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Introduction

I have been cooking and refining this dish for years. The recipe is based upon one by Madame Germaine Carter whose 'Home Book of French Cookery' was a favourite in my teens, not only because of the recipes but also due to its narrative. Mme Carter and her co-authors were interned in a number of prisoner of war camps during World War II. During a winter of particular privation in 1941-42, a fellow prisoner suggested the book as a means to boost their flagging spirits. The book is long out of print, but copies are not hard to find.

I have included additional ingredients that you'll find in most 'authentic' recipes in the Suggestion section, but with the exception of the bread fried in bacon fat, I find them a distraction.

This dish is always better when made a day in advance.

Tips

For long slow cooking ask your butcher for a well-marbled stewing cut. Be wary of braising cuts, they will literally fall apart when cooked for three hours. Back in the day people would lard the beef with bacon fat. The reason: they used stewing cuts that were too lean.

The wine doesn't need to be from Burgundy, but stick with Pinot Noir, it lends a flavour to this dish quite unlike any other grape. I used to be believe in the maxim 'Don't cook with something you wouldn't drink', but this NY TImes article got me to experiment and think again.

Ingredients

  • 45g\1½ oz\2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 600g piece of well-marbled stewing beef cut into 4 cm\1½ inch cubes
  • 2 medium onions, sliced thinly
  • 45g\1½ oz\2 tablespoons plain\all-purpose flour
  • 240ml\8 fl oz\1 cup Pinot Noir
  • 120ml\4 fl oz\½ cup of water
  • 60ml\2 fl oz\¼ cup of cognac\brandy
  • Salt & pepper
  • 16 crustless triangles of bread, buttered or brushed with oil on both sides

Tools of the Trade

  • Heavy bottommed casserole dish just big enough to hold all the meat in one layer
  • Diffuser or simmer plate

Method

Cut the beef into 4 cm\1½ inch cubes and pat these dry with paper towel.

Heat the butter in a frying pan or casserole dish over a medium heat. The butter will foam, then the foam will subside. At this point it will give off an extraordinary nutty aroma (this is often referred to as 'browning' or 'beurre noisette').

Add the beef and increase the heat. We need to brown and seal the meat on all sides. If using the casserole, do this in batches to allow the meat to brown rather than steam.

When the last batch of meat is done remove it, reduce the heat to medium, add the sliced onions to the pan and cook until softened but not brown.

Add the meat back to the onions, stir in the flour then increase the heat and continue to stir so that the flour coats everything and cooks well.

Add a couple of tablespoons of the wine to deglaze the pan (i.e. loosen any bits that have stuck to the bottom), then add the rest of the wine and water and bring to the boil.

Once it reaches a boil, reduce heat to its minimum and sit the pan on a diffuser or simmer plate. You may also place it in a pre-heated oven at 160°C\325°F gas mark 3. Cook for 3-4 hours, topping up with a little additional water if necessary, the beef will be very tender when ready.

At this point, I leave it to cool and then refrigerate overnight.

When ready to serve, fry the bread until golden and crisp on both sides. Set aside.

Heat the stew through, if cold, then gently heat the cognac\brandy in a small pan. Light the cognac and carefully pour it over the beef. Stir gently until the alcohol has evaporated and the flames are extinguished.

Serve immediately with a good pinot noir. Green beans, spinach or chard with baked or mashed potatoes make excellent accompaniments\sides.

Suggestion

Frying the bread in bacon fat is a sublime contribution.

60g\2oz\½ cup chopped pancetta or unsmoked bacon can be added to the browned butter with the beef.

Many recipes finish the dish by adding 120g\4oz\1 cup each of pearl onions and baby button mushrooms.
Plunge the onions into boiling water for 1-2 minutes, then refresh them in a pot of cold water. Carefully slice off the root and the skins will come off easily. Gently fry the peeled onions followed by the mushrooms in butter or oil until golden brown and tender. Add to the beef as they become ready and allow the flavours to blend for 15-20 minutes.