The act of braising is simple, in theory: you brown some meat and remove it from the pot. You sauté aromatics. You deglaze the pan with a liquid of your choice, scraping up the choice browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Finally, you put the meat back in, add enough liquid to cover, put the lid on and leave the pot in a low oven for a few hours, until the meat is as tender as a wilted bonnet and the sauce is reduced, rich, and lovely. You’ll know this time has come when the scent of the air in the kitchen is making you audibly moan.
Braising is only as complicated as you make it. Beef bourguinon is a braise, but so is pot roast. The old Southern Sunday staple, served always in our family over rice, with biscuits and grape jelly or honey on the side.
Pot roast was one of my grandmother’s specialties. I distinctly recall the last time I ever had it. It was the brownest gravy I’d ever seen, with the vegetables sticking up in crusty brown peaks. I could tell by the smell that the meat would be the most tender, the taste would be the most succulent, knew by the deep brown color that it was the most glorious pot roast ever concocted. Mimi knew, too. I could tell by the tinge of triumph in her small, excited smile as she placed the roast on the table.
She was a great cook, and she loved food, though the two facts were not necessarily correlated. Mimi was the kind of old school Southern cook who made the same five or six things in rotation, and she made them incredibly well. You wouldn’t find any trendy ingredients in her pantry (there was once a most unfortunate and amusing incident where she thought a bottle of truffle oil I had was chocolate sauce), and she looked at gadgets such as immersion blenders and meat thermometers with eyes askance. She had a deer horn handled knife, over a hundred years old, with which she peeled and sliced every single cucumber or potato to pass through her kitchen. There was not a passion for innovation or creativity in cooking for her, but rather pure pleasure and enjoyment derived from a much simpler source: a love of feeding her family.
In recent years, there has been a shift in my family, fraught with probably only a slighter higher-than-usual level of tension, in which many traditions have fallen away. We don’t get together as a big group for holidays anymore, which amongst other things means no longer the yuletide excitement for one aunt’s broccoli rice casserole, for the Cajun fried turkeys, for the dazzling and seemingly endless array of pies. New traditions have had to be forged to morph to the family’s new shape, to branch and be pared as the relationships have done so.
A particular new tradition that I love is my annual sleepover with my aunt Siobhan. Every year since I was twenty-one, usually around the summer, Siobhan has come to spend the night and have a feast. The theme is always excess — drinks, food, and laughter all in great quantities. Each year when we’re planning it, she says (in her always half-laughing voice) that she “doesn’t care what we have — as long as there’s a cheese plate, roasted asparagus, mashed potatoes, gravy, and bread.”
So, in other words, I can pick the protein.
This year, as per usual, I began making my shopping list about a month in advance, a hallmark of my excitement. I’d already narrowed down my cheese selection and decided we’d have a dark chocolate mousse pie with raspberries for dessert, but I hadn’t yet settled on the main dish. When I told my girlfriend about Siobhan’s meal requirements, she asked in a dreamy voice if beef bourguinon would be an acceptable entrée. I realized it met all the tenets of Siobhan’s favorite type of meal — long-stewed meat, meltingly soft vegetables, all served over mashed potatoes with a thick and unctuous sauce of red wine, thyme, rosemary, and garlic. The slight tang from the wine is amplified by a generous addition of tomato paste, balanced by just a pinch of sugar. The entire braise is thickened and given a luscious quality with a roux, so the sauce beckons you with an invitingly glossy sheen. I started getting hungry immediately. I added a beef roast to my list.
A braise is the ultimate meal for entertaining. You do most of the work before your guest arrives, and you’re free to mingle and enjoy yourself while your slow and gentle oven patiently does all of the work. (Unless you’re me, of course, and you start too late and you end up eating at eleven o’clock. But no one seemed to mind.) The prep work is the hardest part of braising, and that isn’t hard at all. It’s mostly chopping. I chopped carrots, onion, garlic, and mushrooms, and sliced the beef into cheerful lopsided cubes. I defrosted some stock I had in the freezer. Then I set to work on browning.
It occurred to me, as I was searing the beef, that what I essentially was making was French pot roast. The main differences between this and my grandmother’s Sunday roast were the lack of Lipton soup packets and the addition of a half a bottle of red wine. I also used an actual vegetable peeler on the potatoes and carrots, rather than an ancient and dull deer horn knife. I added the meat to the shimmering hot oil, then went to wash the cutting board and wipe the counter. I waited until it was good and thoroughly brown before turning it, knowing that patience and deliberateness with this process would be what would result in a rich and delicious gravy. I could picture my grandmother monitoring her searing roast with the same offhanded awareness, not watching it very closely; her back turned, patting out biscuits on a sheet pan, but knowing at exactly what moment she should come to turn the slab of beef over, as though tied to the pot with an invisible, witchy string.
I sautéed the onions and carrots and mushrooms, cranked up the heat and poured in the wine. I stirred and scraped with a wooden spoon to release the precious fond. Into the oven the whole caper went, and soon, the duplex was filled with a smell that would drive a sane woman to dancing madness. The three of us sat on the porch, remarking on the interesting graffiti of the passing trains, enjoying a soft and forgiving breeze and listening to music. We were sitting at my grandmother’s old patio table, where Siobhan and I had sat many times before, under the shade of many different porches; the fact that it was now in front of a little duplex in Olympia, rather than on my grandmother’s screened-in porch or the back deck of my married home, seemed only as strange as pot roast and beef bourguinon being basically the same, with adjustments. The best part of the night was watching Siobhan take her first bite of the rich, brown gravy, and feeling a small excited smile play around my lips, knowing I’d fed someone I loved.
Beef Bourguinon, with Adjustments
Note: This recipe is how I always make it and it gets rave reviews. That being said, I’ve taken some liberties with the traditional boeuf bourguinon, including omitting lardons and indicating that it’s fine to use any kind of red wine rather than only burgundy. Probably an actual French person would insist I call this “Beef Braised in Red Wine,” but whatever. It’s delicious. Also, actual cooking note — you’ll use the same pot from start to finish, so make sure whatever pot you’re using for all of your browning is oven safe and has a tightly fitting lid. A Dutch oven is great for this.
3-4 lbs chuck or shoulder beef roast, cut into 1.5 inch cubes
3/4 stick butter
2 TBS olive oil
1 1/4 pounds boiling onions, peeled
5-6 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large or 2 small white or yellow onions, chopped
2 TBS chopped garlic (6-8 cloves)
4 cups chicken or beef broth (can also use water)
1/2 bottle of red wine (I used cab; use what you like as long as it’s not sweet)
2 TBS all purpose flour
1 pound mushrooms
1 tsp dried thyme or 4 sprigs fresh
1 tsp dried rosemary or 3 sprigs fresh
Pinch of sugar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 325°F. Heat 1 TBS butter with 1 TBS olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Season beef generously with salt and pepper. Working in batches so the beef is in a single layer, brown beef over medium high heat, about 5 minutes per batch, adding more butter as needed. Transfer meat to large bowl.
Add mushrooms to the same pot and sauté until deep golden brown, again working in batches and adding butter when needed, about 6 minutes per batch. Transfer mushrooms to bowl with beef. Lower heat to medium and add onions, then sauté until lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook and stir for another minute. Add final TBS of butter and sprinkle in flour stir and cook for two minutes. Add tomato paste; stir and cook for one minute, then crank the heat up and pour in the wine, scraping the bottom of the pot like crazy with a wooden spoon to get all of the browned bits.
Return meat and mushrooms and their juices to pot. Add carrots, thyme, rosemary, sugar, and enough broth to cover all ingredients. Depending on your pot, you may need to use less or more broth. Bring to boil. Cover pot and place in oven. Cook until beef is tender, about 1 hour 20 minutes. Remove from oven. Stir in cream; boil one minute to thicken. Serve over mashed potatoes, rice, or egg noodles. (Though mashed potatoes are definitely the best choice.)