Thursday, October 25, 2012

Beef Carbonnade

aka Belgian Beef Stew, Flemish Beef Stew, French Carbonnades Flamandes...

Where did our summer sunshine go? and why did I expect it to last forever? This week layers of gray clouds filled the sky while chilly, gusty winds scattered piles of colored leaves around the patio. Finally it's time to store the barbecue and move cooking inside, time to celebrate Autumn with hearty soups and stews. I love everything about Fall and welcome the changeable weather, the riot of colors as the leaves turn, the first snowfall in the mountains, and the satisfying comfort foods that go with it all. (and now I'll quit talking about the weather, at least until it snows)

Beef Carbonnade comes to mind as the perfect meal on a blustery day, simmering for hours and perfuming the kitchen with its wonderful aroma. This stew is actually a multi-season favorite, delicious at home in Fall and Winter and just as welcome in the boat galley in Spring. My current recipe began as an onboard solution to cooking as we cruise.

A crock pot is a handy cooking aid in a boat galley. It's an efficient way to cook soups and stews during long passages, especially those really long all-day passages in rough water. My slow cooker plugs into a 12-volt outlet and sits securely on a wooden bread board deep inside the sink as we travel. It stays solidly in place, cooking away comfortably for hours, even when the boat is rocking and rolling. For recipe inspiration I often turn to The 150 Best Slow Cooker Recipes by Judith Finlayson. Who knew that a 10-year old paperback cookbook would hold so many recipes to treasure? When I'm ashore I prepare many of the same recipes with a slow,low cook on stovetop or in the oven instead of using my well-traveled crock pot.  

Grrrrrrrl - that's my stomach growling in eager anticipation just thinking about Finlayson's recipe for Beef Carbonnade. Will power fades while the stew slowly simmers, and I find myself drawn to perform countless taste tests to sample the gravy. OH! that gravy, sweet and savory with a mellow deliciousness that draws me back to check the flavor, over and over for "just one more spoonful". After two hours at a bubbling simmer the onions melt away, adding body and sweet, deep flavors to the now-silky gravy. The final sweet-sour adjustment with brown sugar, vinegar and lemon juice or zest balances the flavor to perfection. Add cooked carrots, mushrooms and potatoes to the stew and it's a filling meal, or serve it plain over wide noodles or potatoes and savor each rich, mellow, satisfying bite.   

This classic sweet-sour stew, the national dish of Belgium, is known for its combination of beef, caramelized onions, thyme and bay seasonings, beer, vinegar and sugar. Variations abound, some are intriguing and others are ... interesting. Interesting? well, unusual. Adding bread and jam to the stew is one of those unusual interesting variations. A SeriousEats reader commented on another carbonnade recipe: 
"After adding the beer, take enough slices of bread to cover the top of the stew, spread a nice, grainy mustard on one side of each slide, and something sweet on the other -- I use pear syrup, but something like apple butter works too. Place the bread, butter side down, on top of the stew, put the lid on, and let cook as directed above. About 20 minutes before serving, when the bread is nice and soggy, stir it into the stew, ensuring that it is completely broken up and incorporated into the stew. Aside from adding flavor, the bread will help thicken the stew."
No thank you, I'm not tempted to experiment with bread and jam, not when the basic recipe is so terrific without much tinkering. 

Photo: Carbonnade ingredients 

Photo: Browned beef and crispy bacon

Photo: Caramelized onions

Photo: Beef Carbonnade with carrots and potatoes

Beef Carbonnade
adapted from The 150 Best Slow Cooker Recipes, 1st edition by Judith Finlayson 
Serves 4 to 6… unless you’re really, really hungry

1 TBS canola oil
4 strips thick-sliced bacon, small dice
2 LBS beef chuck roast, 1 to 2-inch chunks
3 large onions, sliced thin lengthwise
4 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 tsp dried thyme leaves
1 tsp celery seed
1 large bay leaf
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cracked black pepper
1 TBS brown sugar 
¼ cup AP flour
1 bottle beer (12 oz), preferably dark ale
½ cup beef stock
1-2 TBS red wine vinegar or lemon juice (to taste, as needed)
lemon zest, as topping (optional)
chopped Italian parsley, as topping (optional)

  1. In a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or cast iron deep skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the bacon and cook until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat in the pan.
  2. In the same pan, over medium-high heat, brown the meat well on all sides. Do this in several batches taking care not to crowd the pieces; you want to brown the meat, not steam it. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium, add the sliced onions and cook until soft and lightly caramelized (but not crisped). Stir often to keep them from sticking to the pan.
  4. Add the garlic ,spices, salt and pepper; stir and cook for 1 minute or until fragrant. Sprinkle the sugar over the mixture and stir to blend.
  5. Add the flour and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly, until incorporated. Add the beer and beef stock and cook, stirring frequently, until mixture thickens.
  6. Add the bacon and beef back into the pot. Cover and cook over low heat on stovetop OR at 325 F in the oven until the meat is tender, approximately 2 hours. (A slow cooker is another option.)
  7. Taste and adjust seasonings to taste. Add red wine vinegar or lemon juice if needed to boost the sour in the sweet/sour balance. Typically the brown sugar and onions add enough sweetness, but add more sugar if it suits your taste.
  • Cook carrots and potato chunks separately, adding them to the pot just before serving.
  • Sauteed and browned mushrooms are delicious added to the recipe.
  • Consider serving with buttered noodles and parsley OR serving over a mound of chunky mashed potatoes. Several recipes mentioned serving with french fries, but I put that in the unusual interesting category.
  • A double recipe barely fed 7 people: the men went for BIG portions and second helpings.

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