Lifestyle & Culture

Here’s the Beef

iStock photo.

WINTER MEANS stew. But call it boeuf bourguignon and you can serve it to guests, right?

The version I’ve been making for the past decade or so doesn’t come from Julia Child but the less-likely Duchess of Devonshire. Youngest of the six Mitford sisters, she was neither the communist nor the Hitler pal, thank goodness. Instead, she had an entrepreneurial streak that blossomed when she married the man who would become the 11th Duke of Devonshire and turned her attention until her death in 2014 to the family’s stately home, Chatsworth, in the possession of the Cavendish family since 1549. She wrote books about Chatsworth making it convincingly clear that she saw her role in keeping up the house as a serious job. She ran a retail and catering food business and a farm operation there; Wiki says she was even known to man the ticket booth for Chatsworth visitors. (It takes some 300,000 visitors a year to maintain 126 rooms and parkland of about 1,000 acres, even though the property is run by the National Trust.)

But all that, I suppose, is neither here nor there. My friend Mary found the recipe somewhere years ago, and I’ve been executing it, sometimes faithfully, sometimes not so, ever since. There’s nothing slapdash about it: Each ingredient—beef, carrots, onions yellow and pearl, mushrooms, bacon—is cooked separately, then brought together under the cover of gutsy Côtes du Rhône wine in a marriage not (for sure) of convenience but of maximum deep flavor.

This recipe is as I received it, made four servings. Not being a glutton for punishment, I generally triple it and keep large portions in the freezer. If you do the same, don’t triple the wine; two bottles will certainly do. And I’ve never gotten the triple dose of little pearl onions to really cook down and caramelize in sugar, butter and water; nonetheless, cooking them for an hour or more does bring out their sweetness. As for the bacon, the only way I can manage to get slices cut into skinny little batonnettes is to use scissors.

—Nancy McKeon

Beef Bourguignon, attributed to the late Duchess of Devonshire

Makes 4 servings

1½ pounds of stewing beef, cut into small pieces

Vegetable oil

1 large carrot, cut into thin rounds

1 large onion, sliced thin

1 or more cloves of garlic, crushed

At least 1 teaspoon of salt

At least ½ teaspoon of ground black pepper

About 3 tablespoons of flour

1 bottle of red wine, like a Côtes du Rhône

A bouquet garni (2 to 3 sprigs each of thyme and parsley and bay leaf, tied together with kitchen string)

10 ounces of white pearl onions (I’ve used fresh and frozen and haven’t detected a difference; my suggestion: Go with frozen)

2 tablespoons of sugar

1 tablespoon of butter

4 ounces of sliced country-style smoked bacon

10 ounces of button mushrooms, stems trimmed to be even with the caps

Steamed or boiled potatoes or cooked noodles to be topped with the stew, prepared separately


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Defrost the frozen pearl onions unless you are using fresh. Pat the stewing beef dry.

Heat a tablespoon or so of the vegetable oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown the meat on all sides in batches; you will probably have to add oil as you continue. As the cubes of meat are cooked, remove them with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Leave the drippings in the Dutch oven and add the carrot and onion slices; sauté them until the onions are golden. Add the crushed garlic, the salt and pepper and sauté it all for a minute or two. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir to coat them with the flour; cook together for a minute or so.

Add the browned cubes of beef to the vegetable mix and stir well. Now stir in the wine, a little at a time, until the flour is blended. Add the bouquet garni and heat the mixture to boiling. Cover and bake for an hour, until the meat is tender. After the first hour, lower the heat to 300 degrees and add a little water if the liquid doesn’t cover the meat.

While the beef cooks, place the (defrosted) pearl onions in a saucepan with about 2 cups of water, the butter and the sugar, and bring to a boil. Then simmer them, stirring frequently, until the onions are transparent and tender, the liquid has evaporated and the onions are coated with a caramelized glaze, for about an hour (if you’re lucky; otherwise just do it until you have to add the onions to the rest of the stew).

While the pearl onions are cooking, cut strips of bacon crosswise into narrow pieces (as I said above, I use scissors reserved for  this job). Fry the batonnettes of bacon in a sauce pan until crisp. Set the cooked bacon pieces aside and use the rendered bacon fat in the pan to brown the mushrooms; be sure to brown them on top and bottom. You will have to do this in batches as well. Add the mushrooms to the bacon and set them aside.

When you determine that the beef is tender, remove the bouquet garni. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon so you can boil the cooking liquid containing the carrots and sliced onions (if the liquid is thin) and get the liquid to coat the back of a spoon. Return the beef to the Dutch oven and add salt and pepper, if needed. Add the pearl onions, batonnettes of bacon and the mushrooms and mix thoroughly with the liquid. In the oven or on the stovetop, heat  the stew thoroughly.

For a gutsy dish such as this, you may want to invite guests to serve themselves boiled or mashed potatoes (or noodles) from a large pot on the stovetop and add a hefty portion of the stew from the Dutch oven on the next burner.


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