Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Carbonnade Flamande

It was a cold, dark night in Bruges, Belgium. We had found a tiny café with many dishes I was totally unfamiliar with, including this one. The description looked good, it was a house specialty and above all I was trying to boldly go where I had never gone before. The plate arrived, steam rising from its surface along with a complex aroma that made me grab my spoon and go for a tongue-burning taste. Rich, layered, deep. Beef, beer, herbal, onion flavors slow-cooked together to create the perfect dish for a cold night after a day spent exploring.

Some recipes add mushrooms. Others omit the bacon. Most call for dried herbs. I didn't remember mushrooms from my trip to Bruges, and these are not herbs I typically use dried, since thyme really has a much better flavor when used fresh. So 86 the shrooms, keep the bacon, change the herbs to fresh and keep them in the background. Make sure the beef stock is rich, since this is where a lot of the flavor will come from.

You could probably drink wine with this plate. I don't know why, but you probably could. But if you're staying in the Belgian mode, beer is your drink. The Brasserie d'Achouffe brews some interesting stuff, like Mc Chouffe. It's a brown ale, somehow a mix of Scottish and Belgian brewing styles that result in a smooth easy to drink beverage that complimented the beef in the carbonnade quite well, and the sauce even better, maybe because of the sauce's beer base.

This is something that is even better the second day, so I made a lot. I have another bottle of beer I'd like to try...

Carbonnade Flamande (Flemish Beef Stew)
Preparation time: about 30 minutes, assuming that you have beef stock.

Cook time: until the meat is fork tender, somewhere over two hours.

Yield: about six serving plated like above. About four people if you're being copious on the carbonnade and skimpy on the potatoes (and they're hungry).

Yes, this recipe is metric. That's because it's Belgian. It's also because here in the USA we're too scared to make the jump and join the rest of the entire planet. So, consider this a bit of a shove in the right direction. It really is an easier system to use - once you no longer have to convert from gallons, pounds and all that nonsense. Maybe more importantly, worrying about having exact quantities of ingredients is a great way to screw up a dish (unless you're baking). Use your head and go with the flow. This isn't an exact thing, since onions, garlic, sprigs of herbs, etc. don't come in uniform sizes anyway.

  • About 1 kg beef, cut into 3 cm. cubes
  • Flour for dredging the meat
  • 2 medium yellow onions, chopped into about 1 cm pieces
  • Several cloves of garlic, to taste, finely chopped
  • 200 g or so bacon, cut into narrow strips. I used uncured.
  • Olive oil for frying
  • 50 cl of dark beer (Downtown Brown, in this case. Drink the rest)
  • Enough beef stock to cover everything once you've added the beer. The quality of your stock will have a big influence on the quality of the dish. If you're buying your stock, check to see how much salt is in it and adjust the recipe accordingly.
  • Thyme, fresh (about 1/2 sprig).
  • Bay leaves, 3
  • Salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • Fresh parsley for garnish
  1. Get everything ready: slice the beef into cubes (if you didn't buy stew meat, already cut), cut the onions and garlic, slice the bacon, wash and prepare the thyme, take the beer out of the fridge so it's room temperature.
  2. Dredge the meat in the flour in batches small enough to fit in your pan without crowding.
  3. Heat a sautoir (sauté pan), add the oil, and gently brown the meat. Don't cook it, since it will have plenty of time for that later. You just want to brown the meat/flower mixture for added flavor.
  4. Remove the meat from the pan, repeat with the next batch.
  5. Sauté the bacon a bit until it gives off some tasty grease
  6. Increase the heat a bit, add the onions and garlic. Fry them until they're soft. They'll take on the color from the pan and pick up some of the meat flavor.
  7. Turn the heat down and deglaze with a tiny bit of beef stock, scraping the pan with a wood (or other non-scratching) spatula to remove the fond (brown stuff) from the surface of the pan. I poured just enough to sizzle and lift the fond while scraping. When you're done, the pan should be clean, the onions dirty (this is good, though - the fond has a lot of flavor that you want in the cooking liquid).
  8. Add the beer, stir it in. There should be a bit of foam, but it will go away as things cook. At this point, a crock pot would work, since the meat has been browned and all that is left is a long simmer.
  9. Add the stock and herbs, enough to cover all the meat. 
  10. Cover, and reduce the heat to low so that the liquid just simmers. A few tiny bubbles coming to the top, as long as the liquid is over 75° C (167° F) is probably ideal.
  11. Check from time to time that the liquid is simmering, not boiling. Boiling the meat is bad, and will give you tough, dry beef instead of moist, tender morsels.
  12. After about 90 minutes, you can start checking for doneness. If the meat is fork tender, it's ready. 
  13. Depending on the amount of connective tissue in the meat, you might need more cooking time.
  14. If you have a lot of sauce, remove the meat and increase heat to high to reduce it down. It's OK to boil the sauce, since the meat isn't in it. Return the meat to the sauce once it's thickened a bit and you're ready to eat.
Serve with boiled new or fingerling potatoes and garnish with chopped parsley. I peeled the potatoes after steaming them (to avoid doing the dreaded tourné cut), then put them in the sauce to heat up.

More about the Brasserie d'Achouffe here.

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