So this wonderful, magical, slightly insane thing happened the week before last. I passed my PhD with NO corrections! My PhD. The one I have written about in various forms here for the last four years is actually done, dusted, all finished. It can be printed and hardback bound with gold writing down the side and put in the library for other souls following this strange and wondrous path to read. I am still recovering from this occurrence. I think I am slightly dazed and shocked, wandering around in a vague way, moving things across surfaces.
So where does one begin now? Well, I’m not really sure but I thought for starters I would talk a bit about the evening before. You know, the one before the viva. Sometime later we can talk the day of and everything that came after. But for now, let’s talk about the evening most likely to induce panic stations. I had a pit in my stomach for most of the week leading up to last Thursday. An uncomfortable, twinge-y feeling that just would not go away. No amount of deep breathing or calming thoughts would make the pit and its twisty awkwardness disappear. I was genuinely nervous. This one afternoon to decide my worthiness in the academy. (I know it’s not quite as dramatic as that but that is how it felt.)
I decided that the best thing to do would be to cook something and watch detective stories on iplayer. Yes, the night before my viva I watched Lewis. And From Darkness. And then I crashed out and went to sleep. I think I made a good choice. My supervisor had sent me an email at lunchtime on Wednesday instructing me to stop thinking about things. I almost did what she said – I did have one last look at Foucault when I got home and I did page through several pages of my thesis but after that I decided that perhaps she was right and that it would be okay not to focus entirely on the contents of my thesis for the whole evening. (That of course didn’t stop my brain whirring endless questions and scenarios and answers at me.)
So I made Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon for dinner, and ate it with mashed potatoes (I make killer mash, more on that some other time) and baked pumpkin bought at the farmers market the week before. The pumpkin and stew worked well together – the pumpkin giving just a hint of sweetness to the heavy wine/meat flavour. I thought about that scene in Julie and Julia where Julie is contemplating cooking her way through Julia’s cookbook. She describes a dinner that her mother made for her father’s boss. How her mother made not just any boeuf bourguignon but Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon. How it was like Julia was in the kitchen with them, on their side, like some ‘great, big, good fairy’ and that somehow, because of that, everything was going to be alright. I thought about that as I browned the beef (which I had patted dry), sautéed the onions, added the wine and stock, and let the whole thing cook down for hours until the beef practically melted in my mouth.
I also thought about Paris – that haven of everything magical and the city that sparked Julia Child’s love affair with all things French – because I finally booked tickets to visit at the end of November. Andrés has never been and I cannot wait to show him my favourite places in the city. To wander around aimlessly, eat croissants, drink and eat at Frenchie wine bar again (our hotel is coincidentally only a few blocks away!), eat ice cream from Berthillion, peruse some art, actually eat canelés this time rather than just taking photographs of them. There is a lot of eating to be done.
I have no idea if I thought everything would be okay, that night before my viva, but I was comforted in the making and the eating of this particular stew, the pit in my stomach eased slightly and I was lost in the memories of Paris it invoked.
My version of Julia’s classic stew
2kg stewing beef – like chuck
1 white onion, sliced
120g bacon lardons
1 carrot, sliced into rounds
2 tbsp plain flour
2 cups red wine (you can sip the rest of the bottle whilst you cook)
approximately 2 cups beef (or vegetable) stock
Heat the oven to 200C. Pat the meat dry – I do this by placing some kitchen towel on my kitchen bench, putting the pieces of meat on top of this and then laying more kitchen towel on top. I lightly pat this – the moisture escapes quite easily. As Julia says, you have to dry the meat, otherwise it won’t brown.
In a large casserole dish, heat a glug of olive oil. Fry the bacon lardons until they are cooked through and slightly coloured but not crispy. Remove them from the dish and keep to one side.
Now fry your beef in batches in the bacon fat/olive oil. Turn them until all sides are nicely browned. Remove and set aside.
If necessary, add in another glug of olive oil and fry the onion and carrot until lightly browned. Add the meat and bacon back in and give everything a stir. Add in the two tablespoons of flour and stir. Place into the oven, uncovered, for four minutes. Take it out, stir and return for another four minutes.
Take the casserole from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 160C.
Place the casserole back on a burner and add in the wine. Allow this to cook off slightly before adding in the stock. You want enough stock to just cover the meat – otherwise it’ll end up very soupy. Bring the stew to a boil, cover with a lid and place in the oven. Cook for approximately 2.5 hours – you can probably go up to three without worrying too much. The meat will be tender and fall apart when it is ready. This makes a fair amount – at least four fairly generous portions. I’ve frozen what was left over for a day when I don’t feel like cooking.
This made me laugh out loud. (In the office, on a Wednesday, which was slightly awkward.) Sooooo many truths. (And yes, I understand the irony of linking to the article from a food blog. At least I have never featured a baby sitting in chia seeds. There is still time though!)
It seems I have started to read the New Yorker this week because this is another article I read and loved. Andrés and I had people over for dinner a couple of weeks ago. It was just one couple, nothing too dramatic, and it was fairly successful. Andrés cooked. I laid the table. I wasn’t ready when they arrived because I was rereading my thesis in preparation for my viva. Possibly not the best week to have people over for dinner but there you go.
Eat the Seasons (just in case you’re not sure what is in season now!)
This is the most disturbing and possibly upsetting thing I have read in a long time.
And this restored my faith in humanity a little. (I need to read the actual book now.)
I bought Appetite for Life as a post-viva gift to self. (I also bought Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries III but that will have its own post because I’m in love with it.) I’ve managed the first few pages. If you need more Julia entertainment, this mash-up is just great.
I also seem to have many half-finished books that I am trying desperately to finish. Hence the lack of new books on this list!