Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Flemish flourish.

Carbonnade flamande over horseradish mashed potatoes. © Ryan Schierling
The winter weather here in Austin has me supremely torn. I love that I can wear flip-flops, jeans and a t-shirt to the grocery store when it's a seemingly-freakish 70-degrees mid-January. But, there's a part of me that absolutely hates it's mid-January and I'm making salads and agua fresca instead of a fiery chili, a hearty rib-sticking ragu, or Julie's ghetto mac-n-cheese. The rest of the country is in a deep freeze, and we've still got lettuce happily bursting out of the garden. There is no chill to stave off. 

Thankfully, there are some temperature swings and dips here and there, and after throwing a few logs in the fireplace, I take advantage of the kitchen and the cravings that come along with a (slightly) chilly day.

This recipe came out of a recent evening where the temps dropped into the low 30s, and knowing it wouldn't last, I was bound and determined to open all the windows and make chili, or a stew, or some seriously thick, thick soup. I wanted warm and comforting, rich and delicious. I also wanted a familiar feeling, but a little challenge with something I'd never made before. Something foreign. As it turns out, the recipe I needed was The (other) National Dish Of Belgium – not moules frites, but a Belgian beef and beer stew called carbonnade flamande (or a la flamande). 

I didn't know much about Belgian cuisine, really. They have amazing beer, and the only fried potatoes I'd eat straight-up with mayonnaise, but I always imagined that once they got tired of the delicious beer and those other-worldly frites, they just ordered take-out from France or Germany. I've since read that Belgians are more gourmands than gourmets (read as: technique en France, German portions). As it turned out, this bit of old-world farmer's fare was absolutely perfect. It's a short list, not much more than beef, lots of onions, Belgian beer, bread, some fresh thyme and a bit of bay. The end result, however, is a surprisingly complex, beautiful dish that really doesn't take much effort, just a little bit of simmer time to make it taste like it's cooked for days. 

(L) Chimay. (R) Thyme bouquet, baguette with whole-grain mustard. © Ryan Schierling
Carbonnade flamande

3 lbs. chuck roast, cut into chunks about 1" by 2"
4 baseball-sized white onions, roughly chopped
2 cups beef stock
12 ounces Chimay red
4 sprigs fresh thyme, tied with butcher's twine
2 bay leaves
6 slices day-old baguette, smeared with whole-grain mustard
1 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoons brown sugar
salt and pepper to taste

Get out a large, heavy Dutch oven or stockpot. In batches, brown the chunks of chuck roast in a little bit of oil over medium-high heat. Remove each batch to a plate or bowl until all the beef is browned. Leave the oil, beef juices and any fond that has accumulated on the bottom of the pan. Add the chopped onion and saute until soft, abut 10 minutes. The onion will take on a light brown color as the fond comes up from the pan. Add the beef stock, beer, vinegar, thyme and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Drink the remaining beer. Put the beef into the pot and give everything a good stir. Smear some good whole-grain mustard on the slices of old baguette, and place them on top of the carbonnade (they will break down and cook into the dish, thickening it). Cover and simmer over low heat for 2 hours or until the beef is very tender. Add the brown sugar, stir well and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Remove the spent bouquet of thyme twigs. Serve over mashed potatoes (or horseradish mashed potatoes if you're feeling frisky).

(Hint: Leftovers reheat nicely and are delicious over frites.)

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