On Men and Beef Stew
When I had some mysterious back pain and was feeling under the weather, I let Loic baby me. What do you want to eat? He asked, as I languished in bed last weekend, just feeling tired. He thought I might say toast with butter or oatmeal or some such nonsense.
Beef stew, I uttered, quietly, in English, in the still dark back bedroom with shades drawn. "Pardon?" He came closer to listen. I wanted some beef stew. I couldn't explain it. He took to the project readily and made a trip to the butcher, enjoying the chance to commune with him. He occupied himself with the various neccesary trips, chose herbs, squeezed veggies, relied on the expertise of the vegetable boy to choose the navets, etc. He came back with secret packets of this and that and set to work.
The order was put in Saturday morning and it was delivered the next day. That's fine. It takes time, a good beef stew. I was nestled in on the couch, already feeling better really when I heard him begin peeling and chopping so I let him be. He had chosen his recipe.
Loic cooks excellently from recipes. He is a great measurer. I have watched him with the scales and he fiddles with measurements down to the gram. He levels cups and boils over not in, and is meticulous in his ways. I don't think Loic has ever messed up, burned, forgotten an ingredient, stirred when he should have folded, failed to sift, made sacrreligious substitutions, added too much salt, mixed up paprika for cayenne, conducted experiments which failed, or any of the outrageous mistakes that I have committed in the process of learning how to cook, ever. He popped out of the womb a natural born follower of recipes. Quite logically, he became in his adult life, a scientist.
Thinking back, I do remember one time. On the inaugural visit to meet my family when we were dating and had gotten serious, Loic prepared a flan at their house to impress them. It was the only recipe he ever messed up. The flan was heavy and floury and something was awry. My family loved him and proclaimed that they loved heavy floury things and praised it to heaven. He knew it was a mess-up and was terribly upset. I think he got over it, but you never can be sure if it is one of those things that when his mind is racing in the night, if it comes to poke at him from time to time. That time he messed up that very important flan. I should tell him but I know now that it wasn't his fault - he was using a different kind of flour than he was used to. It took me a couple of years of cooking here in France to realize why his flan didn't work.
The beef stew was outrageously delicious. He did everything right, including averting his eyes at the dinner table and confessing that he didn't add that cup of white Bourgogne that the recipe called for. This, in my mind, was a milestone in the liberation of Loic from his meticulous ways in the kitchen and an opening for the inventiveness that we will see from him, given the chance. He got a thrill from replacing the white wine with water in the recipe. I did too, because it is what I would have done in the absence of that kind of wine. Tasting the stew, I honestly thought it was perfect. I put a thought into what the wine might have added, and was sure that he had done the right thing.
There is nothing wrong with water! This is one of my mantras in cooking, I write it down but Loic never hears it. People are always trying to replace it with something else in a recipe and sometimes I wonder if people do it because they want to assert some kind of one-upsmanship in cooking. When it comes to stock, I wonder if it's a belief based in inexperience in slow cooking that stock automatically trumps water and is thus required.
There are hundreds of contemporary recipes I have in print on my shelves that wrecklessly throw in the common barrier of home-made stock (page X) as the liquid medium in a braise when it really won't matter. Don't get me wrong, I am a stock advocate, it has its place. I use wine in cooking often, and there are certain dishes that really do call for and require a special kind of wine. But I would like to assert that not having the right kind of wine or stock should never, ever, let me beat this into your head, ever - stop you from slow cooking any meat dish. Never. Because water is a basic ingredient that has an amazing capacity to absorb flavor. Having been infused in advance with poultry or a delicately flavored veal foot, for many of these recipes, will NOT make a discerable difference in the finished product.
Water has a much more important function, that of circulating moist heat in the slow cooking of meats, and the liquid in many of these recipes serves that purpose as its primary function. Water is a wonderful thing, and its power should not be underestimated, even if you are making a soup in a quarter of an hour.
Sometimes you just have to let fresh things speak for themselves. A head of spring fennel, a shallot, a fresh bouquet, and a chunk of the flesh of any number of fish or fowl can speak more beautiful poetry than you'd think. If you are a person who's formative cooking experience comes from stock or die recipes, this realization may be a brutal and liberating shock to you. Beauty can be coaxed from these simple things - directly, in a very short time. In short, don't fall on stock as a crutch or use the absence of it as an excuse not to throw yourself headlong into savory cooking. Look at what you've got. Your fresh simple and flavorful results will suprise you.
In any case, Loic's Boeuf à la Mode was simply divine, the tender meat melted in my mouth, beautiful perfectly seasoned simple broth spread like sunshine, the carrots' clear flavor ringing like churchbells among the squares in the city center on a Sunday morning. You know, those churchbell moments that happen when they all ring at the same time. The window's open, and you've got a glimpse of the clear blue sky, Sunday dinner and then the afternoon spread out before you. This beef stew tasted like freedom. And I really felt great when he said - "you know, I could serve this to guests". I knew this thrill, and seeing it in his face gave me a lot of pleasure.