Bringing Home the Boeuf
October 27, 2004

No, I haven't thrown myself into the Bay or jumped off the Mission San Juan Batista or even dressed up like a Renaissance painting, but thanks for asking.

Seriously, I do appreciate all the worried and solicitous emails y'all have been sending. The vertigo seems to have disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived, but the nasal spray I was instructed to apply to snort twice a day stripped my nasal cavities and left me with a nice little cold. Which I'm now completely over. Look, all evidence (and my mother) to the contrary, I am not a sickly person. That was actually the first cold I've had since I moved to California, and it was all because of that stupid nasal stuff. I'm a firm believer that nasal passages are off ramps only. And the vertigo thing…well, I don't know what that was.

Anyway, I have not been absent for any health reasons, I've just been insanely busy with the new job and the television season starting up for Enterprise. And all I'm going to say about the latter is: Alien Nazis. Did you know? They're just as eeevil as regular Nazis! I know, who would've guessed?

With regards to the former, I spent three weeks managing a photo shoot for one of the cookbooks I'm in charge of. It was informative, exhausting, and really quite...stinky. The entire team went home every night smelling like beef and oil. Hunca Munca and Poppadum had a field day with, in, and under my clothes -- they were loudly distressed not to find veal chops in my pockets or pot roasts in my shoes. The best thing about being on the shoot was the night I brought home a side of beef. Well, maybe it was only half a prime rib, but it was a lot of meat. We ate like gout-happy kings that night. Gotta love those cookbook-editing perks. Actually, no, that was the best thing for Dr. Mathra -- the best thing for me was when the team went out for our wrap dinner at the Grand Café in Union Square where we drank lots of amazing wine, ate lots of amazing food, and dribbled how much we loved each other after three weeks of being in each others faces and passing around the same damn cold. Yup, loving those perks.

The thing is, we don't eat a lot of red meat at our house because, well, I'm not really sure why. It's expensive? It's a pain to prepare? Maybe, but I think it's because we don't really think about it unless we're at a restaurant. However, with the weather getting decidedly fall-like around these NorCal parts, and a bottle of superb wine begging to be tasted, I decided it was time to bring home the beef once more.

When Dr. Mathra's parents were out here for a visit, not only did they take us to some of the best restaurants in town (Slanted Door and Quince, which I will now always call "Quince, oh, QUINCE!") but they presented us with two bottled Provençal jewels: a bottle of the favored and highly prized Mausanne olive oil and a bottle of Gigondas for our 4th Anniversary.

Gigongas is a red wine from the most important of the northern appellations of the Southern Rhône region in France. Did you get all that? A whole host of grapes are squished together to create this wine that truly embodies the concept of terroir. Yeah, okay, so terroir is just a fancy way of saying that the wine is impacted by everything concerning the soil the grapes are grown in: the slope of the hill, sunlight, fog, temperature, rainfall, elevation, orientation and…you get my drift. Feel free to throw that word around at parties. Or bars. Or just your house. Gigondas wines are either red or rosé (we've only had the red) and the principal red grapes (there are no principal white grapes to soften this deep, creamy wine) are grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, and cinsaut. When you taste a glass of good Gigondas -- and most of it, if you can find it, is good -- you are hit with spices and dark fruits. Some people, like Frasier and Niles Crane, would say the wine is "chewy" but I can't honestly say I've ever chewed my way through any glass of wine. It is a wine that quickly became my vin de choix when I was introduced to it a few years ago. It is a wine I long to see on more menus. It is a wine I dream about. This particular Gigondas -- a 2000 Domaine Brusset Le Grand Montmirail -- was given a 94 in Wine Spectator and might possibly be the highest rated wine ever to pass my stained lips.

Well, clearly I had to fashion a meal that would do this ruby bottle proud, so I decided to go completely French and make Boeuf Bourguignonne, Roasted Fennel, and Artichokes and Leeks Vinaigrette. For you Francophones out there, you'll note that Burgundy and Provence aren't exactly the same region. And the leeks are really more of a Loire Valley thing. However, I was secure in the fact that both the artichokes and fennel were firmly Provençal. I did actually consider making a dish called Boeuf en Daube, which is Provence's version of the Bourguignonne, but, well, I was really craving the perfectly browned little onions and mushrooms I saw our food stylist making at the beef shoot.

Last weekend ended up being sort of wet and overcast, which made it perfect stew weather. The Friday before Anniversary Night, I used my lunch break to hike over to the Ferry Building from our darling little offices near the Trans America Pyramid and pick up 3 pounds of boneless beef chuck from Golden Gate Meat Company. Since it's the main ingredient, it was the only one I was convinced should be the best of the best. Our local Albertsons would have everything else, including Niman Ranch bacon.

After a lot of prep work -- mis en place is good! -- I put the stew in the oven and let it do its 2-3 hours of braising. When it came time to roast the fennel at a higher heat than the Boeuf wanted, I moved the NonCruset to finish braising on the stovetop. Into the oven went the fennel, quartered and tossed very simply with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Earlier in the day, the artichokes were boiled (they're tough little suckers) in water drizzled with olive oil and white wine vinegar and set to chill in the fridge. I cleaned, halved, and browned the leek lengths and then simmered them in chicken stock and parsley until soft. Those went into the serving vessel with the artichokes to get saturated by a lemon-mustard vinaigrette with macerated shallots. The Boeuf finished up just as the fennel started to get brown and crispy, and that's when I discovered that the braising liquid was still just a liquid. Quelle horreur! Well, that just wouldn't do! I took out the fork-tender meat and the brunoised vegetables and quickly whisked in about a tablespoonful of flour. That did it. The liquid got saucy and turned into a nice, shiny gravy. Back in went the meat and veggies followed by the browned pearl onions and button mushrooms which needed a warm up before serving.

Fighting his way through the warm smell of bacon, beef, and cognac, Dr. Mathra opened the Gigondas.

Ahhh. A bite of Boeuf and a sip of wine and we knew we had chosen our menu wisely.

The roasted fennel, all sweet and caramelized from the oven, disappeared right away. The leeks soon after. Hunks of sweet baguette from a local baker -- I'm telling you, we got everything out here! -- got up the last dregs of the perfectly thickened, fragrantly rich sauce, and the artichokes lost their hearts in San Francisco. Dessert was simply a pint of pistachio Häagen-Dazs, which we felt was the "Frenchiest" of all the flavors, aside from vanilla.

We slept well that night as the autumn rain beat on our windows and the cats purred on our stomachs, clearly aiding our digestion.

In closing: GO SOX!

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