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Drink | GREAT MARRIAGES

Beef Stew With White Wine?

July 01, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

A red wine daube is hearty stuff, usually beef, lamb or veal braised with lardons (bacon or salt pork) and possibly pearl onions and mushrooms as well. In fact, it's probably too hearty for warm weather.

But there's a wonderful daube in Patricia Wells' latest book, "Patricia Wells at Home in Provence" (Scribners, 1996; $40), made with white wine with a dollop of mustard. It's amazing how the white wine lightens up the dish, in a way allowing the taste of the beef to come through more clearly. The sauce has a little tomato in it to give it a good color and add some sweetness. It also has lots of herbs--parsley, thyme, tarragon (which can be omitted) and fresh bay leaves, which are becoming more available in some supermarkets and farmers markets.

My husband, who cooks the daube in our house, almost always prefers to make it with beef. A number of inexpensive cuts of beef are ideal for daube. You could use chuck, rump, brisket or even beef neck. One of the best is a 7-bone chuck roast.

Recently, we found a 7-bone chuck, ordinarily more than $2 a pound, for an astonishing 77 cents a pound when we used our frequent shopper club card. The last time I saw chuck at 77 cents was when I was still in college, cooking my first boeuf a la bourguignonne from Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." How could we resist?

It's important to trim the beef well. Wells' recipe says to cut it into 3-inch cubes, but these seem too large to me; you could easily end up with only five or six pieces for a single recipe. One and a half to 2 inches on a side seems more like it.

Be sure to reserve the bones for braising with the meat to build in every bit of flavor. As I learned from Josephine Araldo, a Breton who was once Isadora Duncan's chef, French housewives use every last thing. Nothing goes to waste.

When browning the meat, be sure not to crowd the pan. Do it in batches, if necessary, or in two skillets. And at the end, when the beef is tender, taste the braising liquid. You might want to remove the meat with a slotted spoon and reduce the sauce to concentrate its flavor and thicken it slightly.

The great thing about a daube, by the way, is that you can cook it ahead. In fact you should, because it will taste even better. You can freeze any leftovers, and they won't suffer a bit.

For the first course on that night of 77-cents-a-pound daube, I made a simple frisee salad with applewood-smoked bacon and croutons which I fried in a little olive oil. Reserve 3 or 4 tablespoons of bacon fat, heat it and make a vinaigrette with a little red wine vinegar and olive oil to taste.

We accompanied it with mashed potatoes; daube loves mashed potatoes. I like to stir in finely chopped parsley to give the potatoes a jolt of green. Use the Italian flat-leaf variety, if possible. And don't even think about cheating with a food processor. That large chef's knife languishing in a drawer will do a fine job in half the time. I think, too, chilled green beans emphasize, gently, that this is not winter's sturdy daube but a lighter variation that's perfect for late spring.

I like the idea of drinking a white wine with a daube cooked in white wine. Wells suggests a Chave Hermitage Blanc, which gave me the excuse to pull the cork on one of my favorite wines, one I rarely have the opportunity to drink. At $65, the Chave is expensive, and because this wine from the 1995 vintage is so coveted, it's relatively hard to find. Jean-Louis Chave is one of the Rhone's greatest winemakers, and this Hermitage Blanc has a voluptuous texture, an extravagant, full-bodied flavor with notes of honey and mineral and a long finely spun finish.

But I also wanted to try an old-vine Roussanne from the Vacheron family's Le Clos du Caillou. Though classified as a Co^tes du Rho^ne, it comes from vines averaging 65 years old on an estate just outside the boundaries of Cha^teauneuf du Pape. It's made from the same grapes and in the same style as a Cha^teauneuf du Pape Blanc. It's a stunner, so highly perfumed (white peaches, apricots, honey) that you want to put your nose in the glass and keep it there. What's more, it costs half as much as most Cha^teauneuf du Pape Blancs and about a quarter the price of the Chave.

Both of these wines are wonderful matches in their way. These white Rhones seem to bring out all the nuances of the sauce, and the daube is delicate enough to let the wines show every layer of flavor. After you try them together, you'll understand why white wine is not at all out of the question with beef. Especially when it's one of these fleshy, complex whites.

Nothing could be simpler than beef stewed in white wine, yet during the cooking, the inexpensive cut of meat is transformed into something that transcends the category of stew. That's why so many cooks are passionate devotees of French country cooking.

The Wines

1997 Le Clos du Caillou "Les Roches Rondes" Vieilles Vignes, Co^tes du Rho^ne Blanc, from Vacheron-Pouizon. About $18.

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