The Write to Roam

The Personal Blog of Ethan Brooks

Category: Cooking

Homemade French Pastry

Before handing me the keys to my temporary home in the French countryside, the owner gave me three simple instructions: Play fetch with the dog, Gyp, at least twice a day. Give the cat, Ella, plenty of lap-time. And check the inflatable pool house each week, to be sure it wasn’t leaking.

I followed all three instructions diligently, and for nearly a month everything was fine. Then… drama.

Table of Contents:

Intro
Quick Recipe
Background
Why Learn This Dish?
Ingredients
Instructions
Video

A storm howled like a freight train through the region, battering the countryside with rain, and hail, and gail-force winds. It tossed the pool house like a toy, slamming into it broadside and sliding more than a thousand pounds of water and plastic five feet across the deck and into the pool itself. With time the storm passed. But in its wake it left a massive, heavy, sodden, plastic mess sunk beneath roughly a metric shit-ton of grimy water. And it was my responsibility, as the house-sitter, to get it back up.

To her credit, Gyp tried to lend a hand. She sat dutifully by the edge of the pool, keeping a watchful eye on the donkeys which grazed in an adjacent field. I’m not sure whether she thought this was their fault, or simply that their proximity would thwart any repair efforts, but whenever they got close enough to the fence for their ears to hang over she’d run and bark and scare them off.

Ella, on the other hand, was perfectly useless. She’d slink out to  the pool whenever I was knee-deep in muck and plastic, then sit on the deck looking at me in that judgy way that only felines can.

It took two days of siphoning, pumping, draining, lifting, and stretching. There were more than a few close calls. More than a few setbacks. More than a few sudden hailstorms. But at long last, I was able to get the foundation of the bubble back in place, skim the water off the top, and restore it to it’s bubbly grandeur.

When it was over, I needed to celebrate. More than just a drink — I’d really strained myself. I’d waded through icy green water, gashed my foot on something mysterious, pulled muscles I didn’t know I had. At one point I was almost vacuum-packed by a five-hundred pound blanket of deflating plastic. No a cheap bottle of wine wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted something forbidden. I wanted some fucking cake…

Excuse my french.

What is Kouign Amann?

Kouign Amann (pronounced queen a-mahn) is a buttery, flaky, sugar-coated pastry from the Brittany region of France, where all of this drama took place. Its name literally translates to butter cake in the local dialect. Sweet, crispy layers of laminated dough, with peaks of caramelized sugar and just a hint of sea salt to make the flavors pop. You haven’t lived ’till you’ve tried one, which is ironic because once you have you’ve removed about nine years from whatever life expectancy you had left.

 

“The sea conditions everything in Brittany; its salt is in the blood of the people.”

-R.A.J. Walling, The Charm of Brittany

Salt is the life blood of Brittany. It’s a place that grew up around the sea — “ar mor” as its called — and for more than a thousand years it lay secluded from the rest of France, accessible only by its beautiful rugged coast. Then it was known simply by its Gaulish name, Aremorica, the place by the sea.

According to R.A.J. Walling, author of The Charm of Brittany, even Caesar himself commanding the armies of Rome was unable to conquer Aremorica by land. It took Decimus Brutus and a great naval battle to finally subjugate the region and its people.

But it wasn’t to last. Rome fell, at the feet of invading hordes, and just as the sea brought Brutus’ fleet to Aremorica’s horizon, it ushered in the next wave of people who would call this place home. Small bands of Celts, fleeing the islands of the north, settled at various points along this new land’s shores. They came from Britain. They named this place Brittany.

Like many things in this region of France, Kouign Amann is patently un-French. Brittany is a French region, but the culture is Celtic, and the language spoken around the hearth for many generations was actually closer to Cornish than it was to French.

All of this helps to explain why searching for kouign amann in Google Translate produces no useful results. It also hints at why many people living nearby looked utterly lost whenever I tried to communicate in my (very) basic French.

Why Learn to Make Kouign Amann?

The most practical reason to learn to make Kouign Amann is that in doing so you’ll learn to make laminated dough, which can easily be used to make dozens of other pastries and baked goods from around the world.

Laminated dough is a combination of yeasted bread dough and a slab of butter, laid out carefully, chilled, and folded a few times in order to create dozens of alternating layers. When the heat from the oven hits the dough, the water inside turns to steam which puffs up the layers, while the heat causes the butter to essentially deep-fry some of the dough. The end result is a product with the flakiness of puff pastry, and the heft of something more substantial.

Croissants, turnovers, cinnamon rolls, cheese twists, danishes, and even some pie crusts and tops all use laminated dough. Master this process, and you’ve basically become the king of brunch.

At the Market

Let’s talk about what you’ll need. Below you’ll find a recipe card, complete with ingredient names translated into French so you can find them while you’re wandering a foreign market.

Photo Mar 05, 11 28 24 AM

Further down, you can find in-depth explanations of each item, along with ideas for substitutes.

Substitutes?!

Yes, substitutes.

Some people rail against the idea of substitutes when cooking, and especially when baking. Different ingredients will yield different results, they say. They’re right.

But the point of Cooking Travelers is to make recipes accessible no matter where in the world you are. According to ClassoFoods’ extensive course on bread and bread-making, there are enormous differences in the various types of flours, salts, yeasts, and even water that go into doughs like this. There can even be noticeable differences between two bags of the same flour that were processed by different workers at the same factory.

With so much potential variability, you can either opt for anal-retentive, monk-like obsession with detail, or you can shoot for the main gist of the thing, and enjoy some damn cake. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something inspiring about watching a masterful pastry chef do their thing. But when it comes to this piece, and other pieces on this site for that matter, it’s more important that you understand the concepts, so you can make smart substitutions when you need to.

Then substitute away.

[amd-yrecipe-recipe:2]

yeast

There are a lot of different types of yeast available, and it’s important you choose the right one because the yeast does some heavy lifting in this recipe.

You want Baker’s Yeast, not Nutritional Yeast or Brewer’s Yeast. Both Nutritional, and Brewer’s yeasts are dried at very high temperatures, which deactivates the yeast cells, rendering them useless for leavening.

Baker’s Yeast, on the other hand is dried at low temperatures, so while some of the cells die off, they encapsulate other living cells and preserve them. This is why many supermarket yeasts need to be mixed with water before use. You’re re-activating the dormant yeast cells.

Among the Baker’s yeasts, you’re most likely to run into one of three: Active Dry, Instant, and Rapid Rise. Among the three, each should work fine, but may require different activation so read the instructions carefully. The debate rages on as to whether Rapid Rise is worthy of being used in recipes. I used it, and enjoyed the results.

The one type of Baker’s Yeast you want to avoid if you see it is Deactivated Yeast. It’s usually reserved for pizza doughs, and like Brewer’s Yeast and Nutritional Yeast, it’s got no leavening properties.

Elevation changes the way doughs rise. If you’re traveling high above sea level, and the recipe isn’t seeming to work out properly, try consulting King Arthur Flour’s helpful hints for high-altitude baking.

flour

Flour is another ingredient with loads of options. Most recipes for laminated dough, and Kouign Amann in particular, advise against using All-Purpose (or AP) flour. Some say it doesn’t have enough protein to put out a nice firm dough, others point to the fact that the recipe requires so much time and attention, you might as well use the best you can get.

That said, I used AP flour, or Type 55 as it’s called in France, end enjoyed the results. You can experiment with other flours for fun if you like. But if all you can find is AP, then don’t be afraid to use it.

Some people ask whether they can use gluten-free flour for a recipe like this. Most bakers agree that a gluten-free flour alone won’t give you the kind of consistency you’re looking for. But Nicole Hunn of Gluten Free on a Shoestring has a handful of all-purpose gluten free flour blends which are much more likely to get the job done. She’s even got a recipe for croissants which doesn’t seem much different than this one (save the flour blend).

If you’re avoiding gluten just because you’ve heard it’s bad, then my advice would be to throw caution to the wind for this recipe. The sugar is going to do more damage to your system than the gluten will. But if you’re avoiding gluten because it makes you ill, then opt for Nicole’s flour blends.

butter

You want to use salted butter. You’ll need about a half-pound for this recipe. It’d be best if you can get it as a single large block. But don’t be afraid to simply use two sticks (or a lot of little restaurant butter packets) if that’s all you have access to.  Keep it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to work with it.

sugar

You don’t need anything fancy. Plain old granulated sugar will work just fine.

salt

Most recipes call for a 10-1 sugar-to-salt ratio, but I found that produced a sickly-sweet end product that I didn’t enjoy eating at all. You need some salt, otherwise the sugar just tastes bland. But rather than mixing it into the sugar and dough, I recommend simply sprinkling a small pinch on the pastries right before they go in the oven.

Use the finest textured salt you can find. Kosher will work, but a very fine sea salt will work better.

Wine

What?! I didn’t see wine on the ingredient list!

Shame on you. You should always cook with wine nearby. In this case, it doesn’t go in the mixing bowl, it goes in your mouth. You can use the empty bottle as a club to beat the butter senseless (see step #3), and as a rolling pin.

You could just opt for a rolling pin. But Ella, the cat, would judge you.

In the Kitchen

Alright let’s talk process. In order to make this recipe globe-trotter friendly I’ve tried to remove as many steps and tools as possible, while still getting high quality results.

Equipment

All you need to make this is a large mixing bowl, a baking pan, a knife, a kitchen-towel, and the afore-mentioned rolling pin/wine bottle.

“But what about the dough hook I see in other recipes?” I hear you ask, “What about the wax paper? The plastic-wrap? And the spoons… What about the measuring spoons?”

We need to have a talk about your precious measuring spoons. Did you ever stop to ask yourself where measuring cups or spoons came from? The answer is that they were popularized at the turn of the century by a woman named Fannie Farmer (I’m not kidding).

They were popularized in large part to make reading and writing recipes easier, not because precise measurements were actually needed in cooking. A lot of kitchen equipment is this way; nice to have, but by no means necessary.

Your Italian grandmother didn’t need a set of measuring spoons and with some practice, neither do you!

Use the measuring cups the first few times you try a recipe. But pay close attention to how things look when they go together. The very best batches I made (the fifth and sixth) were eyeballed from start to finish.

The one thing you really can’t do without is some kind of low-temperature environment. If the house is cold, that will work, but a refrigerator or freezer is better. This dough works by creating distinct layers of dough and butter. If it gets too warm, the butter begins to melt into the layers of dough, which will inhibit your puffing/layering effect.

So, with your mixing bowl, knife, and freezer space ready, lets get started.

Part I: Making Laminated Dough

Step #1: Activate Yeast

Pour 1 Cup of warm water into your mixing bowl. Add to that a tablespoon of sugar, and two teaspoons (or one standard packet) of yeast. Stir it lightly, then leave it to activate for about ten minutes.

After ten minutes you should see a very light foam forming on the surface of the liquid. This is important. It’s a sign that your batch of yeast is good. Yeast is extremely sensitive to heat, and can only be stored for so long even at room temperatures. When live yeast begins processing the sugar you put in the water, it releases small amounts of ethanol along with carbon dioxide, which bubbles to the top creating the foam. The carbon dioxide bubbles are what cause bread to rise.

Yeast Activation for Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

If there’s no foam forming on the surface of the liquid, it’s a sign that the batch of yeast you got is de-activated or dead. You need to scrap it and start with a new batch. Otherwise, your dough won’t rise.

Step #2: Mix Dough

Once the yeast has had time to activate, add your flour to the bowl. Stir or mix with floured hands until the flour and water combine into a shaggy dough. It will be sticky at first. Continue adding flour one small hand-full at a time until the whole thing forms a single ball, and no longer sticks to everything it touches.

Then lay it in the bottom of the bowl, and cover the bowl with a clean, dry kitchen towel, and set it aside for about two hours until the dough doubles in size.

While the actual work of laminated dough doesn’t take long, there’s a lot of waiting involved.

Once your dough has doubled in size, roll it out roughly onto a floured baking pan, then store it in the freezer while you move to the next step.

Step #3: Soften Butter

Now that your dough is chilling, it’s time to create the slab of butter which will give the final product all its layers.

Lay your butter out on a floured work surface. Then sprinkle the top with more flour, and proceed to beat the hell out of it with your rolling pin/wine-bottle. Your goal is to smoosh it flat, then fold it over and smoosh it flat again.

Floured Butter for Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Repeat the process two or three times, flouring as needed to keep the butter from sticking to the counter, and working the butter down into a rectangle that’s about twice as long as it is wide.

Butter for Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Try not to touch the butter with your hands while you work. Instead, lift the edge with your knife to fold it over onto itself. It’s approaching the right softness when it folds, rather than breaking.

Folded Butter for Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Work it until it’s a little thinner than your pinky. Watch the surface to be sure it’s not getting too warm and melting. You want a pliable slab of butter, not a melted puddle. If it starts to get even a little bit shiny, simply put it on a plate and return it to the fridge for a few minutes, allowing it to cool once again.

Pound it into a rough rectangle, then set it aside and pull your dough from the freezer.

You want your dough, and butter to be roughly the same texture. As Grant from Chef Steps points out, if the butter is way harder than the dough, then the dough will simply tear when you begin folding. If the butter’s way softer, it can get too warm and begin soaking into the dough.

People get really intimidated by this recipe, but they needn’t be. Practice makes perfect, but even if you’re a knuckle dragger like me, it’s pretty forgiving.

Step #4: The Fold

Okay, this is the basis of laminated dough. It’s the difference between warm, flaky layers, and a pile of bread and butter.

Lay the dough out on a floured surface, and roll to a rectangle that’s abut three times as long as it is wide. Place your butter slab on top, with the bottoms matching. The butter should be almost as wide as the dough, and roughly 2/3 the length.

Dough and Butter for Laminated Dough -- Cooking Travelers

Then you’re going to fold it in thirds. Fold the top of the dough down, then fold the bottom up, then rotate 90° as shown in the photos. This process is known simply as “a fold”. Perform the whole thing once and you’ve done a fold, repeat it four times and you’ve done four folds.

Folding Laminated Dough -- Cooking Travelers

That’s it. That’s the move you have to master. Roll the dough out, fold the top down, bottom up, spin 90°. Repeating this is all that’s involved in making laminated dough.

Folding Laminated Dough -- Cooking Travelers

The real trick is to keep your dough cold, so after each fold return it to the freezer for 5 or 10 minutes. As long as your dough stays cold, you keep the butter from melting into the dough. Real pastry chefs will chill dough for hours between folds. But Grant from Chef Steps says that you can be a little less precise when you’re making Kouign Amann. Cold dough is the force-multiplier in getting really great pastries.

Folding Laminated Dough -- Cooking Travelers

Because of the compounding effect of folding layer after layer, it doesn’t take long to reach the three and four-digit layer zone. After a mere four folds, you’ll have more than 240 layers, which is plenty for Kouign Amann. Make your last fold, and return the dough to the freezer to chill before proceeding to the next step.

Rolling Laminated Dough -- Cooking Travelers

Part II: Turning Laminated Dough into Kouign Amann

Step #1: Add Sugar

This is the step that takes laminated dough, and turns it into Kouign Amann dough. Clear your work surface, then coat it liberally with granulated sugar.

Sugar for Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Roll your dough out on the sugar, coat the top with even more sugar, and continue rolling.

Roll the sheet out until it’s a large rectangle a little thinner than the width of your pinky. When it’s finally rolled out, coat the top with another layer of sugar, and lift the edges to throw sugar underneath it as well.

You should basically be thinking “Wow, this is a ridiculous amount of sugar”. If you’re not, there’s either a problem with your Kouign Amann, or the rest of your diet.

Step#2: Cut & Fold

Trim the edges of your sheet so that it’s rectangular. When you’re cutting the dough, try to cut straight down, lifting the knife before each cut, rather than slicing. Slicing can crimp the edges, inhibiting puff. You don’t want to inhibit puff.

Next, cut the sheet into squares roughly 4″x 4″. They don’t have to be perfect. We’re going to use these squares to make our final pastries. Here I’m going to show you three different ways you can fold your pastries. The first is the most commonly suggested muffin-tin method. It’s perfect for making interestingly shaped, perfectly caramelized, single-serve portions as long as you have a muffin tin.

Pastry Square -- Cooking Travelers

If, like me, you find yourself elbow-deep in pastry flour only to realize you’re in a house with no muffin tin, you’ll need another solution. That’s where the other two folds come in. They’re my favorites after testing nearly a dozen variations, and judging the results based on final look, caramelization, and  general un-fuck-up-ability.

The Muffin Tin Fold

Fold the corners of your squares into the center, and pinch them lightly together. Place each inside a buttered, sugared muffin tin hole.

Muffin Tin Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

The Vol au Vent Fold 

Fold your square diagonally so it’s a triangle, then make one cut parallel to both of the triangle’s legs, roughly a half-inch from the edge. Don’t let the incisions meet otherwise you’ll just be left with a smaller square of dough.

VOL AU VENT Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Open the triangle back up into a diamond, so that the uncut sections are at the top and bottom of the diamond. Take the right outer-corner and fold it across to the left, then repeat by folding the left outer-corner over to the right, as seen in the images below.

VOL AU VENT Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

VOL AU VENT Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

VOL AU VENT Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Not only does this give you a nice final shape, but it also gives you a pocket in which you can stuff fruit jam, or diced apples tossed in sugar. While fillings of various types are popular, they’re not required.

The Pinwheel Fold

Make four diagonal cuts toward the center of your square, leaving the middle untouched, as shown in the photos below.

Pinwheel Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Then, fold one corner of each triangle down toward the center of the pastry, overlapping them as you go.

Pinwheel Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Pinwheel Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Pinwheel Kouign Amann -- Cooking Travelers

Once again, this gives you a little spot in the center of the pastry to add filling if you choose.

Step #3: Bake

Heat your oven to 400°F.

Take a tablespoon of butter and smear it around the bottom of your baking sheet, then coat it liberally with a handful or two of sugar. Tilt your tray side to side in order to coat the whole bottom. This will give your pastries the patent caramelized bottom which is so important for Kouign Amann.

Place your pastries on the baking sheet, then sprinkle them with more sugar. Finally sprinkle just the tiniest bit of salt over the top of each one. A little salt goes a long way here so really go easy on it. A single two-finger pinch spread between all your pastries should suffice.

Put the tray in the oven for 15-20 minutes. Check them at the fifteen minute mark, and roughly every 2-3 minutes after that.

You’re getting very close when the laminated dough is puffed, and you begin seeing browning on the peaks of the pastries. There is a point, just as the caramelized sugar begins to give off little wisps of smoke, which is when you should pull them. But be careful, these things go from caramelized to burned quickly. Keep an eye on them, and pull them early rather than late.

One-Pot Boeuf Bourguignon

I’d gone to France for my very first long term house-sitting job. For five weeks I’d be living in the home of a complete stranger I’d met online, taking care of her pets while she traveled.

My duties were simple: Play fetch with the dog, Gyp, several times a day. Give the cat, Ella, a comfortable place to lounge (like my lap or more often my keyboard while I was trying to work). And make sure the donkeys — Bill & Ted (and Dan) — hadn’t wandered off on any excellent adventures.

In exchange, I had the place to myself.

Table of Contents:

1. Intro
Quick Recipe
2. Background
3. Why Learn This Dish?
4. Ingredients
5. Instructions

The setting was beautiful; Shockingly beautiful for someone who’d grown up on New England winters where February meant iced windshields and burst plumbing. Gyp and I walked along endless fields of lush green cow pasture with hillsides speckled with wood violets, primroses, and wild daffodils.

French Countryside -- Cooking Travelers

Many days it was warmer outside than in. The house’s thick stone walls sucked heat from every corner of its open floor plan. Nights I’d sit near the crackling blaze of the enormous fireplace. Days I spent in the kitchen, where heat from the gas range, hair metal from my laptop, and deep concentration in the bottom of a pot or pan made the cold disappear.

After nearly six months traveling I was surprised to find that France reminded me of home. The cars drove on the right side of the road. It wasn’t always cloudy (unlike in some certain united kingdoms I could mention). Even the region’s flag had a strange familiarity.

Flag_of_Brittany_(Gwenn_ha_du).svg

And of course, there was the food…

What is Boeuf Bourguignon?

Boeuf Bourguignon, or Beef Burgundy as it’s sometimes called, is essentially a stew. It’s similar to American beef stew, except instead of being cooked in just beef or chicken stock, the meat is braised in a combination of stock and red wine.

It’s not technically from Brittany, where I was staying. But then, it’s probably not actually from Burgundy either. Most people believe it was concocted there, and that it’s named for the Burgundy wine traditionally used in the sauce. But according to Adam Balic of The Art and Mystery of Food, there’s more to the story.

While a chef named Auguste Escoffier usually gets the credit for bringing Boeuf Bourguignon into the main, the truth is that his recipe is only similar to the traditional dish. In his now legendary book Le Guide Culinar, he shares a recipe for Piece de Boeuf a la Bourguignonne. But that dish uses one large chunk of beef, rather than the cubes found in today’s recipe.

In the exact same year, and from the other side of the Atlantic, a contemporary of his named Adolphe Meyer published another recipe that’s much closer to the modern interpretation.

“As both Meyer’s and Escoffier’s recipes were published independently in the same year,” Balic says, “This implies there are earlier origins for the modern recipe.”

The most likely source, according to Balic, is a Parisian chef named Joseph Favre who published the Dictionnaire Universel de Cuisine Pratique (The Universal Dictionary of Practical Cooking) in 1894. It includes a recipe for Boeuf Braise à la Bourguignonne which practically mirrors the modern recipe.

In his writings, Balic says, Favre hints at the possibility that Boeuf Bourguignon may have actually developed in the restaurants of Paris, not Burgundy. The name, he says, comes from the ingredients involved. Specifically the use of small glazed onions, lardons, mushrooms and wine, which are together a hallmark of Burgundian cooking.

So while it’s common to use Burgundy in Boeuf Bourguignon, and it’s indeed a popular dish in Burgundy and throughout France, the name comes from the unique combination of onions, mushrooms, and wine rather than the type of wine, or the place of origin.

Why Learn It?

By learning to make Boeuf Bourguignon you’re learning the skills needed to make dozens of other famous dishes from around the world.

Swap the wine out for beer or chicken stock and you’re making American beef stew. Pull the bay leaf, and add ground chilis and you’re making a bowl o’ red. Opt for a dry white wine and veal shanks and you’re cooking Ossobucco. The ingredients vary from place to place, but the process is exactly the same.

And what is that process?

All you’re doing is slow-cooking meat in some liquid until it’s nice and tender. That’s braising in a nut shell.

You don’t need fancy equipment, just an oven and a cast-iron pot. It’s extremely forgiving, so you don’t have to worry about messing it up. And because braising works best on the toughest (read: cheapest) cuts of meat, learning these types of recipes can help stretch your budget when you travel.

At the Market

Below you’ll find a quick reference recipe guide. The shopping list has been translated into French so you can find what you need if you’re wandering a foreign market.

Further down you’ll find more detailed info on the major ingredients and steps involved. It’s not required reading, but if you’re wondering why you should buy chuck rather than tenderloin, or what you can substitute for the wine, check it out.

Some people get touchy when you talk about substitutions in a recipe. Substitutions go against tradition, they say.

I won’t comment on tradition, but here’s my stance when it comes to substitutions for this recipe: If you can’t get your hands on an ingredient, or are opposed to using something (like alcohol), make a substitution.

Cooking isn’t about following the rules all the time. It’s about exploring, and experimenting. Here at Cooking Travelers, the point is to learn about cooking in a way that enables us to re-create a dish’s essence no matter where in the world we are. There will be times when you don’t have access to wine. There will be times when you can’t find pearl onions. That’s perfectly fine.

I’ve personally tested several variations of this recipe, using substitutions for everything from the onions, to the stock, to the wine. Anything good is included here.

Quick Recipe

English
2-3Lbs Chuck Roll
1 Bottle Red Wine
1Lb of Mushrooms
1Lb of Pearl Onions
1Qt Beef Stock
Tomato Paste
Flour
Garlic
Bay Leaf
Thyme
Butter
Olive Oil
Salt
En Français
1Kg Paleron de Boeuf
Vin rouge
500g Champignons
500g Oignons Grelot
1L Bouillon de bœuf
Pâte de tomate
Farine
Ail
Laurier
Thym
Beurre
Huile d’olive
Sel

Wash, dry, and quarter mushrooms. Peel onions, poking a hole at the root, then braise for 20-25 minutes in a mixture of water, butter, and salt. Drain and set aside. Brown quartered mushrooms in batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Once browned, set aside with onions.

Trim roast into steaks, and brown whole in pan over high heat. Pull steaks, and deglaze pan with roughly 1/2 bottle of red wine. Reduce wine over low heat for about 10 minutes. Cut browned steaks into large cubes, and add back to reduced wine. Add beef stock until cubed meat is 3/4 covered. Add 1 tablespoon of tomato paste, a bay leaf, a three-finger pinch of thyme, and minced garlic. Bring to a boil on the stove, then cover (leaving the lid cracked slightly) and place immediately into a 275°F oven for 2.5 hours.

When meat’s tender enough to be cut with the edge of a spoon, pull it from the oven, and remove the bay leaf and cubed meat. Add 1 Tablespoon flour for every cup of sauce remaining in pan. Stir over medium heat with a large dollop of butter until thickened. Add meat back in, along with braised onions and browned mushrooms, and return to the oven until everything’s hot. Serve with red wine, and fresh baguette.

Meat

Jaques Pepín, Martha Stuart, YouTube cooks from around the world; They’ve all got their favorite cuts of meat for this recipe.

When it comes to Boeuf Bourguignon, you can break beef down into two categories— collagen-rich cuts, and tender cuts.

Collagen is an extremely tough connective tissue that can be found within muscles. The more work a muscle does on a regular basis, the more collagen you can expect to find within it.

When it comes to stewing, the more collagen, the better.

Many people assume that stewed meat is tender because it takes on the moisture of the liquid it’s cooked in, but that’s actually not the case. In fact, meat loses moisture when it’s stewed. Heat causes the muscle proteins to contract during the cooking process, squeezing moisture out.

But that very same heat also converts the tough collagen into a delicate gelatin, and that’s what we’re after.

According to Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats, meat that’s rich in collagen will lose about as much moisture as meat that’s low in collagen. But because of the gelatin created the collagen-rich meat will seem far more moist.

Cuts like tenderloin start off tender precisely because they’re low in collagen. But what makes them eye-rollingly delcious on the grill is exactly the same thing that makes them dry and awful in a stew.

One of Gritzer’s top picks for Boeuf Bourguignon is the noble Chuck roll, which comes from the shoulder of the cow. Remember, the more work a muscle does, the more collagen is likely to be found inside it. Chuck is cheap, and flavorful, and loaded with collagen.

It was also the meat of choice for Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon, as well as the go-to stew beef of J. Kenji-Lopez, best-selling author of The Food Lab.

Opt for a single large piece rather than anything that’s pre-cubed. We’ll cube it ourselves thank you very much, but not before we add some flavor. I recommend a little more than a half-pound of meat per serving, since you’ll lose some to trimming later on.

Red Wine

Ah, the essence of Boeuf Bourguignon. Without the red wine, there’s not much separating this dish from standard beef stew.

Traditionally Boeuf Bourguignon would have been made with red Burgundy. But Red Burgundy is made from 100% Pinot Noirt grapes, so you can actually use a standard Pinot Noirt for this dish and it will taste delicious.

If you can’t find a Pinot Noirt, you can sub in any dry red wine as long as it’s not labeled “Cooking Wine”.

It doesn’t need to be fancy either. Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats did a series of tests on cooking with wines, and found that there were very few noticeable differences in the results.

Make sure it’s red, make sure it’s dry (Pinot Noirt, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Bordeoux, and Burgundy will all work), and make sure you’d drink it if it came in a glass. We’re only using some of the bottle. You’ll need to find a good use for the rest ;)

According to Chef Mark Thomasson, if you either can’t get your hands on red wine, or don’t want to, you can opt for a smaller amount of red wine vinegar mixed with a bit of Worcester sauce. You’ll want to use much less liquid, since those flavors are really strong. But it can be done.

Opt for about a 3-1 mixture of red wine vinegar to Worcester sauce, and limit it to maybe a half cup total liquid.

Onions

Aside from the wine, another ingredient that makes this dish uniquely Burgundian is the small onions. The recipe calls for Pearl Onions, which you may have seen packed in little mesh bags at the grocery store. They range from gum-ball to golfball size, and are lighter and sweeter than standard onions.

While Pearl Onions are very popular in parts of Europe, they’re more difficult to find elsewhere due to their two-year crop cycle.

If you can’t find pearl onions, you can substitute standard onions from your grocery store, roughly chopped. Like garlic and other aromatic vegetables, the finer you chop onions the more potent their flavor becomes. So keep it coarse.

Seasonings

Besides the tomato paste the three other seasonings which play a main role in this dish are garlic, bay leaf, and thyme.

Always opt for fresh garlic when possible, either minced by hand or put through a press directly into the pot.

If you’re using whole sprigs of thyme, tie them in a bundle with the bay leaf so that they’re easier to fish out later. I was able to find pre-tied bundles which worked perfectly.

Seasoning for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Beef Stock

According to both Julia Child, and J. Kenji-Lopez, the best beef stock is home made. However, if you don’t have access to that, Child says you can swap in beef bouillon.

Thickener

After the beef braises, we’ll want to thicken the sauce in order to give it that hearty, stew-like texture.

For simplicity’s sake, and to make this recipe as universal as possible, we’ll use a combination of butter and flour, similar to Julia Child.

Flour will dull the flavors of your sauce a bit. It’s also suffered a reputation crisis since the paleo/gluten-free movement.

To maintain your flavor or your figure you could use unflavored gelatin instead. If you opt for gelatin, you’ll want to use about one teaspoon for every 2-3 cups of sauce you’re thickening.

What about The damned carrot I see in other recipes?

Even a basic search for Boeuf Bourguignon turns up dozens of recipes with dozens of different ingredients. Some call for bacon, others call for carrots, or shallots, or celery, potatoes, and even soy sauce.

Anything this famous is bound to have lots of variations.

Remember that the basic flavor profile was beef, wine, small onions, mushrooms, and lardons. Everything outside that can safely be excluded.

Okay so what the eff are lardons, and why aren’t they in this?

Lardons are small pieces of fat used for larding. In larding, thin strips of pork fat are actually sewn into tough pieces of meat using larding needles. It’s a technique that evolved from a time when most meat was wild game, and was therefore very lean. The idea is to try and artificially inject some tenderness into meat by via man-made marbling.

However, today’s beef is so well marbled that larding is becoming less and less necessary. Both wikipedia, and Adam Balic of The Art and Mystery of Food say that the lardons are being increasingly worked out of modern interpretations of Boeuf Bourguignon. While Julia Child’s includes them in her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she actually left them out of the process in the premiere episode of The French Chef.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve left them out here.

While we’re at it, you also don’t have to worry about marinating the beef. According to Daniel Gritzer’s recipe for The Best Boeuf Bourguignon, it’s impossible to tell the difference between beef that marinates for up to 24 hours, and beef that first meets the wine the moment it hits the pan.

In The Kitchen

You only need one cooking vessel for this recipe, a cast iron dutch oven. You may see me refer to it as a pot or a pan at various points, but rest assured it’s just for variety. One dutch oven will get you through this if you follow it step by step.

There’s one trade-off though: heat control.

In order to get a good brown on a piece of beef you need a very hot pan. Later on when you’re reducing your wine, you need lower heat.

As Alton Brown regularly points out, cooking is just food plus heat. Your job as a cook isn’t to memorize exactly what stove-top setting is best for browning mushrooms. Your job is to understand the browning process, so that you can adjust the heat depending on how your food is reacting.

Then you can cook on gas, or electric ranges, or over an open fire no problem. Because you understand the principle, rather than just memorizing the recipe.

Aside from the dutch oven for cooking, you’ll also need a mixing bowl, a cutting board, a sharp knife, a large spoon, and a non-metal spatula. You’d be smart to set these things out before you start cooking, along with organizing your ingredients and opening your bottle of wine.

This act of organization is called mise en place.

Let’s dive in…

Step #1: Wash & Quarter Your Mushrooms

Drop your mushrooms into a large bowl of water. Toss the mushrooms lightly by hand. The goal is to knock off any loose dirt which should sink to the bottom.

Quartered Mushrooms for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Pull your mushrooms out by hand, pat them dry with a clean kitchen towel, cut them into quarters, and leave them spread out on a cutting board to continue drying. Empty and rinse your bowl.

step #2: Peel & braise Onions

First we need to choose how many onions we’re going to cook. It’s important to get the ratio of onions to beef right in this meal. If you ladle someone a nice big bowl of onions with one or two pieces of beef in it, they’ll look at you weird.

I like 3-4 pearl onions per serving of stew. Count them out and set them aside.

Next we need to peel them. Fill your pot with about an inch of water, then set it over high heat on the stove. When the water’s boiling, drop the onions in and wait for the water to return to a boil. Let them boil for about 20 seconds, then fish them out of the water and put them into the bowl you washed your mushrooms in. Turn the heat off, and empty your pot.

Use your knife to shave the very ends off each onion, then remove the skin.

Use the tip of your knife to poke one or two small holes in the root-end of each bulb. This will help them to keep their shape later on.

Peeled Onions for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Put the peeled onions in your pot, then fill with water until the onions are roughly 1/2 covered.

Place the pot over medium heat, and bring it to a simmer. Drop a dollop of butter into the pot along with a dash of salt. Then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for about 20-25 minutes. The onions are done when they’re tender enough to pierce with a fork.

Braised Onions for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

When the onions are finished, turn off the heat, fish them out, and put them aside in your bowl. Empty any remaining water out of your pot.

Step #3: Brown Mushrooms

Return your empty pot to the stove and set it over medium-high heat. It’s time to brown some stuff. As it’s heating up, add some oil and a tablespoon of butter into the pan.

Tradition has long said that you should brown in a combination of butter and oil, claiming that the oil raises the smoke point of the butter. But kitchen myth-buster J. Kenji Lopez put this idea to the test and found it wasn’t true.

In order to brown food quickly, and avoid drying it out, you need to be cooking up around 300°F. The proteins in butter start breaking down rapidly between 300°F and 350°F. By the time the pan hits 375°F you’ve got smoke, whether or not there’s oil.

However, according to Kenji there’s still a benefit to cooking with a mixture of the two. First off, diluting the butter in oil makes the burnt flavor less pronounced. But more importantly, those proteins will actually speed up the browning process, which helps avoid overcooking the food.

Browned Mushrooms for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Don’t over-crowd the pan with mushrooms. Drop in enough for a single layer to loosely coat the bottom, but no more. If you add too many, the tight space traps moisture down near the surface of the food. This lowers the temperature of your pot, inhibits the browning process.

Onions and Mushrooms for Boeuf Bouguignon -- Cooking Travelers

If you’ve got more mushrooms than you have space, simply brown them in batches. Stir each batch every minute or so, so that all sides of the mushrooms are exposed to the heat. When brown, remove them to the bowl with your onions.

Step #4: Trim Your steaks

If you know what you’re doing, this step won’t take long so you can leave your pot on low heat. If this process is new to you, turn the heat completely off so that you can focus.

We’re going to take our roast and turn it into a couple of steaks. The reason for steaks rather than cubes is that, according to Kenji, it’s better to brown two or three steaks in a pan than it is to try and brown a dozen smaller cubes.

Smaller cubes lose about 25% more moisture than steaks when browned, which drags out the browning process, and dries the beef out.

Lay your roast out on a cutting board, and get your sharpest knife. Depending on the cut of beef you chose, you may find a thick, sinewy layer of fat or silverskin on the outside of the roast. The first step is to remove it.

Trimming a Roast for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Depending on your experience level, and the quality of the knife you have access to, this can feel intimidating. Try not to worry too much about it at first, it doesn’t have to be pretty. We’re ultimately going to be chopping these into cubes, and cooking them down to melt-in-your-mouth texture. All that’s important is that you remove the tough exterior.

Trimmed Roast for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Trim, and slice until you’ve removed any tough exterior fat or silverskin, then set it aside. It can be frozen and used later to make broth or stock.

Examine your roast. Look for the grain of the muscle fibers. Similar to wood, muscles have a grain that runs in a certain direction. Cut across the grain in order to give the steaks shorter fibers, and make them fall apart easily when cooked.

Cutting Steaks for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

Cut your roast into a series of steaks that are about 2 inches thick. Pat them dry with a paper towel. Remember, moisture is the enemy of browning, so you want to get them really dry. If you want to go above and beyond, you could pause now and place them in the freezer for up to an hour. The freezer is the driest environment in the entire house, and is often used to remove moisture from meats before cooking.

Otherwise, simply move on to the next step once you’re happy with how dry they are.

Step #5: Brown Your Steaks

Return to your stove and kick the heat up to high underneath your dutch oven. Add oil and let it heat up for a good 2-3 minutes. Things might start to get a little smokey. Billowing clouds are bad, but a bit of smoke is fine. It’s likely excess butter proteins burning off, showing that we’ve got enough heat to begin browning.

When the dutch oven is good and hot insert your steaks and let sit for a solid minute or two. Remember not to crowd the pan. You can always brown the steaks in batches if you need to.

Don’t poke at them, there’s an important chemical reaction going on. Just stand there and think about this:

For a long time common lore was that browning was used to lock moisture into a piece of beef. It’s not. It doesn’t. Browning is simply done for the resulting flavor reactions. So rather than trying to brown every side of your meat as though you’re sealing it up, just focus on getting a good sear on the two broad sides.

Browning Beef for Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

After about a minute or two, flip the steaks and let the other side brown. Then remove the meat from the pan and let it rest on a plate.

Step #6: Deglaze The Pan

What you now have is a very hot dutch oven with bits of beef stuck to the bottom of it. Grab your bottle of wine and pour about half of it directly into the hot pan.

This is a process known as deglazing. When the liquid hits the bottom of the pan, it boils violently releasing air bubbles. The bubbles agitate the bits of meat, lifting them off the bottom of the pot and incorporating them into the resulting sauce.

If you were working with a substitute, like red wine vinegar & Worcester sauce, you’d want to use less liquid — just enough for a thin coating, and to get those bubbles going. I found it’s best to pour the vinegar in first, then continue adding Worcester sauce until the aroma smells more wine-like than vinegary.

After deglazing, turn the heat down to medium-low, and stir with a wooden spatula, scraping any stuck-on bits off the bottom of the pan.

Pre-heat your oven to 275°F.

Continue to stir lightly for about ten minutes as the wine reduces. This reduction process concentrates the natural flavors of the wine, while lowering the alcohol content to approximately 1%.

Step #7: Make Your Stew

As the wine finishes reducing, you can begin adding the rest of your braising ingredients.

Cut your seared steaks into large chunks, roughly 2 inches on each side. This may seem big at first, but they’ll cook down in the oven.

Place the cubes of meat into the dutch oven. It’s critical that they go in first, because you’re going to use them to eyeball how much beef stock you need.

Add beef stock until the meat is about 3/4 submerged.

Add your three-finger pinch of thyme, bay leaf, minced clove of garlic, and about a tablespoon of tomato paste. Don’t worry about exact measurements.

In general it’s better to taste a dish often, and adjust based what’s in your mouth, rather than what’s written in a recipe.

Bring this mixture to a boil.

As soon as it boils, put the lid on. Leave the lid cracked. This is a tip straight from the pros over at Serious Eats. When you seal the lid of the dutch oven, it increases the pressure inside actually cooks the meat at a slightly higher temperature than the oven itself.

Dutch Oven Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

This can throw off your cook time, and dry out your meat.

Place the dutch oven in the actual oven, and set a timer for two hours and fifteen minutes. This is far shorter than most Boeuf Bourguignon recipes call for, and at a much lower temperature too. But it’s a suggestion that comes from Serious Eats food scientist, J. Kenji Lopez.

“The idea of a stew simmering away all day sounds appealing.” he says, “If 2 1/2 hours of simmering makes tender beef, shouldn’t 6 or 8 hours make even more tender beef? Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.”

Kenji explains that when you stew you’re playing a delicate balancing act with two opposing forces. On the one hand, the heat is breaking down the tough collagen, turning it into the gelatin that we so desire. On the other hand that same heat is causing the proteins to contract, voiding the meat of its moisture.

The secret to the most tender Boeuf Bourguignon is to catch the meat just as the collagen is turning into gelatin.

According to Kenji, this takes around 2.5 hours for large chunks of beef in a dutch oven with the lid cracked at 275°F. He suggests checking around the 2:15 mark, poking the pieces with the edge of a spoon to gauge just how tender they are.

Step #8 Chill Out

You’ve got a couple of hours. Now’s a good time to wash up the few dishes you have, wipe down your counters, then kick up your feet. Another huge benefit of braising is that it’s mostly hands off once the pot’s in the oven.

Grab a spot in the sun, and put the remainder of that wine to good use.

Chill Out -- Cooking Travelers

Step #9: Thicken and Serve

When the meat in your pot can be cut easily with a spoon, it’s ready to pull.

The last step is to thicken the braising liquid so that the meal has the hearty consistency of beef stew. There are many ways to thicken a sauce like this, but in order to keep this as simple as possible, we’re going to take a page out of Julia Child’s book, using a simple combination of butter and flour.

Pull the meat cubes out of the pot, and rest them on  a plate. Pull the herb bundle too. You’ll be left with a pot of semi-thick sauce with garlic. Tilt the pot to estimate how much liquid is in it. Then add one tablespoon of flour for each cup of liquid you’d guess is in there. Add about two tablespoons of butter, and stir vigorously over high heat.

You want to work the butter and flour into the mixture, while bringing it to a boil. This won’t take long since everything in the pot is already hot. Let it boil for a minute or so, until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon when you dip it in. Then add the meat back in along with the onions you braised and the mushrooms you browned and cut the heat.

Put it back in the oven to let everything heat up together then pull after about ten or fifteen minutes.

If you see a layer of grease on the top of the stew, you have two options for removing it. First you can simply drape a paper towel over the surface of the stew, quickly removing it along with the grease. Or allow it to cool, then skim off the solid fat from the surface with a slotted spoon.

Serve it hot with red wine and delicious french baguette.

Boeuf Bourguignon -- Cooking Travelers

No matter where in the world you find yourself when the temperature starts to dip, I guarantee you can take the edge off with a piping hot pot of Boeuf Bourguignon.

Bon apetit!

Why Cook When You Travel?

There are few things that put you as intimately in touch with a place and its people as cooking. Every step, from deciding what to make to hunting through shops, markets, and nearby farm-stands for ingredients can be an exercise in discovery.

Take this simple lentil curry as an example.

A bag of lentils will hardly cost you a dollar or two. Combine with a few dollars worth of carrots, potatoes, and ginger, then simmer in chicken broth with a dash of garlic and curry powder and you have hearty, healthy lunches for a week. In that way, cooking is an excellent way to stretch a travel budget.

 

ingredients-for-meal

Make a curry in England (where I was when I first tried this one) and you’ll make new friends quickly.

For more than two-hundred years the British have had a proper fascination with the stuff, ever since first encountering India, and by extension food with real flavor. They took to it like, well, like the British took to anything back in those days (colonizing little buggers), and have been obsessed ever since. Or at least, that’s what I gathered during wine-fueled conversations during the long autumn nights of my stay in Wiltshire. Food (or maybe it was the wine) has a way of bringing people together.

Mention the word curry, or a word that sounds like it might be curry — currentcarafe, corral — and watch as the eyes of the nearest Brit light up with joy and anticipation. It is the pizza of the UK.

Of course if you want to cook, you first need a kitchen, and that means you need to get creative about where you choose to stay.

AirBNB has made it easy for people to rent apartments and even houses in more than 190 countries most of which come with fully-stocked kitchens. For travelers on a more restricted budget there are affordable hostels, and options like CouchSurfing, WorkAway and WWOOF. In addition to giving you a place to cook, these accommodations put you in direct contact with the people in-country. They give you a more authentic, local experience than could ever be had holed away in a one-size-fits-all room at the Marriott.

Once you have your kitchen, the real adventure begins. Butchers must be found and consulted, farmers visited and vetted. If you’re without a car this can mean long walks through exciting city-streets. It can also mean hours spent navigating through dense forests, using old maps and dead reckoning.

Photo Nov 28, 10 05 07 AM (1)

It’s true that you have to travel a bit slower if you want to explore a place this way. But once you try it the slower speed feels right. It feels better. It tastes better. Just like home-made pasta, hand-rolled and hung to dry as garden-fresh tomatoes simmer down on the stove tastes better than microwaved Chef Boyardee.

Cooking is a transformative art. A process by which a few basic things are taken and turned into more than the sum of their parts, bolstered with pinches of this and dashes of that, irrefutably improved through the careful use of energy (in this case, heat) and time.

When you think about it, the very same can be said about travel.

Brazilian Barbecue & The Art of Simplicity

One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was in a little churrascaria holed in away in a downtrodden section of Connecticut’s state capital. Churrascarias are basically Brazilian steakhouses, where meat is grilled until golden brown on long metal skewers laid atop real glowing charcoal. The tradition harkens back to the South American gauchos — cowboys, basically — who would cook meat over open fires while on the range.

“This is incredible,” I said, tucking into a pile of top sirloin, “What’s on it?”

“It’s seasoned in the Brazilian way,” the owner said proudly, “Just sea salt.”

“Wow,” I said, “and the pork?”

“Same thing,” he said.

“What about the chicken?”

He smiled, “Just sea salt.”

That meal was a fundamental turning point for me. Prior to that point, I hadn’t cooked much. I was intimidated by all the possible spice and herb combinations, and never knew what to put on which meat to make it taste right.

That meal taught me an important lesson: Simplicity can be powerful.

It’s a lesson I constantly need reminding of, for I am something of a chronic over-complicator, and not just in the kitchen.

Back in 2010 I’d stumbled across an article in Backpacker Magazine, claiming to list the 10 Most Dangerous Trails in America. I sent it to a couple of friends, and said I thought it’d be interesting to throw some sleeping bags in the back of the car, drive around the country, and hike each one. Six months later a simple road trip had ballooned into an impossibly complicated expedition, in which we were going to travel the country, hike the trails, and raise $100K for charity in the process. The car was covered with the logos of supporters and sponsors, we had media commitments, publishing deadlines, and had even incorporated an LLC under which we operated.

Things tend to get complicated when I’m around.

But the older I get, the more I’m embracing this idea that simplicity is the better path forward. This idea is reiterated several times throughout the pages of Tim Ferriss’ ultimate cookbook The 4-Hour Chef, and in many different ways.

“I’ve listed the 100 most common words in written English,” Ferriss writes, “…the first 25 words on my list make up roughly 33% of all printed material in English. The first 100 comprise 50% of all written material. If we were to expand the list to the top 300, they would make up about 65% of all written material in English”

English has more than 150,000 words, closer to a quarter-million if you include variations and colloquialisms. If you were trying to learn English, you could spend a lifetime attempting to memorize each of those words. But if you properly select a mere 100 — fewer than could fit on a single sheet of lined notebook paper — you can quickly gain access to about half of all the material currently written in English.

If your goal is to learn to read English, simplicity can get you there faster.

Simplicity can also dramatically improve the quality of whatever it is that you experience. Take the kitchen as an example:

“You can afford better ingredients if you’re buying fewer of them,” Ferriss writes.

This reminds me of a conversation I’d once had with a man named Graham Hill. Graham is the founder of LifeEdited, a company that shows people how to live large, with less. I’d had the pleasure of interviewing him for a series I was doing for Catalyst on social entrepreneurs.

“In the US, we’ve super-sized our lives over the last fifty or sixty years,” Hill said, “We’ve got about three times the amount of space per person that we had back then, we’ve also got a 22 billion dollar storage industry for all our extra stuff…Despite having more space and more stuff, we’re actually not any happier.”

The fix for all this, according to Hill, was simple: Less — less space, less stuff, less debt, less consumption, less struggle, less worry, less chaos.

In essence, a simpler life is a happier life

“I’m not saying don’t have any stuff,” he said “just have less of it, and try to have great stuff that you really love.”

Hill’s not some hippy-dippy treehugger (despite being the founder of treehugger.com). He’s a dot-com millionaire, who filled his life with the trappings of success, then felt exactly that: Trapped. It wasn’t until a stint of extended traveling — living out of just two bags — that he truly began to feel happy. And his quest for simplification began.

Today, he lives in a beautiful 420 Square foot apartment in Manhattan. That’s not a typo, the apartment is 420 square feet, and it’s breathtaking. Innovative design, and purposeful simplicity have come together to create a space — complete with kitchen, bathroom, living room, office, bedroom, guest bedroom, and space to throw twelve-person dinner parties — that provides without becoming a burden.

As I’ve traveled — first in the US, then in Europe, always out of a backpack — I’ve found similar refuge in a life of simple things. I have one watch, one pair of shoes, and one jacket. I’ve carried the same two pens for the last four months, and (uncharacteristically) haven’t misplaced either of them. At any given time, I know exactly where everything I own is, and because I have to carry it all, there’s very little temptation to buy more.

Of course, there are things I wish to have more of in my life. Financial stability comes immediately to mind. Love or social connection is an obvious second. There are even material things which I’d like to have. But as I flip through the pages of The 4-Hour Chef its got me pondering how I might simplify my way into them, rather than pursue them with as much effort as humanly possible.

That’s what most of us do, after all; As much as possible, rather than all that’s required.

Some people just don’t know that simplicity can be powerful. I certainly didn’t before I went into that churrascaria.

It’s innocent, really. We live in a world that champions hard work for the sake of working hard. Things that look simple are written off as underdeveloped, or the lazy way out.

Whether it’s ninety-nine problems or eleven herbs and spices, most of us default to doing things the difficult way.

Sure, complexity can impart a certain depth of taste. But in life, as in the kitchen, it often ends up totally overpowering the inherent flavor of whatever it is you’re really trying to experience.

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