In Henri’s kitchen

Childhood memories of beef stew and Julia Child

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

Henri’s been feeling rather, well, old and tired lately. At least too old for the adventures of his youth. So instead of heading down to Fleet Week in San Francisco earlier this month, as I had planned, I decided to stay in Chico and enjoy the beautiful autumn weather by organizing my cookbooks.

I started the first morning by taking them all down off the shelves and piling them on the kitchen table. Well, actually, I started with a couple of glasses of Bordeaux and one of my favorite little breakfasts, oeufs Henri (scrambled eggs with green onions and brie on toasted sourdough, lots of butter). Then I took down all my cookbooks. Wait … no. Then I took a nap.

I took down all my cookbooks that afternoon. Piled them up on the table and got right to work. After I opened another bottle of wine and watched Yentl and Funny Girl.

It was dark by the time I got around to the actual organizing. And even then I didn’t get very far. Instead, I found myself sitting on the kitchen floor with Julia Child’s The Way To Cook and recalling the many autumn afternoons of my Midwest youth, glued to Child’s long-running PBS cooking show, The French Chef, while my classmates soiled their perfectly good school clothes in barbaric after-school games of flag football.

More of an instruction book or reference manual than a conventional cookbook, The Way to Cook often includes what she calls “master recipes,” followed by several variations and suggestions for your own ways to improvise.

Henri actually got a little teary-eyed, as I sat there recalling Julia, who died a year ago August, and thinking about the fleeting nature of our little lives. Such are thoughts in autumn. I decided to cook something in her honor. Her Zinfandel of Beef, a hearty stew, would be the perfect dinner for a crisp October evening.

Julia Child’s Zinfandel of Beef (master recipe)
Note: Allow four hours or so to cook, including at least three for the beef to stew and tenderize.

3-4 lbs. boneless stew meat, cubed
2 cups sliced onions
2/3 cup sliced carrots
5-6 cups liquid (red wine, or red wine mixed with beef or chicken stock)
2 cups tomatoes (1 whole and unpeeled, cored and chopped; 1 can Italian plum tomatoes, drained)
2 or 3 large cloves of garlic, smashed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon thyme
2-3 tablespoons flour
2-3 tablespoons softened butter

Dry the cubes of meat with paper towels and brown on all sides on moderately high heat in an oil-coated frying pan, transferring them to a casserole as they cook. Once all meat is browned, lower heat, skim all but a spoonful of fat out of the pan, and stir in sliced vegetables, cooking for three or four minutes then pouring them into the casserole over beef. Pour one cup of red wine into the frying pan, stirring to scrape up coagulated juices, and pour over vegetables and beef. Add the garlic, tomatoes, bay leaf, thyme and salt to taste. Add enough liquid (red wine and/or stock) to cover, and then stew in the oven at 325 F or simmer on the stove for two-and-one-half or three hours, or until meat is completely tender. Serve over rice, noodles or sliced bread with a light salad and a hearty red wine.

Notes: 1) Among the many ingredients you can add to the master recipe are green beans, potatoes and mushrooms—best to wait until the last hour of stewing. 2) For a thicker stew, add a roux, or beurre-manie sauce, just before serving (see The Way to Cook, The Joy of Cooking, etc.).

It was close to midnight by the time the stew was done. And so was I. Exhausted, in fact. I transferred it to large Tupperware bowl, covered it, and put it in the refrigerator. The next day I got a pretty good start organizing my cookbooks—The Way to Cook displayed prominently on the middle shelf—and had the stew for dinner. Always better reheated anyway.