Carbonnade à la Flamande

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TasunkaWitko

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I have been making this Belgian beef stew for years; I started with a recipe that was good, but since then have learned to make it really well, and it has been a family favourite for a long time. This past weekend, I prepared another Carbonnade à la Flamande. This one was easily the best I've yet made, so I will share the story with you.

This is most likely the "final" recipe that I will ever use; from this point on, I would say that it is all about perfecting the method and technique. It is the result of much research; carefully poring over many posts, websites, email exchanges and social media messages. Most of all, it is thanks to the patient assistance of a good friend in Flanders, and I owe him a debt of gratitude that I cannot repay.

This recipe will easily feed 6 to 8 people; cut it in half for smaller households.

Carbonnade à la Flamande

Ingredients

4 to 4.5-pound beef chuck roast
4 or 5 medium to large onions
Butter, for frying the onions
Sunflower or other neutral oil for frying the meat
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
Salt
Freshly-ground black pepper
2 or 3 tablespoons flour
2 bottles dark abbey ale (Westmalle, St. Bernardus 12, Kapittel Prior etc.)
2 beer bottles of water, veal stock or beef stock
*2 carrots, (optional, if desired), scraped and coarsely chopped
*2 tablespoons concentrated beef base (optional, if desired) such as Better Than Bouillon (or equivalent in cubes)
2 or 3 sprigs of thyme, or half as much dried thyme
3 or 4 Bay leaves
2 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar, as you prefer
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 or 3 slices of good bread, crusts removed
Dijon mustard


Mise en Place

1. Trim fat to 1/4 inch and cut roast into chunks, approximately 2 inches x 3 inches.

2. Peel onions and cut in half lengthwise; bisect the halves and slice “across the grain,” approximately 3/8-inch thick.

3. Peel and crush the garlic; mince it, if you wish.

4. Prepare beef stock, if necessary.

5. Remove the crusts from the slices of bread and allow them to go a bit stale.

6. Assemble the remaining ingredients, measuring them out as necessary.


Preparation

Use a frying pan and a large cooking or stew pot; cast iron is recommended, but not absolutely necessary.

Put the cooking pot over low to medium-low heat, melt 2 or 3 tablespoons of butter and sweat the onions as long as you can, allowing them to cook their moisture out and get a little bit of colour. Do not let them scorch, or your Carbonnade will be bitter. When the onions cooked down almost as much as they can be, reduce the heat a little and continue to stir them now and then as you progress with the preparation.

Heat a thin layer of oil as hot as you dare, depending on your frying pan. Sear the chunks of meat in batches, taking care not to cover-crowd the pan; half-full is much better, otherwise, you will be boiling the meat in their own juices instead of searing it. You need to take your time for this; put the chunks in one by one and don't move them around all the time...don't shake the pan either, just leave them alone for a few minutes and then turn them. Sear all sides nicely.

Transfer the beef to the cooking pot on top of the onions; add some salt and pepper and the garlic. Sear the next batch of beef chunks until the all meat is done. You may have to add some oil to the frying pan as you progress, but do not remove the fond that is building up in the pan. Be careful with the amount of salt you add, as the Carbonnade will reduce during cooking.

Once all of the beef has been seared, sprinkle the flour over the meat that is now on top of the onions in the cooking pot. Put the fire a little higher, stir and let the flour cook just a little.

Put the frying pan back over the heat and pour a bottle of dark brown beer in it. Scrape the suc or fond from the bottom using a wooden spatula. Pour this mixture over the meat in the cooking pot. Add the second bottle of beer, then fill the bottle with water or stock and add to the pot; be sure to use the same amount of water or stock as you did beer. The meat should be only just covered with liquid.

Add one coarsely-cut carrot and concentrated beef base (if desired), your thyme, 3 or 4 bay leaves, 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar and the same amount of red or white wine vinegar. Spread a generous layer of Dijon-style mustard on the crustless slices of bread and place them in the cooking pot, mustard-side-down. The mustard gives the sour component, providing balance; you can add a few drops of vinegar at the end of the cooking time to correct the acidity, if necessary.

Place the cooking pot in the oven at 325 degrees for 90 minutes; alternately, you can continue to simmer the Carbonande on the stove top, stirring as necessary and taking care that nothing sticks to or scorches on the bottom of the pot. Toward the end of the cooking time, put the lid of the pot askew to let liquid evaporate. At the end of the 90 minutes, check the beef; if the meat isn't not tender enough or the sauce not thick enough, give it another 30 minutes.

When the beef has become completely tender and the sauce thick and dark, remove the pot from the oven. Correct the seasoning and acidity, if necessary, then serve with boiled or fried potatoes and the beer you used to make the stew.

I made the Carbonnade exactly as described above, except for the time and temperature in the oven, which I will explain below. Where a range of the amount of ingredients is listed (such as the beef, onions, flour etc.), I went with the higher amount. The resulting Carbonnade was very good, and seemed to be almost perfect; in fact, and was certainly my best preparation so far, but there was still a little room for improvement. Here are some notes based on the day.

Here are my beef, onions and garlic, all prepared and ready to go:

tBK516N.jpg


The lighting in my house seems to be a bit off; the fat of the beef and the onions should be white, rather than yellowish.

For the beef, I used a very good chuck roast from the very small herd of Angus/Hereford cross cattle that my parents own, cutting it into largish chunks. Chuck roast, as well as other "tough" (and once-upon-a-time cheap) cuts of beef are perfect for this meal, due to the tenderness and flavour achieved through the long, slow cooking process.

To begin, I melted 3 tablespoons of butter in my cast iron Dutch oven, then tossed the onions in to begin their long, slow cook. Throughout the process, I stirred them often as they released their liquid and cooked down, taking care not to let them scorch or burn. It wasn't long before the onions were really smelling good, filling the house with an incredible aroma that promised many good things.

Once the onions had cooked down and were starting to get some colour, I added my crushed garlic. I used three good-sized cloves, which turned out to be just right; any more would simply have been too much. Before long, the mild heat from the pot opened up the aroma of the garlic, which blended nicely with the onions; things were starting to get really good, here!

Moving along, I reduced the heat to the lowest setting, and heated some oil in my frying pan. Once it was quite hot, I began searing the chunks of beef:

9h6xLdj.jpg


You really do want to take your time with this step; sear the beef in small batches, and do not move the chunks while they are in the pan, except to turn and sear another side. Your patience will be rewarded, if you exercise self-discipline:

I4qqYnj.jpg


It seemed to me that searing for 5 minutes on the first side, then about 4 minutes on the remaining sides, produced good results.

By the time the first batch of beef was seared on all sides, here is what the onions looked like:

UO54K0o.jpg


Once again: weird lighting! The onions weren't quite this "yellow," but they did have some very good colour on them. I added the beef to them, along with a little salt and freshly-ground black pepper, then continued with the next batch of beef chunks.

As you continue to sear the batches of beef, you may need to reduce the heat and adjust the times a little bit, in order to prevent scorching as your pan finds its groove. As I seared the beef and added it to the Dutch oven, I continued to grind some pepper over each batch, but only added a little salt every other batch, as the stew will reduce and become concentrated wile it cooks.

This process will take as long as it takes, and should not be rushed; after four full batches of beef, plus half of a fifth, I finished searing the beef, and it looked great! I stirred the beef an onions together:

dOsaGmR.jpg


(Continued Below)
 
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TasunkaWitko

TasunkaWitko

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(Continued from Above)

Next, I added the flour to the beef and onions, then brought the heat up just a little as I stirred the flour into the mix. the object here is to let the flour cook just a bit, in order to lose its "raw" taste. It is similar to the idea of creating a roux, but you do not take it anywhere near as far as that.

Meanwhile, I turned my attention back to the frying pan and added a bottle of beer in order to deglaze the pan. Where the beer is concerned, you want a to choose one that is dark and rich, with relatively low hop bitterness and a bit of sweetness. The best to use is a Belgian trappist or abbey ale known as a dubbel, and there are many labels from which to choose. My friend in Europe had some very specific advice on this:

When making carbonnades, you don’t use pale colored beer like tripel or any pilsner, wit (white) or whatever. The best choice to use would be a dark abbey beer or a dubbel, which is a very good option since it has less alcohol. These beers are have a distinct amount of sweet and bitter, which is why you never use only beer as the stew liquid in a carbonnade; you will end up with a bitter preparation if there’s no water or beef stock added! Many swear by using a red beer, such as Rodenbach. When I was younger, red beer was very acidic and more a high summer drink, preferably drunk with a few fresh shrimp on the side that you peeled on the fly. Since many years now they took out the biggest part of the acidity. Still, it’s one of Belgian favorites for making carbonnades, together with Oud Bruin (Old Brown).

Some examples of the beer you want to look for include:

Ename Dubbel
Kapittel Prior
Westmalle Dubbel
Sint-Bernardus Abt
Sint-Bernardus Prior
Kasteelbier Donker
Oud Bruin
Rodenbach (Red)
Petrus (Red)

Unfortunately, I had only one bottle of trappist dubbel in the house (Westmalle), and needed two; so earlier that day I had set my mind to finding a substitute. Given the parameters, the "next best thing" would probably be an English porter, but a search throughout my small, one-horse town didn't turn up any of that either. I did, however, find one beer that I figured would be perfect for this; even better, it is brewed in Montana!

K3POldw.jpg


Moose Drool is an American take on an English brown ale that is brewed at Big Sky Brewing Company in Missoula. In spite of its dubious name, it is a very good beer that meets all of the criteria that I was looking for, with a very good colour, a touch of sweetness and with just enough hop bitterness to balance and compliment the other ingredients. The way things turned out, I couldn't have asked for a better substitute.

When the beer hit the hot frying pan, it released the brown bits from the bottom, known as the suc or fond. Using a wooden spatula, I scrapped all of this up and mixed it in with the beer, then poured everything from the frying pan into the Dutch oven. I added the second beer to the pot, then two bottles' worth of beef stock; as a rule of thumb, you want one bottle of beer and one bottle of stock (or water) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef, which will give you just the right amount of braising liquid. As my friend in Belgium told me, "In the older days, people added their beer, filled the beer bottle with water and added it to the stew; simple and easy, so I do that as well." In Belgium, the bottles are 33cl, which is a little less than the standard 12-ounce bottle of beer; however, since I had a little extra beef to braise, I figured that it would all even out.

I decided to forego the optional, coarsely-chopped carrot; however, I did add about 1.5 tablespoons of roasted beef base, from Better Than Bouillon. This step is not necessary, when using stock, but it can provide a little boost to the stock, if you desire. The concentrate is a bit more salty than I prefer; however, I like the deep, beefy foundation that it provides, so I took care to be very conservative with my added salt early on. As it turned out, I seem to have achieved a good balance, and was happy with the results.

After this, the rest is very easy; I added the fresh thyme, stripped from the sprigs, along with the bay leaves. Next, I added the brown sugar and the red wine vinegar:

JxLBuKj.jpg


Another rule of thumb: you want to use 1 tablespoon of brown sugar and the same amount of red or white wine vinegar per kilo of beef. I would have preferred to use white wine vinegar; however, this is a personal preference on my part, and either would certainly give you beautiful balance against the other flavours in the Carbonnade. The addition of vinegar and brown sugar might seem a little strange, but please do trust the recipe, as these ingredients are as essential to Carbonnade à la Flamande as the beef, the onions and the beer. From my friend in Flanders:

Of particular importance is the acidity balance of carbonnade. When using abbey beer, you need to add some vinegar to your preparation to cut the sweetness of the beer. Start by adding a good tablespoon of red or white wine vinegar (whichever you prefer) per kilo of meat. Add it when you put the beer and water in, together with a generous spoon of dark brown soft sugar per kilo. At the end of the preparation, check the balance again and add a little more vinegar, if needed. When using a more acidic beer, taste first; you might not need to add so much but a little vinegar will bring your preparation to another level!

We're almost there! All that is left to do is to spread a liberal amount of Dijon-style mustard on the slices of bread:

aZSHcrd.jpg


My loaf of "French" bread was on the smallish side, so I sued a total of 5 slices of bread; If you use slices from a regular-sized loaf, 2 or 3 slices will most likely be enough.

Where the mustard is concerned, I went with a whole-grain "old style" variety from Maille that I really like; this mustard worked very well, but in the future I will probably use something that is more finely ground, as I personally found the seeds in the finished stew to be a distraction. I should stress, however, that this really was a good mustard to use, full of rich, rustic flavour, and it boils down to personal preference.

I placed the slices of bread, mustard-side-down, on top of the Carbonnade:

qEJwPzM.jpg


I then covered the Dutch oven and placed it into a preheated oven in order to begin its long, slow cook.

(Continued Below)
 
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TasunkaWitko

TasunkaWitko

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(Continued from Above)

Regarding time and temperature, I set the oven at 300 degrees for 90 minutes, removing the lid after about 60 minutes; in retrospect, this was a little conservative on my part, as the stew was pretty thin at the end of the allotted time, and the beef wasn't quite fully tender. I brought the Dutch oven to the stove top and continued to simmer off some of the liquid; after half an hour of this, it had started to thicken up pretty well, but was still just a bit thin to my liking. It seemed to me that another half-hour of this would have been perfect, but by this time everyone was pretty impatient to eat, so I went with it. It tasted good; in fact, it tasted absolutely wonderful, but I personally would have preferred it just a bit thicker. With that in mind, I have set the time and temperature of the recipe to that shown above, and will continue to refine this as necessary until it is "dialed in" to perfection.

Another option is to simmer the Carbonnade on the stovetop, rather than in the oven; this could allow you to have better control, adjusting the lid to reduce the sauce, as necessary. Unfortunately, most times I try to cook stews and other similar dishes this way, I end up running the risk of scorching the bottom of the pan (and the meal), even on the lowest temperature. Having said that, I will try it in the future, and be sure to monitor the progress of the cooking carefully, in order to hopefully prevent that from happening.

If, in spite of all efforts, your sauce comes out really thin, you can scoop all of the meat out of the pot and reduce the sauce over high heat to your desired thickness, taking care to stir often and not allow it to scorch.

The notes above underscore an axiom where Carbonnade is concerned: having a well-reduced sauce makes a big difference in the taste. Carbonnade à la Flamande is all about concentrated flavors and balance; nearly every step of the preparation of this dish is focused on that end.

In any case, the Carbonnade was very close to ideal, but could have been a bit better where the thickness and consistency were concerned; something to remember for next time. The funny thing is that, when I served the meal to my famished family alongside simple boiled potatoes, there was not a single complaint about the thickness. Even with this small flaw, the flavours of the Carbonnade were exemplary, and everyone - including a couple of finicky souls - enjoyed it very much. In my own judgment, as mentioned above, this was easily the best Carbonnade that I have made to date, with better flavour, better balance and better highlighting of "the star of the dish" than I have ever achieved.

I am, of course, referring to the beef, and one simple alteration made a lot of difference. When I was reading through the advice from my friend in Flanders, I noticed that he added a little salt and pepper after the meat was seared, rather than before this step. In the past, I had always added the salt and pepper before, but this time I waited until removing it from the frying pan. The results were unique and delightful, in that the beef seemed to me much more highlighted and on its own, while the salt and pepper seasoned the sauce itself. This of course was helped along by the fact that I was using very nice beef, which the seasoning technique allowed to shine.

My goal on this day was to prepare a "quintessential" Carbonnade à la Flamande, where ingredients, technique and taste are concerned, and I came very close. As a result, I fell in love with this Flemish stew all over again, and vowed that it wouldn't be long before my next preparation, especially as autumn moves into winter early here in Montana. I am, however, always looking for room for improvement, so I came up with a few items to keep in mind, next time:

The Moose Drool worked out much better than I imagined it would, but next time I will use a proper abbey ale.

I will employ ground Dijon mustard, rather than whole-seed.

I will use white wine vinegar, in order to compare it to using red wine vinegar.

I will manage the cooking time and temperature better, with an eye toward a thicker, more concentrated sauce.

The boiled potatoes were very nice, and certainly traditional; but I would really like to try traditional Belgian Patates Frites next time:

http://foodsoftheworld.activeboards.net/patates-frites_topic4916.html

That's all I have for now, everyone. If you have prepared this before, using the recipes listed above, I'd suggest that you try it as written here, in order to get a good sense of the difference; I truly believe that this preparation was as close as one can get without actually being in a Flemish kitchen. If you've never tried Carbonnade before, then this is a great place to start!

If interested, you can take a look at the learning process that I went through as I evolved where this dish is concerned, including notes, alternate recipes, discussions on various techniques etc., including some very nice photos from my friend in Belgium:

http://foodsoftheworld.activeboards.net/carbonnade-la-flamande_topic274.html

As always, questions, comments, thoughts and feedback are most welcome - if anyone else tries this, I'd really like to know how you like it!

Ron
 

Temptd2

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Wow, Ron, thank you so much for taking your time to write that down so eloquently! I look forward to trying it. I've never made this particular dish but I always use one or two of our housemade stouts or porters when I do pot roast or beef stew, the same amount of water, and then the same beef stock paste you called out - and plenty of onions. I think my husband would eat them on ice cream!

We had a beef stew tonight which I had made a few weeks back and stuck a few quarts in the freezer. It had some baby carrots, some tiny potatoes, and a couple of cubed turnips in it - also the beer and I usually add a cup of red wine too - rather like adding the little bit of vinegar, I'm guessing? Anyway I also used a big London broil and cooked it in the Instant Pot, browning up the meat as you did, a few cubes at a time until all were properly seared; then stirring in the beer to scrape up the fond. Rather similar, yet not. Delicious no doubt!

I'll give this one a try next time I find a suitable hunk of cow! How lucky for you to have such lovely beef available!

We have an order in for half a beef, of Criollo origin, which has spent its life completely on pasture and augmented 7% of its diet with spent grains from the local brewery. Once we get that beef I'm thinking this is a proper treatment of some of it!
 
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TasunkaWitko

TasunkaWitko

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Hey - I'm glad you like the look of it, and I am certain that you will love this, if you give it a try. The inter-play between the ingredients, along with the absolute glory when a real balance is achieved, make this something that I keep coming back to, again and again.

Any tough, hardworking cut of beef should work; as you know, these cuts become very flavourful when subjected to long, slow braising that breaks down the connective tissues, leaving behind tastes that you just can't get otherwise.

Let me know how it goes when you try it - and if you have any questions, just ask!

Ron
 
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