Elsa left yesterday. She was my “first.” Not in the way you think (minds out of the garbage disposal dear readers!). No, Elsa was the first couchsurfer who agreed to cook with me. And for your “first” it doesn’t get much better than making tarte au pomme and beef bourguignon with a cool urban-planning professor from Paris!
Elsa stayed for a week, and from the moment she walked up to me on Atlantic Avenue with her short choppy hair, thin jeans and t-shirt, and those black, rectangular glasses all the architects wear, I knew we would get along famously in the kitchen. Elsa was clearly way cool.
Almost immediately after arriving though, I sent her to Fairway, one of the best and biggest grocery stores in New York City, to stock up on food. When people from other countries — even other cities — stay with me, they nearly all enter a state of shock upon entering Fairway. It’s as if they’ve never seen so much food — and good food — together in one place.
But when nearly two hours passed with Elsa still gone, I began to worry. Had she’d gotten lost in the frozen food aisle? Or been trapped beneath a fallen pile of tomatoes? Just then the door opened and Elsa walked in, her face glowing beatifically — as if she’d gone to food heaven and then fallen back to earth from the weight of her now-laden, reusable shopping bags. “That was incredible,” she said.
I recognized most of what Elsa bought, except for one package I had no idea Fairway carried: pre-boiled and peeled beets sealed in vacuum-packed plastic. Now in Brooklyn — where we’ve all become holier-than-thou locavores — admitting to buying pre-packaged, pre-cooked anything could easily get you tossed out of your favorite dinner party. But Elsa assured me that in Paris these pre-done beets are all the rage. It certainly did make life easier not having to wait an hour for the suckers to carmelize in the oven, and given how nutritious beets are (calcium, phosphorous, potassium, Vitamin C, to name a few) it was nice knowing there was a simpler way to add them to meals. In the end, we made a salad of beets and spring lettuce drizzled with orange vinaigrette that easily matched the more-complicated version.
But Elsa’s real gift (not counting the yummy chestnut paste she brought that I’m still dreaming up ways to use) was her recipe for beef bourguignon. Now I have to confess that before embarking on this Couchsurfing Cooking project I never cooked meat at home. In fact, I’m what you’d call a hypocritical vegetarian: I never cook meat myself, but if I crave it at a restaurant, I’ll cave. If that’s not hypocritical, I don’t know what is.
This is all to say that Elsa preparing meat in my kitchen was another “first” along my downward (or upward as the case may be) spiral to becoming a Couchsurfing Cook. Thankfully she was an excellent teacher, aided I should add by the distant assistance of her brother, a culinary school teacher whose secret ingredient clearly catapulted the dish to a higher gastronomic realm.
And what was that secret ingredient? Now you’re not going to tell anyone, are you? Well it’s…shh…CHOCOLATE! Who knew? Turns out if you stir in a speck (and I mean a speck) of semisweet chocolate at the end of cooking along with the burbling red wine and beef fat juice/stew for some amazing reason — perhaps that extra bit of fat/sugar in the chocolate — the sauce becomes infinitely smoother.
Here then I present Beef Bourguignon a la Elsa. Thank you Elsa for being my “first.” I won’t ever forget you. : )
Preparation Time: 15-20 minutes
Cooking Time: Approximately 2 hours
Cooking Supplies: Cast Iron Pot; Knife; Wooden Spoon; Measuring Implements
17.5 ounces stewing beef
1/8 to 1/4 cup flour
1 bottle (750 ml) red table wine (make sure it’s wine you’d drink, although it doesn’t have to be top shelf)
3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground whole nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon semisweet chocolate
1. Cut stewing beef into 2” chunks.
2. Place meat in a heavy cast iron pot. In French they call it a casserole en fonte.
3. Cook over medium to high heat until meat is browned. The French term to describe the meat when done is “saisir” to be seized.
4. Sprinkle meat with flour and stir with a wooden spoon until meat is thoroughly coated.
5. Pour ¾ of wine over meat.
6. Lower heat to simmer and add spices along with salt and pepper to taste.
7. Allow meat to cook over low heat for two hours adding the last ¼ of wine as needed to ensure meat remains covered.
8. After two hours meat should be tender and wine reduced.
9. Just before serving, stir in dark chocolate. A tiny piece is all that’s needed; add too much and it will taste like chocolate.
10. Serve with a side of potatoes or over pasta to absorb sauce.