with Southern dumplings
Adding a Southern twist to Jaques Pépin’s recipe for this iconic French dish creates a feast both homey and fancy and fit for any celebration.
Eager to get cooking? Skip To Recipe.
This year, and particularly the past few months, have felt so fraught with both collective and personal grief, fear, and anxiety underwritten, in my case, by a reassuring (and new) groundwork of love and hopefulness.
I have never been more keenly aware of how loved I am and how much more deeply I can love. It has freed me up to worry more about everyone else (a Maslow effect anyone who’s lived through hard times may recognize—the more you heal the more you feel). It’s a lot to navigate, straddling that razor’s edge between the terrible cruelty and chaos of existence and the practice of hopefulness and loving-kindness. I drink a lot less and I cry a lot more.
There is a persistent backdrop of dread and disaster as I get older, as I step more fully into my humanity, as I better understand the pain of others, as dear friends get sick and loved ones pass away and my own body begins to show signs of decay and the inequity both at home and abroad demands my attention.
I was talking to my mom about this and, not for the first time, asked her if things are especially bad now, or if this is really just part of the eternal ebb and flow of human ineptitude and brilliance. And, not for the first time, we’ve both circled back around to the many, the countless, the horrific tragedies of history during which, surely, things seemed pretty damned awful and were certainly worse than they are now.
Like when my mom was in high school English in Auburn, Alabama, on November 22, 1963 and a student messenger popped his head in the door and announced that Kennedy had been shot and everyone cheered. That was a bad time.
Or when I was a kid in the 80s and, though I didn’t know it, HIV/AIDS was decimating brothers and sisters all over the world and the US did a whole lot of nothing for way too long. By all accounts that was a devastating time to be alive or dying.
Or consider one of my favorite historic episodes because it’s ancient enough to be fun, the heyday of the bubonic plague, particularly as recounted by the boys from Last Podcast on the Left. In their four-part series on the plague, the recurring and factually accurate joke is that the 14th century, due to a series of calamities culminating in the plague, was the “worst time to be alive.” I’d wager those 75-to-200 million folks in Eurasia who died horribly of plague would agree.
Anyway, this tenderhearted, delicate, steely, grim, and glorious time which is probably a lot like other difficult times and probably a lot better even if it doesn’t feel that way because we’re in it, calls for celebration—the more the merrier, in whatever form celebration takes. Because as Masha Gessan said in a recent interview I can no longer find (about potential nuclear holocaust in Russia), hope is a moral imperative.
For me and my partner, generating hope by way of celebration mostly involves cooking for each other and my parents next door, who are always happy for the company and gamely consume all the culinary experiments we dish up (ditto with my partner’s folks, but as they aren’t our neighbors, we see and cook for them less frequently).
That we all get along in this family—enjoy each other, even—is one of those lightning strikes of good fortune that reminds me I am a damned lucky ding-dong and a dick to waste such a gift with fretting and depression. This little community, this piddly life, is something I have to be careful not to clutch too tightly, because it feels so precious. And that kind of attachment just leads to fear and anxiety and a marked inability to enjoy the goddamned present moment.
So, we find reasons to celebrate and when none are forthcoming, we make them up. And as last Thursday was my mom’s 75th birthday, we had a ready excuse to throw down and an incredible human to celebrate. And we did.
Mom and I settled on stew with Southern-style dumplings for the feast, a dish she remembers fondly from childhood dinners and rarely (never?) eats in adulthood. I have no real recollection of eating Southern dumplings and have been deeply wary, I think because I have had some execrable cobblers topped with undercooked biscuit dough and assumed that any boiled blob of dough would be similar.
I was wrong. In a stew, Southern dumplings are delicious starchy buoys soaking up some of the flavorful sauces and offering a soft, carby anchor for the more textured and umami-rich ingredients like mushrooms and carrots.
My grandmother wasn’t making boeuf bourguignon in Auburn, Alabama, but I never miss an opportunity to glug the better part of a bottle of wine into a pot full of buttery vegg, meat, and herbs, and the French are particularly fond of that combo. My people. The smell is incredible and, in the case of this classic Bourguignon recipe from one of my heroes, Jaques Pépin, the resulting sauce is absolutely mouth-watering, a near demi-glace of rich beefy essence that tastes like a 5-star masterpiece.
Boeuf Bourguignon with Southern dumplings
Serves 4 heartily and 6 modestly
This is a rich and warming dish, best served when the weather is chilly, or your anxious belly requires the culinary equivalent of a wine-soaked, weighted blanket. It is simple if time-consuming to make, and it tastes fancy, making it perfect for celebrations. Prepare it a day ahead if you like, and reheat the elements day-of, or make the whole thing the day of your feast, if you have an extra 3 or 4 hours to spare on and off. A classic boeuf bourguignon does not include dumplings, so feel free to omit them if you want to go full French. I used Fanny Farmer’s recipe for cream biscuits as my dumpling base and jazzed them up with a hefty dose of fresh thyme (a great way to use up that pesky herb packet after you’ve chucked what you need in the stew). Finally, while other recipes call for beef stock or water, Pépin relies on wine to create the sauce. Go with it.
I hope this recipe brings you as much joy as it did my family, and I hope that joy carries you through the inevitable dark days behind, around, and in front of us.
Boeuf Bourguignon Ingredients
1 T unsalted butter (or use salted & go easy on the salt below)
2 T olive oil, divided
2 lb flatiron steak (apparently Pépin’s favorite), chuck roast, or round roast. Tip: round eye roast is, take it from me, too lean for this recipe and not at all equivalent to the other “rounds.” I’m still learning to speak beef.
1 T salt divided
2 tsp black pepper, preferably freshly ground
1 c onion, chopped the way you like it
1 T garlic, finely chopped or microplaned
1 T all-purpose flour
1 bottle dry red wine
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried thyme or a sizeable sprig of fresh thyme
5 ounces pancetta, sliced into lardons (1-inch-long rectangles) or chopped
15 mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed (I used white button but Pepin reccomends creminis)
15 pearl or cipollini onions (you can use frozen or peel and trim fresh ones)
15 peeled baby carrots or skinny farm carrots
Large pinch of sugar
parsley, chopped for garnish
Dumpling Ingredients (aka Fanny Farmer’s cream biscuits, 1/2 batch)
1 c flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 T baking powder
1 tsp sugar
3/4 c heavy cream plus an additional tablespoon or two if needed
Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a large enameled cast-iron casserole, melt the butter in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Arrange the meat in the casserole in a single layer and season with salt and pepper. Cook over moderately high heat, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides, 8 minutes. Add the chopped onion and garlic and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened, 5 minutes. Add the flour and stir to coat the meat with it. Add the wine, bay leaves, and thyme, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pot.
Cover the casserole and transfer it to the oven. Cook the stew for 1 1/2 hours, until the meat is very tender and the sauce is flavorful.
Meanwhile, make the dumplings. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl and stir with a fork. Slowly add cream and stir until just combined, then gather dough into with your hands. If dough is shaggy and dry, add a bit more cream and continue to gather up the dough. Place dough on lightly floured surface and knead for 1 minute. Then place dough back in the bowl and place in fridge until it is time to poach the dumplings.
Then, in a large skillet, combine the pancetta, pearl onions, mushrooms, and carrots. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1/4 cup of water, and a large pinch each of sugar, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer until almost all of the water has evaporated, 15 minutes. Uncover and cook over high heat, tossing, until the vegetables are tender and nicely browned, about 4 minutes. Set pan aside until you are ready to plate the stew.
When the beef is fall-apart tender, remove it from the oven and use a slotted spoon to gently transfer the beef to a bowl. Set aside while you poach the dumplings.
If there is too little sauce remaining (everyone’s oven is different and cooking times may vary), add in about 1/4 to 1/2 cup and bring the liquid to a simmer. Remove the dumpling dough from the fridge and scoop roughly 2 T of dough, shaping with hands into an oblong shape (think quenelle). Continue until all the dough has been scooped, then poach the dumplings for ten minutes, flipping over in the sauce halfway through.
When dumplings are puffed and cooked through, return the beef to the stew mixture and reheat for 2 or 2 minutes. At this point you can fire up that pan of vegetables too, if they’ve become too cold.
To serve, divvy up the stew evenly in large, wide bowls or plates, then divvy up the vegetables and garnish with pancetta lardons and parsley.