measurements of 1/4 inch thick and 1.5 inches long. Removing bacon rind from streaky bacon is time-consuming and irritating, though can be made slightly more fun by imagining you’ve just killed and are filleting a small child, and turning the pelt into a handbag. Then, having taken all that care to separate the bacon from the bacon rind, and make your little lardons, you then have to put them together into a saucepan of water and simmer them for 10 minutes. What’s the point of dividing and conquering the fat if you’re just going to throw it back in there, Jules? Hmmph.

The recipe calls for 1.5 quarts of water. Hang on – quarts? Oh, of course. This is a cookbook written for American housewives, so all the recipes are in Imperial measurements. I had a vivid flashback to Meryl-as-Julia sighing that it’d taken her forever to recalculate all the French recipes from the metric system. Oh, Julia, Julia, why couldn’t you have just embraced the modernity of the metric system, or at least left the metric measurements in the cookbook for future generations of cooks who wouldn’t know a quart if was ejaculated on their faces? Fortunately, we have the Internet, which has lots of free perkily titled measurement conversion websites, and I soon learned that 1.5 liquid quarts equals 1.419529425 litres. Sadly, my Pyrex measuring jug doesn’t calculate liquids to 9 decimal places, but I got close enough, and dutifully started boiling the bacon.

There can be few culinary experiences less inspiring than boiling bacon, unless you’re planning to take after the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs. Within minutes, huge blobs of white fat come bubbling up to the surface and threaten to overspill, giving the impression that you are cooking and eating human remains. I have nothing against cannibalism (especially the literary kind) but couldn’t Julia have started the recipe with something slightly less grotesque – like maybe smearing oneself with chicken blood and howling at the moon? Still, I figured the bacon fat was better out than in, although from the looks of the rest of the recipe, I might as well just scoop out the bacon fat and smear it on my thighs and ass to save time. Once the Saucepan of Death was done, I drained away the fat, dried the page, and turned to page 316.

Then Julia requires that the bacon is sautéed in the bacon fat and oil and “remove[d] to a side dish” using a slotted spoon (fortunately, I had the very one), then reheat the bacon fat until it was “almost smoking” before sautéeing the beef. Hang on. I’m sautéeing beef… in bacon fat? Ye Gods. How did Julia live until 90 on this diet? Did a lifetime of good sex with her husband cancel out any possibility of heart failure?

Before the beef is sautéed, it needs to be dried with a paper towel, as, according to Julia, “it will not brown if it is damp”. In the movie, the actress playing Judith Jones dries a couple of pieces of beef daintily with a paper towel and adds it to a pristine looking pile of dry non-absorbent looking beef, and it’s all backlit and it looks gorgeous. In reality, this process is more like mopping up after a violent crime scene. When you’re drying 3 pounds of beef, you need several trees worth of towels to soak up all the moisture. In my house, using or even finding paper towels is a little like playing Russian Roulette, due to Adriana, my Columbian Jehovah’s Witness cleaning lady, who goes through paper towels like I go through Liquid Silk water-based lubricant, and usually secrets stashes of paper towels in unusual locations around the house. As a sensible woman, she realises that I’m too absent-minded to remember to buy paper towels each week, so she’s taken to hiding them in interesting places where she thinks I can’t find them, so she can ration them (or, as I prefer to think of it, hold them hostage). Adriana is quite short and hasn’t yet found the stepladder, so most of her hiding places are easily reachable. After a few minutes searching, I found them in the linen cupboard, nestled next to the vacuum cleaner, some old suitcases and a plastic storage box full of vintage porn. Busted, baby!

So, a few metres of paper towel later, I had a plateful of nice dry-looking beef, and limbered up to sauté it (“a few pieces at a time”, Julia says) in the smokin’ hot bacon fat. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and also low cholesterol”, I muttered as the first pieces went in. Sure enough, they were seared and browned in a matter of seconds, and into the casserole they went.

The problem with this technique is that the bacon fat seemed to disappear rather quickly. Julia’s recipe seems to suggest that you’ll be swimming, luxuriantly, up to your chin in rivers of bacon fat. I seemed to have just enough to cover the surface of my Le Creuset frypan, and after the first few panfuls of beef, it was gone. At this point, my options were to boil and fry more bacon to produce more bacon fat (the horror! the horror!) or use vegetable oil. Fearing that the dish wouldn’t be able to hold any more liquid fat, I figured that the gooey sticky fried mass stuck to the bottom of the frypan would brown the rest of the beef. As my dear friend Chris (who bought me the frypan as a thank you present for staying with me when he first arrived in London) says, “Be at one with the gunk. Non-stick isn’t everything”. Sage advice, as the meat browned nicely, and there was no need to return to the land of bacon fat. Soon it was all over, and I was able to take a break, wipe the spatterings of hot fat off my spectacles and turn on the overhead fan to try and get rid of the smell of roasting pork.

Intriguingly, the next step was to brown the “vegetables” – meaning the solitary, lonely sounding onion and carrot – in the remnants of the bacon fat. Of course, I hadn’t had the presence of mind to chop them up before I started with the meat-in-fat extravaganza, so the meat took a short commercial break while I tried to deal with the onion. I’m truly crap at cutting onions, and am truly in awe of Meryl-as-Julia (and anyone else, really) who’s able to chop an onion in less than 20 minutes and not be left weeping like a menopausal woman on a bus by the end of the ordeal. I lack the discipline (and the spare time) to be able to do a Meryl-as-Julia and chop a room full of onions to improve my technique, but one onion was harmless enough, and the carrot also went willingly with a minimum of complaint. I’m not quite sure how one “browns” a carrot, which is, of course, orange, but I figured once the onions caramelised and went brown rather than waiting for the carrot to burn itself brown might be the wiser move. Sorted.

The next step was some malarky involving sprinkling 2 tablespoons of flour over the meat and putting the casserole in the oven, at a terrifying temperature of 450 degrees Fahrenheit (or 330 degrees Celsius, which is about as high as my oven temperature control dial goes before the oven spontaneously combusts) for no more than 4 minutes. According to Julia, “this browns the flour and covers the meat with a light crust”. I’m not sure if Julia’s definition of “crust” means an anaemic coating of slime that looks not dissimilar to dried seminal fluid on 400-count Egyptian cotton sheets, though I’m sure this is a metaphor she’d be familiar with, if the reports of her sex life are accurate. But I followed orders, and despite the revolting texture of the meat, I figured that Julia knew when a stew needed to be thickened. Fortunately, this was also the point where I got to turn the oven temperature down to a slightly more sane level of 325 degrees F (around 160 degrees Celsius), and the kitchen stopped resembling a sauna.

Then came the most fun part, which I’d been secretly fantasising over since I first read the recipe – adding 3 cups of red wine to the meat, which equates to almost an entire standard sized wine bottle. For those who know me, or for those who’ve met me at one of my (increasingly rare) appearances in pubs or winebars, you’ll know that I have a ridiculously, embarrassingly low alcohol tolerance level. I have less aptitude for drinking alcohol than a 7 year old girl, and I’m sure there are toddlers who could (and do) hold their liquor better than I do. I seldom drink wine, and when I do, it’s usually a glass of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and never red wine. My wine-drinking friends, especially Gay Stephen, despair of me and wring their hands with concern that I’ll never be a fully paid-up member of the middle class until I develop a palate for red wine.

In response, I usually have flashbacks to my errant youth as a Catholic altar boy, where one of my many tasks (in between fellating the resident priest) was finishing off the disgusting and very cheap altar wine after Communion. Then I think about the last time I drank red wine in public – with my fabulous friend Nicole, in a wine bar in New Zealand where we both attempted to hit on the same extremely hot Israeli college student, only to realise that our teeth had gone brown from the red wine, like matching toothless bag ladies. Needless to say, neither of us got the guy, though Nic is now married to a strapped Austrian who told me he loves my apple strudel, so it all ended happily. I’ve seldom touched red wine since, and whenever I’ve been persuaded to try a “faaaaaaabulous pinot”, I’ve recoiled at the acidity and bitterness of red wine, and spent the rest of the night farting. Any-hoo, for an almost-teetotaller like me to cook a recipe which calls for an entire bottle of red wine is my version of being invited to snort crack cocaine off the ass of an underage hooker – in other words, something that sounds clandestine and exciting but which I wonder might not be as fun as it sounds.

From a close repeated watching of the movie, I knew that Julia was militant about getting measurements right, so I poured the wine into a measuring jug and made sure I had exactly three cups, and poured this into the casserole. The downside is that this looked a lot less glamorous than all the movie chefs who just pour straight from the bottle into the food (or in TV chef Keith Floyd’s case, poured the wine straight from the bottle into his mouth), so I fudged a little money shot of me pouring wine artfully from the bottle with the Côtes du Rhône label showing – purely for aesthetic/pretentious/I’m-pretending-to-be-a-celebrity-chef purposes, you understand.

One bottle down, the meat was swimming in what looked like a raspberry jelly, and I finished it off with some liquid beef stock till the beef is almost drowning under the liquid. Waitrose’s liquid beef stock is wonderfully gloopy and gelatinous – you can almost hear the braying of the animals being melted down to make it. In addition, I got to throw in tomato paste (which was a sudden violent burst of redness, like a blood stain), 2 cloves of crushed garlic, a crushed bay leaf, and fresh thyme, which I’m proud to say came from my own thyme plant which grows valiantly away somehow on my kitchen windowsill, despite criminal negligence on my part for most of the year. I sometimes worry that I water my potplants so infrequently that one day they’ll get fed up, grow legs, stage a mutiny and take over the house. It hasn’t happened yet, thank God.

Julia also instructs that the blanched bacon rind gets added back into the casserole. Is she mad? My bacon rind went in the bin hours ago, after it was boiled down to produce the bacon fat, and I had no intention of fishing it out again. Who wants to chew a piece of bacon rind in the middle of a beef stew, anyway? It’d be like finding a toenail in a trifle (which I’m fairly sure has happened to me during at least two separate family Christmas dinners). So, farewell to the bacon rind – Julia, honey, we’re going to have to do without that bit of fatty deliciousness this time round.

At this point, I panicked. What about the onion and the carrot that I chopped and browned in the bacon fat so dutifully? They’re still sitting forlornly in their little side tray, waiting to be asked to join the pool party with all the cool kids and swim around in the red wine, but so far Julia hasn’t given any directions like “Put the onion and carrot in NOW, stupid”. I re-read the recipe, but sure enough, Julia was silent. I immediately experienced an existential crisis – could the mighty Julia have LEFT SOMETHING OUT? In a panic, I called Gay Stephen for some micro-counselling. Fortunately, Stephen had a distinguished French guest for dinner, Christophe, and so I got to listen to Stephen asking Christophe in French what the correct procedure was for adding the carrot and the onion to boeuf à la bourguignonne. Between the three of us, we agreed that Julia probably meant for the onion and the carrot to make it into the stew before the 2 1/2 hour cookathon, so just to add them a-sap. Re-reading the recipe again, I realised that Julia was assuming that the whole recipe would be cooked in the same casserole, so at the point that the meat was browned and removed into a side tray, the onion and carrot would go into the casserole and, dammit, just stay in there, until the meat and bacon came back to the fold. This meant that the onion and the carrot should probably have been around for the strange flour-bake process and for the red wine immersion. Well, too late for that now, Julia – the flour-bake thing in particular was sooooo three hours ago, darling – but better late than never. So, in they went; finally, little carrot and onion, you too shall go to the ball.

The meat and vegetable mixture then gets simmered on the stove top. This made me slightly nervous, as I was using my humungous 26 cm oval casserole, rather than a more modestly sized round casserole as demonstrated in the movie. Being a size queen, of course I bought the biggest sized casserole dish, which, being oval, wasn’t really shaped ideally to sit on a gas hob on a stove top. Still, the wonders of Le Creuset being what it is, one just adds a gas fire and it goes to work, and soon it was all bubbling away like a witch’s potion.

Finally (dear God, can it almost be over?), the casserole went back into the oven for a massive 2 1/2 hour to 3 hour slow cook at 160 degrees. The night is young! Time to collapse onto the sofa, drink a Julia-esque vat-sized glass of wine and do some needlepoint while waiting for the magic of Le Creuset to do its work.

Or so I thought.

10.30pm, Friday – As Stephen Sondheim once penned, I’m still here. Barely, mind you, and still trying to stay awake and keep my sanity. I’m 6 hours into this marathon, and beginning to wonder whether this fucking recipe will ever end. I have a brief, unexpected moment of empathy with Julie Powell. Up until now, I just resented her for coming up with a good marketing gimmick and getting a book deal before I did. Now I genuinely feel admiration for her achievements of coming home after a day’s work and cooking these amazingly complicated recipes, and wonder if she ever felt the same feelings of utter pointlessless as I do right now. Why have I spent half my waking hours of this day off to cook a recipe written by some sex-crazed Californian WASP giantess? If I’d opted to spend this much time on a recipe, why didn’t I choose something a little more showbiz, like a cake, that would look pretty and showoffable at the end, rather than something that’s essentially just, well… beef stew? How had my life and ambitions progressed to staying at home on a Friday and spending the evening with shallots and a cast iron frypan, instead of being out at a nightclub licking sweat off the pecs of a Brazilian underwear model? Sigh.

But I’ve gone ahead of my story, as Meryl once said in another great film – Out of Africa – though fortunately for Meryl, she didn’t have to do any French provincial cooking in that film as she had her own servants. Things were fine when I put the casserole in the oven – I really only started to unravel over the shallots – or as they became known, the Fucking Shallots.

After the stew goes in the oven, Julia adds two innocuous looking lines to the recipe: “While the beef is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms. Set them aside until needed”. It sounds simple. What the bitch doesn’t explain straight up is that the shallots and mushrooms each need a cooking process almost as long and complicated as the original beef sautéed in bacon fat sweatshop. This being Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon, us servantless Americans can’t just throw a shallot into the casserole – oh no, no, no! They can’t just be shallots – they have to be brown-braised shallots in beef stock, the recipe for which is found on page 483 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the mushrooms have to be sautéed in butter (see page 513). So what the bitch is saying is, “This isn’t just ONE complicated French provincial recipe – it’s actually three. Get back to the kitchen and get working, you peasants!”

Julia, honey, may you rot in hell forever. Just who did you think you were writing for? The book says it’s for “servantless Americans”, but perhaps she should have added “servantless American WASP housewives who don’t have to work for a living and have nothing else to do for 7 hours each day”. Hmmph.

As my copy of MTAOFC hadn’t arrived yet, and I was working from a PDF copy of the boeuf bourguignon recipe, I couldn’t consult these recipes. I figured the mushrooms would be easy to improvise – just add 2 tonnes of butter to a frypan (always a staple of Julia’s recipes) and sauté the mushrooms, making sure that you don’t crowd the little fuckers too much so they can brown properly (remembering Amy-as-Julie trilling annoyingly in the movie, “Don’t crowd the mushrooms!”). OK – I can fake the mushrooms. It’s the Fucking Shallots that may be my Waterloo.

Fortunately again, the Internet means it only takes a couple of seconds to find a complete version of the recipe, thoughtfully plagiarised by another foodie and wannabe blog celebrity, who no doubt is also home on a Friday night blanching streaky bacon. I discovered a woman called Sara who writes a charming blog called My Madison Bistro, who describes this recipe as “food porn” and declares “If I were to pick my final meal, brown braised onions would be a part of it”. Sara, honey, this may well be the last meal I ever cook and eat, so we may have something to discuss together when we get to the Afterlife. I’ll see you there. So, fortified by Sara’s advice that (sic) “It was completely worth peeling off all of those little suckers”, I proceeded to brown-braise the Fucking Shallots.

Now then. If you find peeling onions difficult, which I do, peeling the Fucking Shallots is like entering the seventh circle of hell. It’s like trying to peel a testicle, or shave one’s ball sack (and trust me, I’ve tried both). Not only are they small and resistant to de-skinning, but there are complex moral and ethical questions involved in how far to go with the process. Underneath the brown papery skin, the Fucking Shallots are covered with a purpleish membrane that encases the two smaller halves. Do you leave the membrane on so the Fucking Shallot is still round, or do you rip it open to get to the garlic cloved-sized shallot testicles? No doubt Julia explains all of this on page 483, but since I didn’t have the benefit of that page, I decided to fudge it and do half and half, and figure if I’m wrong, the Shallot Police can knock on my door in the middle of the night and shove a large aubergine in my rectum.

I persisted, and eventually I had 18 deskinned Fucking Shallots blinking nervously in the bright lights of the kitchen, and enough onion skin to print out and bind my own copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Fortunately, the recipe, as dictated by Sara, anyway, was delicious. You sauté the Fucking Shallots in butter for 10 minutes until they brown, then add 1/2 a cup of liquid beef stock, season with salt and pepper, and add what Julia charmingly calls “a herb bouquet”, comprised of 4 springs of parsley, 2 sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf wrapped in twine and placed in the frypan with the shallots for flavour. Just when I was starting to “Oooh” and “Aaah” like a big homo at the camp gaiety of it all, I realised I had no twine. A quick hunt in the haberdashery department of my cupboard found some blue thread. Just when I was fashioning the thread into a nifty little bow in the manner of a bridesmaid’s flower arrangement, I had a premonition of Bridget Jones doing a similar thing with blue string and ending up with blue soup. I decided not to risk turning 5 hours of my life’s work into something blue, so I just placed the herb bouquet in the pan, untied, and let the herbs fend for themselves. You then let the Fucking Shallots simmer in the stock and the herbs for 40 minutes, until they become a gorgeous caramelised gooey heavenly concoction. Julia says that Fucking Shallots are supposed to retain their shape, but even she must’ve known that shallots, like testicles, know when to change shape when they’ve having a good time.

With the Fucking Shallots simmering away delicately on the stovetop and the meat and vegetables trucking away in the oven, I was finally able to crawl back to my desk and type this, possibly the last words of a sane man.

11.55pm, Friday – The Final Push is underway, and the End is in sight. After a couple of hours in the oven, the casserole comes out, and then possibly the strangest act of the evening gets performed. Julia instructs to “pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a saucepan” and “Wash out the casserole and return the beef and bacon to it”. In horror, I thought Crazy Julia wanted me to throw out the sauce that I’d spent the last 2 hours cooking. Counselled by Gay Stephen over the phone again (bless him), I realised the saucepan under the sieve is there for a reason – to catch the sauce, when then gets thickened on the stove top and added back to the stew and the vegetables.

Julia instructs to skim the fat off the surface of the sauce, which seems a little too late, after she’s commanded that we sauté beef in bacon fat and cook everything else in butter. Sure enough, the fat appeared on the surface of the sauce, like an oil slick. I made a few token gestures to scrape off some of the white froth around the sides, but mostly I just stirred the fat back in, figuring that it would add to the flavour and that my arteries will be pleased to see it. When the sauce was a little thicker, it went back in the casserole, together with the Fucking Shallots (now caramelised into submission) and the butter-clogged mushrooms, and – whoa! – we appear to have a beef stew.

Gay Stephen and Christophe’s advice was that the casserole should back into the oven for at least an hour. According to Christophe, boeuf bourguignon needs to be cooked for hours and hours and hours, preferably in a casserole that hasn’t been cleaned since the French Revolution. I was sure they were right, but by this stage, I no longer had the willpower to last beyond midnight. So, when the witching hour struck, I decided to give into human nature and eat the fucking thing. I’d eaten nothing but Nutella for the last 7 hours anyway, so something resembling something that used to walk the earth will be welcome.

12.01am, Saturday – A mere 7 hours since I started, the boeuf bourguignon is done – and it’s delicious. The first mouthful was truly exciting – the meat was tender, the sauce was rich and complex but not fatty or overly boozy, the vegetables still had their form and taste, the Fucking Shallots were caramelised and tender, and the aftertaste was divine. Amazingly, there’s no nasty oil slick on the plate as with cheap spaghetti bolognese. It tastes rich and dark and complex and like it’s been fussed over for days by a small headscarf-wearing French peasant woman in a dark windowless kitchen – though in this case, that peasant woman is me. I appear to have aged visibly during the process, and I’ve realised why this might be a better dish to start cooking in the morning rather than in the evening, to stand a chance of getting to bed before sunrise.

As we crept towards morning, I attempted to get festive and serve some stew on a plate with a little parsley and the remnants of the red wine in the now empty Nutella glass.

Sadly, the effect wasn’t quite as festive as I was hoping for, and the photo makes this look like the final dinner of a condemned man on Death Row. Beef stew just isn’t as photogenic as a soufflé, I guess.

Was it worth it? Well, kinda. I’ll reserve judgment till tomorrow, when the stew will get re-heated and hopefully taste even more fabulous. Part of me feels it’s perverse to spend so much time on something that’ll be eaten in 5 minutes. Another part of me wished I’d made it for an occasion, so there’d be an audience to applaud and admire my work (though I was secretly relieved of no audience, as there’s been no pressure from anyone but me to deliver the goods). And there’s another part of me that feels a little bit sharper now that I’ve managed to break the back of one of La Child’s signature dishes. I’ve learned the importance of reading the recipe before starting, to always trust my instinct when it comes to blanching bacon rind, and that it may be worth opening my own tannery so I can have a constant supply of beef stock. Whether it was fun or not, I’m now too tired to tell – but I know that what I’ve produced is a damn sight better than the tedious lamp chop and bubble and squeak I paid £30 for at a Gordon Ramsey gastropub last weekend. Eat my shorts, celebrity chefs – you’re only one Le Creuset frypan and a handful of shallots away from being upstaged.

To sleep now, no doubt to dream of rolling caramelised shallots around in my mouth suggestively.

Easter Saturday, 3 April 2010

After sleeping the dead of the righteous and truly exhausted, I awoke to find the beef stew contentedly coagulating in the casserole. Back it went into the oven for a very late lunch, while I described the process to my parents over the phone. “That sounds very tasty,” said my father hopefully, while Mum expressed horror at all the butter and fat and made me promise to make it no more than twice a year.

For lunch, I decided to break what I’m sure is the cardinal rule for all aspiring French chefs – I served up the boeuf bourguignon on toasted wholemeal bread. And it was DIVINE. My friend Laura suggested if I really wanted to gross out the Puritans, I should buy a Breville toastie pie maker and make Boeuf Bourguignon Toastie Pies. A nice idea, but I’ve stuck to the standard presentation, and it was heaven. As expected, the sauce has thickened and the flavours have become densier, heartier and slightly more pointed. Astonishingly, it doesn’t taste greasy or fatty or even particularly heavy. It’s also half eaten, which isn’t bad going, as the recipe is supposed to feed 4-6 people, and it’s been in existence for less than a day. Perhaps I should get my cholesterol tested on Tuesday – if I live that long.

So, my Julia Child cherry has been popped. I’d like to thank the Academy, and especially my French culinary advisers Gay Stephen and Christophe. I have no desire to bone a duck, though her Raspberry Bavarian Creme and the flourless chocolate cake sounds rather good. Tonight, I’m off to dinner at Gay Stephen’s, ostensibly to celebrate Christophe being in town, but mostly to talk about food. I’ll bring them a little of the stew, insist that Christophe has it for breakfast on toast, and watch him spontaneously combust in fury.

Bon appetit, y’all, and have a bacon fat inspired Easter.

Wednesday 7 April

The last of the stew is eaten – most of it consumed sacreligiously on wholemeal Vogel toast, which was delicious. 

More importantly, Gay Stephen and Christophe finally weighed in and gave me the validation I was looking for – GS’s response was that it looked and tasted like what a proper boeuf bourguignon should (thank you, darling – I’ll give you more next time). Christophe, despite expressing concern about my shallots in the frypan photo (“They looked strange”, he intoned between drags on his cigarette) apparently approved too.

By happy coincidence, my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking arrived today – a glorious double set of A4-sized hardback books in a cute little box holder, and the original retro fantastic covering from the original publication. Some choice quotes from the introduction, which I wish I’d been able to read before starting on this deranged assignment. The version I have is a revised version written in the early 1980s. Julia notes that some of the recipes have been rewritten to acknowledge wonderful new inventions like the electric food processor, “which has made amazingly light work out of many formerly overly ong and arduous cooking procedures like the mincing of mushrooms and onions….” However, Julia’s real purpose in writing a new Foreward is to take a swipe at the burgeoning health food movement of the early 1980s, and all the critics who complained that her recipes were too long, too time-consuming, too complex and too filled with fat. The famous line about “servantless American cooks” is rewritten as follows: 

This is a book for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children’s meals, the parent-chauffeue-den mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat.  

Take that, health food fanatics! I’m amused by her mention of how recipes are cross-referenced throughout the book: “Cross references are always a problem. If there are not enough, you may miss an important point, and if there are too many you will become enraged.” Thank you for noting that, Julia. I was enraged when I came across the recipe for the Fucking Shallots just as I thought I was in the home strait. No doubt you would chastise me for not reading the recipe from beginning to end before I started, so we’ll call a truce. 

But my favourite testimonial is from Molly O’Neill, who I’m guessing was some celebrity chef invited to write a review of Julia Child: 

I was a goner the first time I heard her voice, which happened to be while I was a cook in a feminist restaurant that served nonviolent cuisine. If it weren’t for Julia Child, I might never have moved past brown rice and tofu.

Well, thank God for that. Atta girl, Julia – another politically correct victim of 1970s feminism saved from the horrors of eating tofu. I’ve never understood the point of tofu. I know it’s a wonderfood and everything and we’ll all be living on it in 30 years when we’ve farmed the earth to the point where we can’t grow beef anymore, but seriously, it tastes like polystyrene. Thank God Julia never went Asian fusion.


  1. Hey you! Love the way you described your Boeuf Bourguignon adventure. it’s funny how patient ant involved you were for that dish ( something that most of us French people were used to eat regularly during the winter). Not a complicated one but long to cook, that’s fir sure. If you like the taste of wine ‘sauce’ try ‘les oeufs en moeurette’ a special dish from my Burgundy place… And this time, not Le Creuset cocotte needed. I got one in yellow in an older version : the one my beloved mother had for her wedding… The most amaizing cocotte for this kind of cooking. By the way, don’t forget that we have deal to achieve about French food 🙂
    And as we both are cocotte’s users, I am also in love with that bright and happy movie that you spoke about. If I would not have followed my parents wishes in commercial studies, I would have become a chef or a patissier… That was my child dream, but life is not always as in good movie. So let’s enjoy cocking for friends 🙂 bises from France. Gilles.

  2. She was also a spy during WWII, which superisrd me when I learned about her pre-cooking past. Her biography is a great read, especially for anyone who watched her TV shows or read any of her great cook books.

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