Beef, Entrees, French, Recipes

Carbonnades à la Flamande (Belgian Beef and Onion Stew)

flemish-beef-stew-1

For the past year, I've used my wok more than any other cookware, mainly because of the Chinese cookbook I was working on and blogging for my other website, Appetite for China. The beautiful shiny red Dutch oven I received for Christmas last year sat in the corner for months, boxed up from my last move. As much as I loved stir-frying with the wok, I missed the lovely braised dishes that came out of the gorgeous ruby cocotte. And I missed, compared with the wok, how little space it took up on my narrow apartment-sized stove. It was time for the Dutch oven to see daylight again (well, fluorescent kitchen light...)

I recently looked at the list I made for all the dishes from old cookbooks I wanted to try for this site, and roughly half of them are braises and stews. Maybe it's because we're deep in the throes of winter. Maybe it's because stews are so economical, in terms of both money and time, and a braise that took 2 hours and $15 worth of ingredients to make can last the next few nights. Or maybe it's just I frequently daydream about meltingly tender cuts of meat.

One of the first dishes I wanted to try was Carbonnades à la Flamande, a Belgian beef and onion stew in which beer is used as the braising liquid. Just beer, with no stock or water added. I had two recipes on hand and debated with one to use, one from a June, 1959 article by Craig Claiborne in The New York Times, or Julia Child's from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The New York Times recipe is a simple, straight-forward one, and recommended using a heavy beer such as ale or stout. Julia's, on the other hand, was more involved, and recommended a light Pilsner. Was there a difference between the Belgian original or the French adaptation? And, given that both recipes were written by Americans in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which either close to what Belgian home cooks made decades or even centuries earlier?

That was research for another day, when I get my hands on a 19th-century Flemish cookbook. For now, The New York Times recipe won out, mainly because it didn't need a starch thickener. (I went to Biercraft in Park Slop and picked out a French-style country ale I liked from trying it months earlier.) And it called for braising on the stove instead of in the oven, which was much easier given the lack of space in my oven. I did, however, end up borrowing a bit of advice from Julia, which was to add a bit of brown sugar to the braising liquid to mask the beer's slight bitterness.

I served this with buttered noodles, but parsley potatoes is apparently another common side dish. This hearty stew was delicious with a nice dark winter ale, but I'm sure it's equally tasty with a lighter beer.

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Carbonnades à la Flamande (Belgian Beef and Onion Stew)

Serves 4 to 6

  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
  • One 12-ounce bottle or can of brown ale
  • 3 medium yellow onions
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  1. In a shallow bowl, combine the flour, salt, and pepper. Dredge the meat in the seasoned flour, making sure it's covered on all sides.
  2. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or deep sauté pan. Add the meat and brown on all sides.
  3. Add the beer, onions, garlic, sugar, parsley, bay leaf, and thyme. Cover and cook at a gentle simmer for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until the meat is tender. Transfer to a deep dish, garnish with additional chopped parsley, and serve.

Adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser

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Other savory dishes using beer: