An old, warm favorite

October 23, 2018

I guess I first made carbonnades a la flamande close on to 10 years ago.  It was one of the first strike-out-into-new-territory dishes I tried when I began to get more adventurous in cooking, and it’s been a favorite ever since.

Warmth in a bowl.

I remember WHY I tried it. I read the Arkansas Times, religiously, because I am a screaming liberal and that’s the screaming liberal newspaper in a state that ain’t got but one, at least that I know of. And Max Brantley, then the editor of same, and his wife were on a trip to Europe, and he was periodically posting on the Times’ blog. He mentioned one day about carbonnades a la flamande, which sent me to Google (I do dearly love Google) to look it up.

“Well,” I said to myself after reading a couple of versions of the recipe. “This seems simple enough. I b’lieve I could do this.” And Self replied, “Well, sure ya could!” So we undertook it. I believe I blogged it, sometime in early 2009. I just remember it was spitting snow, colder than five kinds of hell, and that was the warmest, most wonderful thing I’d ever eaten.

It was also the first time I’d ever eaten anything that was so blatantly more in total than the sum of its parts. A handful of really simple ingredients — most anyone has them on hand — cook up into something just extraordinary, after a few hours simmering away at a low, low temp on the back of the stove.

In the event you don’t want to go back and hunt, here’s the recipe. I make it in a fairly small quantity, because it’s one of the few stews that isn’t better the second time around. 

Onions, en route to caramelization.

  • Four onions, sliced and caramelized
  • a pound of stew meat or cut-up chuck roast, cut in one-inch cubes or smaller
  • 2-3 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt, pepper and flour
  • a 12-ounce dark beer (a stout of some kind is good)
  • 2 cups of beef broth
  • a tablespoon of spicy brown mustard
  • a tablespoon of brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of cornstarch

Shake the beef cubes with flour seasoned with salt and pepper until they’re well coated. Brown them in a Dutch oven in olive oil, getting a nice crust on all sides (do this in batches if you need to, to give them plenty of room to brown). Remove to a bowl or plate, and set aside.

Browned beef cubes.

In the same Dutch oven, caramelize the onions. You may need to add a tad bit more oil. When they start to sizzle, turn them down to medium low, so they’ll brown slowly. Let them get nice and golden tan (20-30 minutes), stirring occasionally. When they’re golden tan, dump the beef and any juices back in, add the beer and beef broth, turn the heat up and bring it to a boil, then turn it back down to a simmer, put the lid on, and go away.

A word about the beer. I made this the first time with Newcastle Brown Ale, and that ain’t bad. I’ve used Guinness, and I’ve used a couple of different kinds of porter. The best beer, hands down, for this dish that I’ve EVER used is Green Flash Double Stout, and I can’t get it here in God’s country any more. Must remember to stock up next time I’m in Memphis.

Anyway. Let the stuff simmer along on a very low heat, just enough to bubble a little bit now and again, for a couple or three hours, long enough for the beef to get fall-apart tender. You can add more broth or beer if it gets too dry, but if you keep your heat low enough, it shouldn’t. You can also cut a circle of parchment paper to fit inside the Dutch oven, and let it rest right on top of the stew to avoid a lot of evaporation. And if your stove top is crowded, you can move it to the oven at about 275 or 300.

When the beef is good and tender, dip out a half-cup or so of the broth and stir the cornstarch into it. Add the mustard and the brown sugar to the stew, stir it in, add the cornstarch and broth, and stir that in, and simmer another 30-45 minutes.

I like to serve this over grits, although the traditional presentation is over egg noodles. It’s also really good over mashed potatoes or rice, or really, any starch that trips your trigger.

There’s something about this simple combo of ingredients that just transforms them. The broth is velvety and substantial. The meat still has a little bite, but packs a TON of flavor. The onions have, by this time, almost melted into the sauce, though you still find an identifiable strand now and again. And the taste….oh, my God, the taste. This is a Sweet Baby Jesus of a beef stew, no two ways about it. 

You can scale this up with no problem at all. With a three or four pound chuck roast, use eight or 10 onions; remember, when they’re caramelized, they reduce to half their volume, and the long cook dissolves a lot of them in the broth. Add more beer, less broth if you wish. Serve it with a tossed green salad with a tart viniagrette, and baguettes of good French bread, and you have a dinner party that hasn’t stressed you beyond belief because everything’s done ahead of time and then the bread warmed and salad dressed right before dinner, maybe 15 minutes in the kitchen. Not to mention the smell will have all the guests licking their chops.

And it’s guaranteed to keep you ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em warm on a cold fall or winter evening.

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