Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Boeuf Bourguinon a lá Weight Watchers

I'm reading the current issue of Weight Watchers magazine. I turn the page to find an article titled Just Like Julia. The hyperbole at the top of the article states, "If you liked the movie, you'll love our recipes." Liking the movie has nothing to do with liking their recipes. The next sentence tells the real story. "We've updated the beloved chef's timeless classics, keeping the French flavor, but trimming the fat." The idea was to make Julia's recipes low in points, fitting in with their weight-loss program better than the original one does. But does it really?

I turned to the recipe pages. Their changes were much bigger than the statement in the article implies. I don't have a problem with them making similar recipes that fit the Weight Watchers plan. My problem is with them saying they're "Just Like Julia's", especially considering the technique changes would kill the intense, deep layers of flavor in the original recipes.

Take the Boeuf Bourguinon recipe as an example. They decreased the calories, simplified the techniques, and shortened the cooking time. When you oversimplify the techniques and reduce the cooking time, along with reducing the calories, you end up with less flavor, which doesn't inspire me to want to substitute it for the original.

Here's an analysis of what I see as being the biggest problems with their dish:

  • They omitted the bacon completely. But the bacon added one of the flavors that made it her dish.

  • They reduced the wine to one cup. A cup and a half would be the amount to use if you also reduce the beef from three pounds to two, as they did in their recipe, because it keeps the ratio of ingredients the same.

  • They cut the beef into smaller pieces and toss them with flour before it's browned. The original breaks this into a two-step process of browning the meat, tossing with flour and browning the floured meat in the oven. I'd never tried that technique before this recipe and it's the first time the sauce actually thickened the way it's supposed to.

  • They add the mushrooms, onion, and garlic raw with the liquid, herbs, and seasoning. The original browns the carrots and a yellow onion in the pan after the beef is browned. The mushrooms and pearl onions are cooked separately and added after the meat is cooked.

  • They cooked it on top of the stove for a mere hour, added the raw carrots, and cooked another 30 minutes. The original called for a three to four hour simmer in the oven.

As you can see, there are a lot of steps in the original that the Weight Watchers recipe condenses or skips altogether. The original does have a lot of steps, as is usually the case with classic French cuisine. You wouldn't cook this as a quick weeknight supper. But those steps are necessary to build the flavor layers that gave classic French cuisine its status as one of the finest in the world. And the beauty of it is that if you enjoy cooking, you can take a day when you're at home and make it in advance. It's better after sitting in the fridge overnight, anyway.

I haven't tested the following changes, but here's what I'd do if I wanted to reduce the calories, but retain the flavors of the original:

  • First, I'd decrease the serving size, making the recipe serve eight.

  • Since a half pound of meat is twice as much as anyone needs at one meal, I'd use two pounds of meat for my eight servings, cutting it into the large cubes called for in the original.

  • I'd use four slices of bacon, rather than the six ounces called for. That's two ounces and usually is plenty to give the flavor I'm looking for.

  • I'd reduce the wine to 1-1/2 cups, which maintains the proper ratio for the flavor I want.

  • I'd follow Julia's original techniques for browning the meat, onions, and carrots. She only uses 1 tablespoon of olive oil, which is the same amount in the Weight Watchers recipe. She also pours out the leftover fat after everything's browned.

  • I'd make two small changes to Julia's original recipe--about a minute before the carrots and onions are done browning, I'd toss in the garlic and sauté it to release the oils. Then I'd add the tomato paste and mix it well, cooking until it's a more rusty-red color. It's called the Maillard reaction and it adds to the browning, intensifying the flavor, in the dish.

  • I'd follow the original for cooking the dish.

  • At the end, she strains the sauce and skims off the fat. Skimming fat is a pain and nowadays there's the handy fat separator. I strained the sauce into mine and poured the defatted sauce back into the dish.

  • I'd follow the original recipes for cooking the pearl onions and the mushrooms, reducing the oil/butter for browning them by using olive oil spray in a nonstick pan and a half-teaspoon of butter for flavor.

  • I'd do what I did on New Year's--cook the whole thing in advance and reheat it for serving.

Back to my original question: Does their version really fit better into their plan than the original version? Well, since Julia's recipe has several steps devoted to ridding the dish of excess fat, there must be something else causing it to be 17 points per serving. I keep coming back to the portion size. Weight Watchers calculated the points in Julia's recipe using the number of servings in the cookbook, which is six. But Julia's portion isn't the same size as Weight Watchers portions. I decided to recalculate the points of Julia's basing it on serving the same size portion as Weight Watchers uses in their recipe.

Using the portion size of the meat as a guideline, 1 serving of Julia's recipe contains 8 ounces of meat and 1/6 of everything else. The Weight Watchers version contains 3-ounce portions of meat and 1/6 of everything else. If I increase the number of servings in the original so each serving has 3 ounces of meat and a proportionally smaller serving of the remaining ingredients, it's 16 servings. I did the math and it's 6 points per serving. The Weight Watchers version is 8 points per serving. Hmmm....It looks like Julia's recipe is more of a weight loss winner than Weight Watchers, when you compare the same size serving side-by-side. I guess I can toss my list of calorie-reducing ideas and just make Julia's.