In his first Food for Fort answers to foodie questions column of the new year, Guardian columnist Matthew Fort was presented with the following query by a reader: “I make lots of stews like boeuf bourguignon, but never sear the meat first; I just add it to the pot. Is it really necessary to sear the meat?”
“Necessary, as in will the dish be an utter failure if you don’t?" he began in response.
“Probably not. Necessary, as in will the searing add another layer of flavour? Yes. The searing causes caramelisation, which adds sweetness and fruitiness and the Maillard reaction. I checked the recipe in Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, as close to a divine text as you can get, which adds the flour after browning the meat. I think boeuf bourguignon deserves that attention to detail.”
That is precisely why reading stuff about food is worthwhile. It’s those technical things that, otherwise, you don’t know.
Personally, I’d have seared meat if a recipe calls for it – and boeuf bourguignon is certainly not on the limited list of dishes that I can whip up with reference to the written word.
But I would have done so without really comprehending what the process was intended to achieve. Caramelisation is easy enough to understand, but as for “the Maillard reaction”, I had to check out Wikipedia for an explanation.
Yet once you know that, even if you can’t quite get your head around the actual chemistry, it gives you a reason for the searing – and that helps you understand exactly what is required.
The Fort answer also encouraged me to look up the book that he had described as being “a divine text”. It was written by Julia Child and published in 1961.
Having trained at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and gone on to study privately with a number of chefs, Child wanted to introduce audiences in her native US to French cuisine. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the result. She went on to become a hugely important figure in US culinary life.
According to Wikipedia, her “use of ingredients like butter and cream has been questioned by food critics and modern-day nutritionists.
“She addressed these criticisms throughout her career, predicting that a ‘fanatical fear of food’ would take over the country’s dining habits, and that focusing too much on nutrition takes the pleasure from enjoying food.
“In a 1990 interview, Child said, ‘Everybody is overreacting. If fear of food continues, it will be the death of gastronomy in the United States. Fortunately, the French don’t suffer from the same hysteria we do. We should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life.”
All that butter and cream and enjoyment of food sent her to her grave at the age of 91.
We seem to be between editions of the book – books, actually: there are two volumes –so I haven’t ordered them yet. I have, however, got hold of Julie & Julia, a recent film based on her life and career, and the attempt by a blogger to cook all of the recipes in the book in a year. I might watch it over the weekend.
In the meantime, wondering what to cook for last night’s dinner, I had pulled out a packet of frozen mince before pottering off to work, and left it thaw out.
What I’d decided to do was a cottage pie. Nothing ambitious in that, you say. And quite right you’d be.
But what I wanted to attempt was to pay a little more attention to detail when cooking it – and see if that made any difference.
First up – chop an onion and soften it in olive oil. Nothing different here.
Add the mince – after turning up the heat a bit. Although I’m not as bad as I used to be, I can still be a bit tentative about heat when cooking. But having caramelisation in my mind as the desired outcome helped and I made sure I’d got the pan and oil far hotter than in my previous efforts at cooking mince.
After browning the meat – and the noise and smell tell you it’s cooking differently – I sprinkled a heaped teaspoon of plain flour on the meat, stirred that around to cook through and then deglazed with a little red wine that was conveniently lying around. These were two of my new ‘details’.
Next up, a little celery salt and some diced carrot (these two, with the onion, seemed to represent the vital flavours of a mirepoix that’s the base of so much), a squeeze of tomato purée, a shot of Lea & Perrins (which I cannot remember buying but which I had discovered when clearing a cupboard before Christmas), a small glug of sherry vinegar, a teaspoon of sugar, salt and pepper and some beef stock.
I’d have added stock previously, with the carrot and possibly a little Magi, plus the seasoning. The others mentioned here were more of the evening’s ‘details’.
Now the other thing that had struck me as I’d started thinking about the dish in this way was the question of peas. There’s nothing wrong with frozen peas and I have usually just chucked a few straight out of the freezer into the cooking meat mix.
But hang on, if you do that, you’re adding water and you’re also lowering the temperature of what’s cooking, because you’re putting in something that’s effectively ice.
So I decanted a few peas into a saucepan of boiling water, gave them a minute and then drained them well before adding them to the mix.
Whack the lid on, turn the heat right down and leave it all to cook for around half an hour.
When I came back to it, I decided that I wanted to make it a little thicker. Helpfully, I had some beurre manié in a bit of foil in the fridge from something I’d done last week. It was easy to stir some in, little by little, until I was satisfied with the consistency.
Then it was all decanted into a dish and left to cool while The Other Half, the cats and I got on with putting Christmas back in to assorted boxes.
Next stage: peel, cut up and cook some potatoes. Easy. Then, with my nice new potato ricer, purée the potato, add butter, double cream and seasoning, and spread on to the cooled meat mix. Mark it with a fork and dot with more butter.
Shove into an oven that’s been preheated to 200˚C and leave for around 25 minutes, until the potato is beginning to brown at the edges.
As it happens, I also took account of something I’d read on a forum about fan ovens – that you need to give them longer to pre-heat because they fluctuate quite wildly for a while after you put them on, before the temperature stabilises. Sure enough, I noticed the little indicator light going on and off and on again quite a few times before I was ready to put the finished dish in.
The result was really pleasing. Certainly more flavour than my previous efforts with the same culinary staple.
Cottage pie is hardly haute cuisine, but made properly, it’s good and enjoyable fodder. It isn’t particularly quick to cook, but I think that the extra attention to those few little details really boosted the finished dish.
And hopefully, the technical lesson of caramelisation and Maillard reaction will have stuck and, next time I need to sear meat, I really will sear it and not just vaguely let it near some moderate heat.