When I first started cooking, I always followed a recipe. Teaspoons and tablespoons were taken very seriously. And if I forgot to buy an ingredient at the store, cooking came to a halt until that tablespoon of marjoram was located! (And if I sent my husband, he’d come back half an hour later with a tub of Country Crock and then wonder why I was so upset. No offense, Sweetie. I know you mean well.)
It seems a little silly to me now, but back then I had no idea what I was doing and if it was written down (regardless of the author–I had this idea that the only recipes out there were good recipes) that’s how I would do it. And that was the right way, because I was still learning. I have since learned a great deal about ingredients, proportions, and techniques. Unless I’m baking or making candy, I tend to wing it. Honestly, I even wing it when making most breads. So when we were at the grocery store over the weekend and my husband said he’d like beef stew this week, I didn’t whip out my phone to find a list of ingredients. I knew we had carrots and celery at home, plus some leftover sauteed mushrooms that would be a nice addition. My pantry always contains a good stash of dried herbs, tomato products and broths. I had onions in the cart, and I grabbed some stew meat. Done and done.
Now, a lot of the techniques I have on file in my brain come courtesy of Julia Child, especially when it comes to stews. I haven’t managed to cook all the way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but I’ve tried quite a few of her recipes and went through a somewhat Child-obsessed phase, during which I read her memoir, her biography, and a collection of her letters. I read Julie and Julia twice and watched the movie countless times, despite its reduction of the Julie character to a somewhat pathetic dud. I have two box sets of The French Chef on DVD. You could say I’m a fan.
All this is to say that when gathering ingredients to actually make my beef stew, I couldn’t help thinking of Julia. Boeuf Bourguignon was my first beef stew–my first good beef stew, anyway–and though I hadn’t shopped for the recipe (and I don’t keep pearl onions or slab bacon on hand) I had to pull down my copy of MtAoFC and reread the recipe, if only for inspiration.
I love the way Mastering the Art of French Cooking is written. It can be intimidating at first, because its layout is quite different from a lot of contemporary recipes, but once you get used to the style it can actually be easier to follow, as she breaks recipes down into stages. The best parts of the book, though, come in the form of narration. I’ve gone through both volumes of MtAoFC for reference/tips and tricks. Each section has a good amount of wisdom, from the general (re: vegetables, “A cardinal point in the French technique is: Do not overcook.“) to the very specific (re: kneading a sticky bread dough. “Always leave one hand free to answer the phone.”) It’s such a favorite that I almost felt guilty as I flipped through its pages, knowing I had neglected it for so long. I took a moment to read through the whole recipe, including the introduction for Ragouts de Boeuf (Beef Stews) and all the vegetable and wine suggestions. Right away, I knew that Julia would approve of my inexact version of her recipe because she says, up front, that, “As is the case with most famous dishes, there are more ways than one to arrive at a good boeuf bourguignon. Carefully done, and perfectly flavored, it is certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man.” Or woman, eh Julia? Because you and I, we make some fantastic boeuf bourguignon.
I had to make mine with a baby wrapped around one of my legs for part of the cooking process, and with a few missing or substituted ingredients. I didn’t have fresh parsley to decorate with at the end, not that I ever remember that step even when I’ve made it exactly as Julia recommends–after all, the house has smelled delicious for two to three hours at that point and all I want to do is dig in. I didn’t have boiled potatoes or even rice or noodles, but I’d made rye rolls the day before and those tasted wonderful sopping with sauce. And I realized, as I was eating, that I’ve neglected Julia’s recipes because I felt that old need to follow them to the letter–partly out of habit, and partly out of respect. But my stew turned out so well with my improvisations–I used dried Italian seasoning, for goodness’ sake, but I know how to use it just right–that I realized, I need to get back to French cooking. I enjoy it so much, enjoy reading all of Julia’s wit and wisdom, and it isn’t nearly as difficult or finicky as it might seem. As Meryl Streep says in the Julie and Julia movie (I don’t recall coming across this quote in any of the books, so I won’t say it’s Julia’s own words), “French people eat French food every day! I can’t get over it.”