julia child, mastering the art of french cooking, julie powell, french cuisine

Beef Stew? More Like Beef Stewpendous!

 

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“L’il Julie’s gone and grown up (out).  It’s not so much the Boeuf a la Catalane we eat at eleven o’clock at night as it is the vodka tonics and three thousand crackers smeared with cream cheese and roasted raspberry-chipotle sauce consumed during the making of it, and the milano cookies eaten out of the bag when it’s done.” – Julie Powell 

Yesterday we had a much-needed downpour at our house that brought temperatures down into the high 70’s. There’s something so comforting about sitting inside with a lap full of warm cat while the sky outside is gray and dreary, so what better to make for dinner than some real comfort food?

Last night I tried something entirely different from Julia’s repertoire – Boeuf a la Catalane (beef stew with rice, onions and tomatoes). This dish comes from the Spanish-Mediterranean corner of France – and page 321 of The Book. I’ll preface this recipe by saying that if you’re in the mood for some delicious beef stew courtesy of our favorite French chef, you’d better have some time on your hands. While this recipe is extremely easy to make, it is time consuming – roughly 2 1/2 hours altogether. But on a lazy, rainy evening when you have nothing else to do (didja hear that, world?? A Wednesday night where I had nothing else to do!! *cue symphony and insert slow-mo mountain-top spinning scene here*) it’s a great dish to throw together.

Allow me to introduce you. Lardons, world. World, lardons.

I began by preheating my oven to 325 degrees. Meanwhile, the first step of this recipe called for me to cut a chunk of bacon into lardons. I was already in trouble. No illustrations? No detailed explanation? I did what any self-respecting 21st century home cook would do…I turned to the internet for google images. It turns out lardons are small, somewhat thick slices of bacon – as though you had taken a strip of bacon, laid it down horizontally on a cutting board and sliced it vertically from end to end. Now, due to a crazy schedule last weekend and a torrential downpour at precisely the moment I was on my way to buy groceries last night, I was unable to visit my favorite grocery store so I had to settle for my close-to-home neighborhood market. Convenient, but not a very wide (and certainly not a very gourmet) selection. As it turns out, they don’t sell bacon by the chunk, so I resorted to a package of thick-cut bacon. Whatever works!

I cut about three pieces and put them into some water on the stove, where they simmered for about 10 minutes. I drained them and pat them dry, then browned them lightly in a skillet of hot olive oil. Before they got crispy, I scooped them with a slotted spoon into a casserole dish. Next came the main ingredient of our dish: stewing beef.

Stew Meat and Lardons...heh...I said "lard"

Again, because of a lack of options at my disposal, I went with a pre-cut package of stew meat. If I had it to do over again, I’d buy a nicer cut of meat and cut it into cubes myself – but hey, I did the best with what I had to work with. I browned this meat in the same skillet the bacon had just cooked in, then moved the beef to the casserole dish as well. Next I lowered the heat a bit and added sliced onions to the pan, and I have to say, I have become quite the onion saute master! As I watched them turn to a golden brown, I remembered back to when I had tried to saute sliced onions for Fajita Night before Julia came into my life. While I started out on the right track, I wound up with little shriveled-up black shoelaces to put in my tortilla. Not so good. But THESE! Now THESE were sauteed onions! I tossed them into the casserole dish along with the bacon and beef…things were looking good so far!

The following step had me puzzled, but I have learned to not question the master and just to accept her words of wisdom. Julia says to … are you ready?… add a cup of raw white rice to the pan and stir it until it turns a milky color. Whahuh? But…but…rice goes in water! Julia, is this a prank? Am I on candid camera? No, friends, I assure you this is no prank. Toss that dry rice right into the pan and give it a little stir for a couple of minutes. You’ll hear the last little bit of oil in the pan sizzling, and then you can scoop the rice into a separate bowl to set aside for later.

Simmer down now!

Now that you’re faced with an empty pan, pour some vermouth in and scrape any last little bits of goodness from the sides of the pan and pour it into the casserole dish. Add some beef stock until it’s just about the same height as the meat in the dish, then add some seasonings: salt, pepper, thyme, crumbled bay leaf, and some mashed garlic. Bring it all to a simmer on the stove, then pop into the oven for an hour. Then set your alarm and take a nap. At least, that’s what I did. But don’t oversleep, or else the next alarm you hear could be your smoke alarm!

When the hour is up, take the dish out of the oven (oh, man, is it looking good!) and add some tomato pulp (the whole peeling/seeding/juicing process still kind of weirds me out, but it comes easy now). Bring back to a simmer on the stove top and then put it back in the oven for another hour. And take another nap. (Hm, I’m liking this dish more and more!)

The final step is to remove the dish from the oven, raise the heat to 375 and stir in the dry rice. Simmer the whole thing on the stove one final time, then put it all in the oven for another 20 minutes. As Ron Popeil would say, “Set it and forget it!” Don’t touch that rice until the whole thing is ready to come back out of the oven, at which point the rice will be fully cooked and will have absorbed the majority of the liquid in the casserole.

Boeuf a la Catalane

At this point, add any last seasoning you want and gently fold some grated Swiss cheese into the mixture. Ta-daa!! Stew is complete! The first thing I noticed was how much it looked more like a gumbo than a stew – most of the liquid had cooked down, and the rice gave it a nice thick texture. This is one really hearty dish, and it was absolutely fantastic. I served it with some thick French bread for dipping, and even though Julia recommends serving it with a salad, we felt these two items alone were plenty. The flavors in this meal really melded well. The bacon and onion were barely noticeable in the overall flavor, yet somehow I think they would have really been missed had they not been included at all. The tomato flavor was really strong but not overpowering, and the beef was tender and plentiful in the dish (I hate a beef stew that seems to be lacking in the beef department). Whether you’re looking to feed your own family a home-cooked meal, are needing an idea to take to a pot luck, or you want to send a meal to a friend in need, this dish would fit the bill. Despite the amount of time it takes to cook, it’s time well spent. I give this recipe two thumbs up and am looking forward to making it again this winter – perfect comfort food on a cold night. 

And speaking of comfort…

Today, in memory of a sweet friend, I challenge you to show one person in your life how much they mean to you. Whether it’s through a home-cooked meal or just a few kind words, let’s spend our day brightening someone else’s.

-Jessica

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One Response to “Beef Stew? More Like Beef Stewpendous!”

  1. Melody says:

    Well, I was getting through that post JUST FINE – no tears or anything – until that last paragraph. Very nice tribute, though.

    Note to self: waterproof mascara.

    Snif!

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