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The basics of bistro cooking, times three

Let's say you wanted to make boeuf bourguignon, a slowly cooked aromatic stew made with beef and red burgundy, finished off with traditional garnishes of small white onions braised in stock and mushrooms sauteed in butter. It's a perfect winter dish, typical of the food served in bistros and brasseries all over France. (Brasseries tend to be larger than bistros and have more extensive menus, but the cooking style is the same.)

Bistro cooking has been around for at least a couple of centuries. While edgy food trends go in and out of style, this down-to-earth approach is always popular. It's a style that takes basic, often inexpensive ingredients and turns them into comfort food at its best; a style that chefs seek out when somebody else is cooking for them. Think onion soup, hearty pates, roast chicken, steak frites, salade nicoise, creme caramel, fresh fruit tarts.

This season, three prominent figures on the American culinary scene have produced cookbooks that focus on bistro cooking: Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris: Easy French Food You Can Make at Home (Clarkson Potter, $35); Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking (Bloomsbury, $34.95); and Thomas Keller's Bouchon (Artisan, $50, written with Jeffrey Cerciello).

Garten's book is a collection of accessible recipes for meals to serve family and friends. Bourdain offers a thoughtful guide to classic dishes. And Keller's work is a daunting but inspirational road map to a higher culinary plane.

Not surprisingly, there's a boeuf bourguignon recipe in each book that reflects the typical way the author approaches bistro cooking. Garten's recipe is straightforward, speedy and simple to make. Bourdain's is more detailed and intelligently explained. Keller's is exquisitely refined and time-consuming.

Why three serious cookbooks for bistro food now? The authors disavow any culinary zeitgeist spurring them on. Bourdain's book is a natural outgrowth of Les Halles, the restaurant in Manhattan where he is executive chef. Keller's is a reflection of Bouchon, his 6-year-old bistro-style restaurant with branches in California's Napa Valley and in Las Vegas. And Garten says she just likes the food.

Ina Garten

Garten is the first to tell you she's not a trained chef. It doesn't matter. Her "you can do it" approach to cooking has made her an idol to countless Americans who've bought her three previous cookbooks, watched her on the Food Network, followed her Web site ( or collected her recipes from stints for Martha Stewart Living and Oprah magazines.

Her earlier books _ which together have sold more than a million copies _ were an outgrowth of the sophisticated takeout food sold at the Barefoot Contessa, her specialty food store in the Hamptons. This one, she says, is more personal. It's a simplified version of the food she learned to cook when she worked her way through Julia Child more than two decades ago, and the food she and her husband like to eat. "It's in my cooking DNA," she said by phone recently.

She knows, however, that her readers can't spend all day in the kitchen. "Who has the time anymore," she says from her home in East Hampton. So she has figured out ways to streamline the recipes and make them accessible. And she's done it without demanding hard-to-find ingredients or restaurant cookware.

Garten sanctions using shortcuts such as store-bought mayonnaise, sorbets and frozen puff pastry. She confesses she doesn't have the patience to make bouillabaisse because it takes all day, so she's devised an easier, much faster seafood stew (that takes a few hours) with many of the same flavors. She spells out exactly how much of a recipe can be done ahead of time. She describes the dishes in the context of her life with family and friends. For good measure, Garten has thrown in cocktails and side dishes that may not be on bistro menus but fit right in when you are planning special meals.

"The most important thing for me is that you really can make great stuff ahead of time," says Garten. "The parties that are the most fun are the ones where the host and hostess are relaxed."

Anthony Bourdain

Bourdain is the culinary bad boy whose bestselling book Kitchen Confidential (2000) showed America the underbelly of restaurant kitchens. His irreverent, sometimes scatological tone _ even in his recipes _ might put off the timid. That said, his boisterous, nagging voice has its advantages. You end up feeling he's right beside you in the kitchen _ urging you on and guiding you past typical culinary pitfalls.

Home cooks can learn a lot from this book. Enjoy cooking, he writes. Think about the recipe you want to make. Break it down into coherent parts. Form a plan of attack, so that before you start to cook, you have everything you need _ every ingredient, every tool, every oven mitt. And don't be afraid to make mistakes. Just understand what you did wrong, so you won't be afraid to try again.

The recipes run more or less the gamut of bistro dishes, from vichyssoise to choucroute garni to chocolate mousse. The standard sauces (beurre blanc, bearnaise, bechamel) are there, too, as are organ meat dishes (tripe, kidneys, veal tongue) that you might not have made before.

How should home cooks approach the book? Bourdain has two suggestions: Either start with the easiest dishes to pump up your confidence _ "I urge people to braise and stew early on. Those (dishes) have the largest margin of error. You should feel good about yourself" _ or, for the more ambitious readers, start out with stock and then go on to demiglace. "Once you do demiglace, you're pretty much master of the universe," he says.

Thomas Keller

Keller's book is every bit what you'd expect from someone the James Beard Foundation twice named best chef in the United States for his work at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. His recipes are elegant, his techniques illuminating and his standards absolutely daunting.

This book, he writes, is about maintaining classic traditions _ in particular, those of bistro cooking. But don't be fooled. To Keller and Jeffrey Cerciello, executive chef at the Bouchon restaurants, the only way those traditions can be maintained is through precise technique.

"From a chef's point of view, this kind of food is easily prepared and can be made in big batches from not-too-expensive ingredients," he says.

But even skilled home cooks will find his approach demanding _ though, to be fair, not difficult, assuming time and patience on the cook's part. A perfectionist, he's not particularly concerned. "The ability to commit time to a process is a problem of our society," he says. "There's no real quick fix, no magic bullet to make you a good cook, and you may have to go through a recipe a couple of times to understand it."

Though Keller says that home cooks aren't given enough credit for their intelligence, he must know how intimidating his approach can be.

"Choose recipes you'll be successful with," he says. "Start with something easy, like the roast chicken, and move on step by step. A cookbook is something you should be using over and over again as you move through it. Making it your own is really important. "

Anthony Bourdain's Boeuf Bourguignon

Bourdain says: "This dish is much better the second day. Just cool the stew down in an ice bath, or on your countertop (the Health Department is unlikely to raid your kitchen). Refrigerate overnight. When time, heat and serve.

"Goes well with a few boiled potatoes. But goes really well with a bottle of Cote de Nuit Villages Pommard."

2 pounds beef shoulder or neck, cut into 1{-inch pieces

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

\ cup olive oil

4 onions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup red Burgundy

6 carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 clove garlic

1 bouquet garni (a tied bundle of herbs, usually thyme, bay and parsley)

A little chopped flat parsley

Stage One: Season the meat with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven, heat the oil over high heat until it is almost smoking. Add the meat, in batches _ NOT ALL AT ONCE! _ and sear on all sides until it is well browned (not gray). You dump too much meat in the pot at the same time and you'll overcrowd it; cool the thing down and you won't get good color. Sear the meat a little at a time, removing it and setting is aside as it finishes. When all the meat is a nice, dark brown color and has been set aside, add the onions to the pot. Lower the heat to medium high until the onions are soft and golden brown (about 10 minutes). Sprinkle the flour over them. Continue to cook for about 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the red wine. Naturally, you want to scrape up all that really good fond from the bottom of the pot with your wooden spoon. Bring the wine to a boil.

Stage Two: Return the meat to the pot and add the carrots, garlic and bouquet garni. Add just enough water (and two big spoons of demiglace, if you have it) so that the liquid covers the meat by one-third _ meaning you want a ratio of 3 parts liquid to 2 parts meat. This is a stew, so you want plenty of liquid even after it cooks down and reduces. Bring to a boil, reduce to a gentle simmer, and let cook for about 2 hours, or until the meat is tender (break-apart-with-a-fork tender).

You should pay attention to the dish, meaning to check it every 15 to 20 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot to make sure the meat is not sticking or, God forbid, scorching. You should also skim off any foam or scum or oil collecting on the surface, using a large spoon or ladle. When done, remove and discard the bouquet garni, add the chopped parsley to the pot, and serve.

Serves 6.

Per serving (approximate): 478 calories, 32g protein, 15g carbohydrates, 29g fat, 94mg cholesterol, 8g saturated fat, 153mg sodium, 3g dietary fiber.

Ina Garten's Boeuf Bourguignon

Garten says: "To make in advance, cook the stew and refrigerate. To serve, reheat to a simmer over low heat and serve with the bread and parsley. Don't wash the mushrooms, just brush them clean.

"If the sauce is too thin, you can add more of the butter and flour mixture."

1 tablespoon good olive oil

8 ounces good bacon, diced

2{ pounds beef chuck cut into 1-inch cubes

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 pound carrots, sliced diagonally into 1-inch chunks

2 yellow onions, sliced

2 teaspoons chopped garlic (2 cloves)

{ cup Cognac or good brandy

1 (750ml) bottle good dry red wine, such as Burgundy

2 to 2{ cups canned beef broth

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

4 tablespoons ({ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 pound frozen small whole onions

1 pound mushrooms, stems discarded, caps thickly sliced

For serving:

Country bread, toasted or grilled

1 clove garlic, cut in half

{ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the bacon and cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is lightly browned. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon to a large plate.

Dry the beef cubes with paper towels and then sprinkle them with salt and pepper.

In batches in single layers, sear the beef in the hot oil for 3 to 5 minutes, turning to brown on all sides.

Remove the seared cubes to the plate with the bacon and continue searing until all the beef is browned. Set aside.

Toss the carrots, onions, 1 tablespoon of salt and 2 teaspoons of pepper into the fat in the pan and cook over medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the Cognac, stand back, and ignite with a match to burn off the alcohol. Put the meat and bacon back into the pot with any juices that have accumulated on the plate. Add the wine plus enough beef broth to almost cover the meat. Add the tomato paste and thyme.

Bring to a boil, cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid, and place it in the oven for about 1\ hours, or until the meat and vegetables are very tender when pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven and place on top of the stove.

Combine 2 tablespoons of the butter and the flour with a fork and stir into the stew. Add the frozen onions. In a medium pan, saute the mushrooms in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat for 10 minutes, or until lightly browned, and then add to the stew.

Bring the stew to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Season to taste.

Rub each slice of bread on one side with garlic. For each serving, spoon the stew over a slice of bread and sprinkle with parsley.

Serves 6.

Per serving (approximate): 747 calories, 43g protein, 39g carbohydrates, 33g fat, 100mg cholesterol, 11g saturated fat, 982mg sodium, 6g dietary fiber.

Thomas Keller's Boeuf Bourguignon

Keller says: "(Remove) the impurities at every opportunity. That means skimming the stock thoroughly, removing all the fat and particles, straining it well, and then removing the fat and vegetable particles from the sauce. There will be fat from the searing of the meat, and this fat collects on the surface. It's these particles and fat that muddle flavor and dull the color and sheen of a stew. To serve, cook the vegetable garnishes perfectly _ so that the carrots are vivid orange, the onions bright, and the potatoes are cooked but firm, not mushy _ and add them to the stew."

For the red-wine reduction:

1 bottle red wine, such as cabernet sauvignon

1 cup diced ({ inch) onions

1 cup sliced ({ inch) peeled carrots

1 cup sliced ({ inch) leeks, white and light green parts only

1 cup sliced (\ inch) shallots

1 cup sliced (\ inch) button mushrooms and/or mushroom stems

3 thyme sprigs

6 Italian parsley sprigs

2 bay leaves

{ teaspoon black peppercorns

3 large garlic cloves, skin left on, smashed

2} pounds boneless short ribs (about 1 inch thick)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Canola oil

1 cup diced ({ inch) yellow onions

cup sliced ({ inch) peeled carrots

1{ cups sliced ({ inch) leeks, white and light green parts only

2 garlic cloves, skin left on, smashed

3 thyme sprigs

3 Italian parsley sprigs

2 bay leaves

About 4 cups veal stock or beef stock

For the garnishes:

8 ounces small fingerling potatoes

1 tablespoon kosher salt

\ teaspoon black peppercorns

2 thyme sprigs

1 bay leaf

2 garlic cloves, skin left on, smashed

16 round French baby carrots or other baby carrots

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

4 thyme sprigs

2 bay leaves

2 garlic cloves, skin left on, smashed

4 ounces slab bacon, cut into 24 lardons about 1{ inches long and 3/8 inch thick

32 small button mushrooms, cleaned

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

12 red pearl onions, cooked

12 white pearl onions, cooked

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

Fleur de sel

Dijon mustard

For the red-wine reduction: Combine all the ingredients in a large heavy ovenproof pot with a lid that will hold the meat in a single, or no more than a double, layer. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the wine has reduced to a glaze.

For the beef: Trim excess fat and any silver skin from the short ribs. Cut the meat into pieces approximately 1{ to 2 inches by 1 inch thick.

Line a baking sheet with paper towels. Season all sides of the meat with salt and pepper. Heat one-eighth inch of canola oil in a large saute pan over high heat. When the oil is hot, add only as many pieces of meat as will fit comfortably in a single layer; do not crowd the pan or the meat will steam rather than brown. Once the meat has browned on the first side, turn it and continue to brown the meat on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Transfer the meat to the paper towel-lined baking sheet.

Brown the remaining meat in batches, adding more oil to the pan as necessary.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Add the onions, carrots, leeks, garlic, thyme, parsley, and bay leaves to the reduction and toss together. Cut a piece of cheesecloth that is about 4 inches larger than the diameter of the pot. Wet the cheesecloth and wring dry. Place the cloth over the vegetables and fold over the edges to form a "nest" for the meat. (The cheesecloth will allow the liquid to flavor and cook the meat but prevent bits of vegetable and herbs from clinging to it.) Place the short ribs on the cheesecloth and add enough stock to come just to the top of the meat.

It is important that the liquid doesn't evaporate too quickly. If the pot does not have a tight-fitting lid, cut a parchment lid. Bring the liquid to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cover the meat with the parchment lid, if using, then cover the pot with the lid. Place in the oven and reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Braise the beef for 1{ to 2 hours, or until the meat is very tender.

Transfer the meat to an ovenproof pot or container. Remove and discard the cheesecloth. Strain the braising liquid twice through a fine strainer or a medium strainer lined with a clean and dampened tea towel or cheesecloth, straining it the second time into a saucepan. Discard the vegetables. Bring the liquid to a boil, spooning off the fat as it rises to the top. Strain the liquid over the beef. Cool, then cover and refrigerate for at least 1 day, or up to 3 days.

For the garnishes: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

If the potatoes are large, cut them into {-inch-thick slices. If they are small (less than 1 ounce each), leave them whole. Place in a large saucepan, along with the salt, peppercorns, thyme, bay leaf, and garlic and add cold water to cover the potatoes by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Drain the potatoes and transfer to a plate. Discard the seasonings. Once they are cool, slice whole potatoes lengthwise in half. Set aside.

Peel the carrots and trim the tops, leaving one-quarter inch attached. With a paring knife, scrape the tops of the carrots to remove any skin that remains. Cut the carrots lengthwise in half. Place in a saucepan, add the salt, peppercorns, thyme, bay leaves and garlic and cover with about 1{ inches of water. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the carrots for 4 to 5 minutes, or until tender.

Drain the carrots and transfer to a plate to cool. Discard the seasonings.

Spread the lardons in a single layer in a nonstick baking pan and place in the oven. After about 10 minutes, stir the lardons and return to the oven for another 5 to 10 minutes, or until they are richly browned. Remove from the oven and drain on paper towels.

Trim the mushroom stems flush with the caps. Heat the butter in a large skillet over high heat until it has melted and the foam has subsided. Add the mushrooms, reduce the heat to medium-low, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook gently, tossing often, until the mushrooms are lightly browned and tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside.

To complete the dish: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Place the container with the beef in the oven for a few minutes just to liquefy the stock. Remove from the oven and turn the oven up to 400 degrees. Carefully remove the pieces of beef to a deep ovenproof saute pan. Strain the liquid over the beef.

Place the pan in the oven and warm the beef for about 5 minutes, basting occasionally with the cooking liquid. Add the potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, and onions and toss gently. Return to the oven for an additional 5 to 10 minutes, or until the vegetables and meat are hot.

Meanwhile, rewarm the lardons in a small skillet.

Remove the saute pan from the oven and gently toss in the parsley. With a slotted spoon, divide the meat and vegetables among serving plates or bowls. Spoon some of the sauce over each serving. Distribute the lardons among the plates and sprinkle with fleur de sel. Serve with Dijon mustard.

Makes 4 servings.

Per serving (approximate): 1,133 calories, 85g protein, 40g carbohydrates, 58g fat, 187mg cholesterol, 22g saturated fat, 1,075mg sodium, 7g dietary fiber.