Julia I Ain't

So, my in-laws are coming over for dinner tonight, along with Mr. Scrimp's grandmother, who has never been to our house before, and for whom I have never cooked.

Naturally, I am also trying to wrap up a massive project at work, my house is a mess due to a series of welcome parties and beloved weekend guests, and I am in a tizzy of panic about, well, everything.

So, of course, I decided that French cooking would be a good idea on a full workday, especially if I made a recipe that I'd never made before. With grand visions of the most delicious boeuf bourguignon EVER dancing in my head, I dropped Mr. Scrimp off at work and headed for Whole Foods.

This is where things started to go wrong.

First off, did I mention that tizzy of panic? It doesn't make for clear-headed thinking. So I forgot to check the recipe before I left for the store. But no biggie, right? I'd just watched Anthony Bourdain making boeuf bourguignon (hereafter B.B. for ease of writing and because familiarity is good when dealing with enemies) on TV, and it looked so easy. Plus, I've eaten before. I know what's in it.

I knew it should be served with potatoes, so I grabbed a bag. I stared at the mushrooms for a few minutes, but didn't get any.

After a few minutes of hapless wandering in the wine section, I got assistance from someone who recommended a pleasantly cheap $10 pinot noir. "Perfect!" I exclaimed manically and put it in my cart immediately.

I headed for the cheese section. What's a french meal without a cheese course? I grabbed a few cheeses.

I headed for the butcher. Staring at the meat counter, I realized that I had no idea what cut of meat would be Julia (or Bourdain)-approved for this dish.

"Can I help you?" said a butcher, with a disarmingly friendly smile.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

"Can you recommend a cut for boeuf bourguignon?" I said, a little breathless from rushing around the market.

"Um," he said. "Just a second."

With a sinking heart, I watched him disappear into the back. I could hear his conversation with another butcher, muffled:

"Hey. What kind of meat is Beef Burgund-won?"

"Uhh--that's not a kind of meat, man. That's a recipe."


My heart sank.

"What cut is good for it?"

"No idea."

My butcher counter guy reappeared, looking bravely knowledgeable. "How about this sirloin steak?" he said, pointing to a cut labeled $9.99/lb. I thought about the amount of meat I would have to buy to serve 5 people. I thought about braising a steak.

I thought again.

"Well," I said, trying to be polite, "I've never made this before, and I know I have to braise it, so how about some chuck roast?" I pointed at a more modest cut, labeled $2.99/lb. "I'll take two."

He bundled the roasts up for me and I fled.

I was about to get in line, when I remembered--carrots! I'm sure this dish has carrots! I grabbed a bag of them--big, clean, healthy-looking organic specimens. On my way back to the checkout, I snagged a baguette, fresh and delicious looking.

I checked out. $50. Wince. Oh well--I'll get a lot of food out of it, and I will look good, because I made French food. This is apparently worth $50 to me.

I drove home.

I unloaded the groceries, trying not to look at my kitchen full of dishes, and settled down to do some work. I got a lot done, which is good, at least. I didn't finish the project I thought I would be finished with, but I got close.

I lost track of time.

At 3:00, I flipped open my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and found the recipe. Somehow, I expected it to be the first one in the book, but you don't even find it until page 315. It's two pages long.

It involves bacon. Also mushrooms. Also beef stock.

Guess what three things I didn't think to buy?

I thought quickly. Screw Julia! I am going to make the best boeuf bourguignon ever, without her help! I started googling.

The first thing I found was the Julie/Julia project. I briefly skimmed the entry about boeuf bourguignon, and scoffed. Who needs Julia? Julie Powell might, but Mrs. Scrimp doesn't.

I found some copies of Anthony Bourdain's recipe, and read through them frantically. I found some other, unnamed recipes.

"I'll wing it!" I said, now in a nearly frantic rush. I loaded up Pandora, set it to a "French cafe music" station for inspiration, put on my apron, and went to work.

To make boeuf bourguignon, you need a few things. You need a cut of beef that will braise well.  You need a nice burgundy wine (pinot noir is made with burgundy grapes, so I was good there). You need carrots, onions, and mushrooms. You need garlic, olive oil, flour, bay, thyme, and rosemary.

Oh, and you need a dutch oven or casserole in which to cook it. Happily, we have a wonderful dutch oven that my mother-in-law gave me before we got married. It was sitting on the stove, happy and squat, just waiting for me to use it. It's been sitting there for a week, ever since Mr. Scrimp and I made some lentils in it for dinner.

I opened it.

I have discovered something that smells worse than poop. Possibly worse than poop and vomit put together, and those are the two worst smells on earth.

When Mr. Scrimp did the dishes, he neglected to wash the dutch oven. It sat, with a layer of lentils and soapy water on the bottom of it, for a week, growing a thick film of mold across the top of that watery, lentily layer.

I recoiled.

I couldn't bring myself to dump that mess down the drain, so I unrolled roughly half a roll of paper towels and shoved them into the pot, doing my best to soak up all the moldy lentil water and wipe away what was now a mud-brown, stinking puree of lentils. I ran the water blisteringly hot and scrubbed it within an inch of its life.

I turned my attention to the meat, unwrapping the huge pile of chuck roasts sitting on my counter. I recoiled again. Normally I love the smell of raw beef (don't judge me) but for some reason, today it was just nauseating. I fought back my gag reflex and looked for our nice, sharp kitchen knife.

The knife was at the bottom of a sink full of dishes and soapy water that were waiting for Mr. Scrimp's attention when he got home from work. Rather than feel around blindly for a very sharp knife lying in the midst of a pile of other cutlery, I opted to use a different, less sharp knife.

Hacking at the chuck roast, I congratulated myself on my resourcefulness. I thought about writing a blog about how calm, cool, and collected I was, posting the recipe along with a glowing review of my own cooking. I thought about how ridiculous that is and how I should probably stop trying to be like Martha Stewart on this blog and be a little more honest about how often my cooking and crafting projects end up with me doing my best Cathy impression, screaming "Aaack!" while giant beads of sweat fly all over my kitchen and my hair turns into a giant frizzball or flattens so limply that I look like Argus Filch.

Finally, all the meat was cut up.

"I'll season it!" I thought in my manic haze, and started sprinkling it liberally with black pepper and salt. Only when it was well-covered did I remember that Julia insists on blotting it dry with paper towels and claims that it won't brown if you don't do that.

I halfheartedly grabbed some paper towels and started blotting, which yielded only a paper towel covered with salt and pepper. About halfway through, I gave up and just tossed a few pieces into some olive oil sans blotting. They turned gray.

"I can do this," I said out loud to my cat, who was sitting in the kitchen door and laughing at me with his cat eyes.

I kept cooking the meat. Eventually it did go from gray to sort-of browned, which I figure was good enough. At this point, the cat decided that the meat smelled really good, and that the best way to get a taste of it would be to sit directly on top of my feet, and to follow them wherever they went. I tripped a few times.

While the meat browned, I got the carrots out.

Only then did I remember that we recently threw away our only vegetable peeler after it broke. No vegetable peeler. I washed the carrots and contemplated peeling them by hand.

Nope. Nobody will notice if they're not peeled after three hours in the oven, right?

Those of you who are anal about cross-contamination will shudder, because I used the same knife and the same cutting board as I did for the beef, reasoning that they were all going to go into the pot together in the end anyway. I had a bowl full of barely-cooked (delicious-smelling) beef filling up and cut-up carrots rolling every which way over my counter. I tried to hum along with Edith Piaf, but I couldn't muster the enthusiasm I normally have for her.

The beef smelled really good, and the cat was meowing at me. I was hungry. I took a bite. After all, I love my meat super-rare and barely browned and super-rare are pretty much the same thing.

I will note that mostly-raw chuck roast is incredibly chewy. There's a reason it gets braised.

Finally, I got all the carrots cut and ate one to get the last of the raw beef out of my mouth (don't judge me). All the beef was browned, so I dumped the carrots into the pot to do the same. Hey, Julia says to brown them.

Well, Julia Child is a liar. Carrots don't brown. They cook, but they don't brown.

While I waited desperately for the carrots to change color (they never did), I started cutting up the onions. I don't know where we got these onions, but they are the most pungent, eye-penetrating onions ever in the history of mankind. The oil in the dutch oven was starting to smoke, and the odor of onion was so universal that I couldn't even keep my eyes open.

You can imagine me at this point, standing in my kitchen, barefoot, trying not to step on my cat, whimperingly attempting to sing along with "Someone to Watch Over Me," a blister on my hand from the crappy knife, carrot-ends everywhere, wreathed in oil smoke, cutting onions with my eyes closed. Don't judge me.

I managed to get the onions cut without injury (the knife was that dull) and dumped them into the pot. The carrots still weren't brown, but I gave up on that. The onions did brown, and fairly quickly, and I threw a handful (2 Tablespoons? I laugh in the face of recipes!) of flour in there and tossed everything. The flour coated the vegetables nicely and promised to thicken the sauce for me later.

I turned my attention to the wine.

Now, you have to understand, we don't drink a lot of wine. Mr. Scrimp prefers beer, and I don't drink often enough to merit opening bottles of wine just for me. And when we do drink wine, Mr. Scrimp or Brother-in-Law Scrimp (who likes wine more than either of us) always opens it. We have the worst kind of corkscrew, and it is generally beyond my strength to physically wrench the cork from the bottle without any kind of lever.

Like this, except ours is black. Because it's evil.
How do you open a bottle of wine? I started peeling away the metal-y paper-y stuff from around the top of the bottle, praying desperately for a screw-top.

My heart sank when I saw the cork, but I rolled up my sleeves, twisted the corkscrew in there, and started to pull.

You can imagine me at this point, standing in my kitchen, barefoot, trying not to step on my cat, barely even hearing the lovely strains of "C'est si Bon," a blister on my hand from the crappy knife, carrot-ends, onionskins, and oil smoke everywhere, the contents of my dutch oven starting to burn, contorting myself into absurd positions as I tried to get purchase with my wet, onion-y hands anywhere on this bottle.

I finally managed to wrestle the corkscrew out using sheer force of will (and possibly telekinesis because that corkscrew is worthless) and bracing it between my knees. It flew out so quickly and so hard that wine, of course, spattered all over my kitchen floor.

I took a couple of swigs of the wine and tried not to cry.

Having pulled myself together, I dumped the meat into the pot, stirred everything up, and poured in enough wine that it seemed like it would braise alright. Happily, I had remembered to preheat the oven, so I went to get the lid of the dutch oven to pop it on and throw everything in.

I have discovered a smell worse than poop.

I washed lentil residue off the lid of the dutch oven and tried again, taking another swig of wine. This time, I got the lid on there and managed to shove the thing into my oven with a minimum of further damage to myself or my kitchen (although I did have to shift the oven racks around with no potholders, an exciting adventure all by itself).

I poured a glass of wine, sat down to enjoy it, looked at the clock, and realized that I was 5 minutes late to leave to pick Mr. Scrimp up from work.

It's 5pm now. My in-laws are coming over at 7, although I seriously considered canceling on them (love you guys!). The house is a wreck, I desperately need a shower and a change of clothes, I still haven't got any mushrooms, and I have more work to do.

Don't judge me.


  1. Oh my gosh Beth!! I love you and I love to read what you write!! Thank you for all of this: For not cancelling, for the dinner to come, and for writing all this out for the world to enjoy!!

  2. Oh Beth, this makes me want to laugh and give you a sympathy hug. I hope all went well!

  3. on behalf of the corkscrew, it was cheap, we both wanted wine, and you didn't have one.

  4. Love you. This was uproariously funny, except that it happened to you. I hope the BB was delicious.

  5. Poor corkscrew and you. I adore you to no end.

  6. Oh my!! I had a very similar instance with a pecan pie... I glanced over the recipe and came back and realized that EVERY RECIPE IN THE WORLD for pecan pie calls for corn syrup. This was of course after getting all prepped and ready to go.

    I used maple syrup instead and it was decent.

    I've had many similar moments like this and luckily it only makes you laugh in the end.

  7. Poor Beth! I'm so sorry it was such a disaster. No fun. :( I hope it at least tasted good.
    Mr. Mac and I have the exact same black, evil corkscrew, only without the crosspiece, which he apparently lost before I lived here. We've found a claw hammer defeats the evil pretty easily. Takes a minute, but it works to just pull out the corkscrew and cork like a nail.



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