Believe it – this Belgian beef stew is the best

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hopefully our cold winter nights are almost over. I do remember a wonderful night in March a few years ago when winter just did not seem to leave – like this year.

We were with friends and wanted something to warm our insides. We went to a small bistro in Wilmington, N.C., called Caprice. We ate upstairs at a table overlooking Market Street, which was not very busy on that cold March evening.

The chef had prepared a wonderful Belgian stew, which I have always remembered as one of the best stews I had ever eaten. We go back to this restaurant quite often and ask if the “stew” is on the menu. Sometimes it is and sometimes not.

We went back a few weeks ago and requested to have the stew and were rewarded with the wonderful taste we had enjoyed so many years ago. Of course, I asked for the recipe and it was promised to me. Well, I did not receive it, so I did my own research and came up with some recipes. I also noted on the restroom wall a printed restaurant review from New York where this couple had previously had a café. They noted that the carbonnade was made with Rodenbach red ale. I am sending the owners of Caprice this article, so maybe they will have the heart to send me their recipe so I can make it just like the one I remember.

I always go back to Julia Child for a good recipe. I tried her beef and onion braised in beer and it was just wonderful and almost as good as Caprice’s version. Beer is typical for the Belgian braise, and gives a quite different character to beef than the red wine of the bourguignon that the French do. A bit of brown sugar masks the beer’s slightly bitter quality, and a little vinegar at the end gives character. Serve this with parsley potatoes or buttered noodles, and green salad, and beer.

From Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One.

Carbonnades À La Flamande

(Beef and Onions Braised in Beer)

Serves 6

A 3-lb. piece of lean beef from the chuck roast or rump

2-3 Tb rendered fresh pork fat or good cooking oil

A heavy skillet

1 ½ lbs. or 6 cups of sliced onions

Salt and pepper

4 cloves mashed garlic

a 9-to10-inch fireproof casserole about 3 ½ inches deep

Salt and pepper

1 cup strong beef stock or canned beef bouillon

2-3 cups light beer, Pilsner type

2 Tb light brown sugar

1 large herb bouquet; 6 parsley sprigs, 1 bay leaf, and ½ tsp thyme tied in cheesecloth

1½ Tb arrowroot or cornstarch blended with 2 Tb wine vinegar

Parsley Potatoes or buttered noodles

Parsley sprigs

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cut the beef into slices about 2 by 4 inches across and ½ inch thick. Dry on paper towels. Put a 1/16-inch layer of fat or oil in the skillet and heat until almost smoking. Brown the beef slices quickly, a few at a time, and set them aside.

Reduce heat to moderate. Stir the onions into the fat in the skillet, adding more fat if necessary, and brown the onions lightly for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper and stir in the garlic.

Arrange half the browned beef in the casserole and season lightly with salt and pepper. Spread half the onions over the beef. Repeat with the rest of the beef and onions.

Heat the stock or bouillon in the browning skillet, scraping up coagulated cooking juices. Pour it over the meat. Add enough beer so the meat is barely covered. Stir in the brown sugar. Bury the herb bouquet among the meat slices. Bring casserole to the simmer on top of the stove. Then cover the casserole and place in lower third of preheated oven. Regulate heat so liquid remains at a very slow simmer for 2 ½ hours at the end of which time the meat should be fork-tender.

Remove the herb bouquet. Drain the cooking liquid out of the casserole into a saucepan, and skim off fat. Beat the starch and wine vinegar mixture into the cooking liquid and simmer for three to four minutes. Carefully correct seasoning. You should have about 2 cups of sauce. Pour the sauce back over the meat. May be prepared in advance to this point.

When ready to serve, cover the casserole and simmer slowly for four to five minutes until the meat is thoroughly heated through. Either bring the casserole to the table, or arrange the meat on a hot serving platter, spoon the sauce over it, surround with potatoes or noodles, and decorate with parsley.

The Splendid Table sends e-mails every week telling of new recipes, books and just general cooking information. This past week was a recipe for Belgian beef stew, and I could not resist trying it also. This one uses rabbit or chicken, but I stuck to the beef and used beef broth instead of the chicken. This recipe does call for a beer that is made only in Brussels.

Of course I could not find it, but I did find what I was told was a good substitute. Whole Foods suggested a tart ale made by Abita Springs and it was really good. This recipe is different in that you must marinade the meat for 24 hours in the beer. Leave a little beer to drink with the dish.

Brabant Braise with Prunes and Gueuze Beer

Serves 6-8

16 ounces Belgian Gueuze beer, or Orval, Trappist, or full bodied tart ale

8 juniper berries, bruised

2 large garlic cloves, crushed

4 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bay leaves, broken

4 pounds of cut up rabbit, or skinned chicken (I used 2 pounds grass-fed beef cut into cubes)

3 tablespoons fat from salt pork, or cold pressed vegetable oil

about ½ cup flour

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 large onions, chopped

about 2 cups chicken stock (I used beef stock)

1 tablespoon red currant jelly (I used blackberry jam, seeded)

1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 cup coarsely chopped pitted prunes, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes (Both my husband and I didn’t like this addition despite the fact we like prunes. I would suggest leaving it out.)

A day before cooking, combine the first six ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate 24 hours. The next day drain the meat, saving the marinade, and pat it dry. Lightly coat pieces with flour. Heat the fat or oil in a 12-inch sauté pan over medium high heat. Slowly brown the meat pieces in two batches (so pieces don’t touch) until golden on all sides. Watch the heat, taking care not to burn the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle meat with salt and pepper as it cooks. Remove from the pan.

Stir in the onions and herbs from the marinade. Cook until onions are soft. Stir in ¼ of the marinade and reduce to nothing. Do the same with ½ cup of stock.

Put meat back in the pan, turning to coat with the onions. Add the rest of the marinade and stock. Bring to a very gentle simmer, partially cover, and cook about 45 minutes, or until meat is tender (if breasts cook faster, remove them from the pan once they are done). Beef takes a little longer so I doubled the time for cooking.

After 30 minutes, stir drained prunes into the pan. Once meat is tender, remove it to a heated platter. Taste sauce for rich, full flavor. If it’s week-kneed, boil down for a few minutes. Either way, stir in the jelly and vinegar, boil 2 minutes and pour over the meat. Serve hot with steamed red-skinned potatoes or Yukon Golds.