Julie Powell is conked out on the sofa while the alarm clock runs down and the boeuf bourguignon burns to cinders. She leaps up, pulls the rubbery mess out of the oven, and flops down in despair. The one, the only, dish to impress famed cookbook editor Judith Jones at dinner, is ruined. She takes the next day off work to cook her braise of beef and red wine again, risking her job and her marriage to get it perfect. Our sentimental hearts throb with sympathy as we watch the culinary drama unfold in “Julie and Julia.”
At least, mine did. But as much as I wish for the fresh charm of Amy Adams as Julie, smiling up to a handsome New York butcher, I must deal with real life. I shop in Israel’s shuks — noisy, crowded open markets. My butcher is an abrupt, elderly man who answers to Shlomo. And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t find bacon, the traditional first ingredient for boeuf bourguignon in the whole length and breadth of the shuk.
Preparing the classic French dish without bacon fat is all a question of umami, the elusive fifth taste with the Japanese name. Derived from glutamate-rich ingredients and accepted by science in 1985, good cooks have always known umami. Even if Julia Child didn’t refer to it, she knew it intimately. The bacon in boeuf bourguignon is there for umami, that earthy undertone, the bottom note in savory foods that coats and so comforts the palate.
While bacon may be one of the most common sources of umami, it’s certainly not the only one — dried mushrooms, soy sauce and shmaltz stand in well, adding that same depth and richness to a dish.
But there’s room for debate here: If you substitute all kinds of foreign ingredients, can you call the dish by its original name? Would Julia have approved? Perhaps not, but kosher cooks must adapt. A slow-cooked beef stew doused in luscious wine is a good thing by any name. And, supposing that kosher pork-flavored goose arrives in kosher markets some time soon, we’ll be able to reproduce Julia’s recipe exactly. In the meantime, this recipe which is even better the next day and won’t dry out on a hot plate, is a perfect winter Shabbat dish. It will nourish you with a delicious scent and flavor, just like the one I imagine came from Julia and Julie’s kitchens.
Kosher Boeuf Bourguignon
Inspired by Julia Child’s recipe
2-2 ½ pounds beef, cut into large cubes*
2 tablespoons shmaltz
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large carrot, peeled and thickly sliced
1 large onion, sliced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
2 tablespoons flour or fine matzo meal
1 750-ml. bottle of medium-quality Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup dried, sliced Porcini or Shiitake mushrooms
1 tablespoon Tamari soy sauce
2 bay leaves
1 large sprig fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
4 cloves garlic, minced
1) Preheat oven to 450° F. Pat the beef chunks with paper towels to dry surface moisture.
2) In a large, heavy pan, melt the shmaltz. Add the olive oil. Sauté the beef chunks in the hot fat, a few at a time. Turn them over so that all sides brown. Remove the browned beef from the pan to a platter.
3) Sauté the onion and carrot in the same pan for about 5 minutes. Return the beef to the pan and sprinkle salt and pepper over everything. Mix with a wooden spoon. Sprinkle the flour over all and mix again.
4) Put the uncovered pan in the oven for 5 minutes. Mix the meat and brown it again for another 5 minutes. Place the pan on the stove top, over medium heat, and turn the oven down to 325° F.
5) Pour the wine into the beef and vegetables. Add tomato paste, garlic, soy sauce and dried mushrooms. Stir to dissolve the tomato paste. Place the bay leaves and thyme on top of the beef and push them in a little with a spoon so that they flavor the cooking liquid.
6) Cover the beef and put it in the oven. Cook for 2 hours, then check to see if it’s fork-tender. Let it cook 1/2 hour longer if needed. When you judge it’s ready, take the stew out of the oven and skim the fat off if liked. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Garnish the stew with a little parsley and serve with plain boiled potatoes, rice, or noodles.
*The better the meat, the better the stew. Chuck pot roast is choice. That favorite Jewish cut, brisket, makes very good boeuf bourguignon. But the old-fashioned method of cooking cheaper cuts very slowly produces a savory, tender stew as well. Here in Israel, I buy the #5 cut, Tsla’ot. Just make sure your beef has some fat running through it, and allow as much time in the oven as will produce fork-tender meat; 1/2-1 hour longer.
Cook’s note: The classic garnish for this stew is sautéed fresh mushrooms and whole small onions stewed in stock and an herb bouquet.