Winter is getting close to its timely departure, but we aren’t through it yet. There is still time left for stews, braised meats, and warming winter ales.
Sometimes the simple things in life are the most enjoyable, and stew is just that. Something as simple as meat braised in a flavourful liquid, when served with the right drink, can make the winter months more than bearable – with the right stew, winter is almost a delight. Stick-to-your-ribs hearty fare is winter at its best. Most of us enjoy the luxuries of modern life, which includes central heating, but we still crave warming slow-cooked foods during these dreary months. I will endure the cold wet misery that is a west coast winter as long as there is a stew on the table. If I haven’t made my point clear enough – I love stew.
Carbonnade à la Flamande (Flemish Beef Stew), which is beef slowly simmered in a mixture of onions and dark Belgian ale, is a simple dish by modern culinary standards. But do not confuse simple with bland or boring, this Belgian staple is proof that there is beauty in survival. How so few ingredients can turn into something so fantastic amazes me.
Stew has a very pragmatic lineage – meat, bones, vegetables and whatever else is available was slowly simmered on the hearth until hungry workers returned home for their evening meal. This meal did not just nourish the body, it was a source of pleasure and joy – it tastes that good. We do not feed like animals; we take pleasure in what we eat, we dine, making sure even the simple taste good.
Very little culinary talent is required to make a proper stew and neither are exotic or hard to find ingredients – time is the only requirement. I enjoy making stew, just about as much as I do eating it. Food that takes more time than skill to prepare has always been my preference. I believe every meal should be enjoyed to the fullest and that we can all make great food – life is too short for bad food.
The interweb is full of great Carbonnade à la Flamande recipes and I do not wish to add to the noise. For a few good recipes please go here, here, or just Google it. People have been simmering and braising cheap cuts of meat for centuries and the basics of this stew are very simple: pour beer over beef and a chopped onion, add heat, wait three hours, eat. You will need three hours as a minimum if you want to do this right. If you do not have time in your schedule to make a proper stew, you may be living life wrong.
If you plan on making this Belgian dish, here are a few small tips that will help make your meal that much better.
- Buy the right meat. Stewing beef is cheap and more flavourful than tender quick cook cuts (steak). Premium cuts are tender and take little time to prepare, but as a result they offer less in the flavour department. In a world short on time, we value meat that is tender when cooked quickly. Heavily worked muscles develop collagen, which makes meat tough, but also adds flavour and body. When beef is slowly cooked, collagen breaks down, meat becomes tender and the cooking liquid is fortified with a rich flavour and an enhanced mouth feel. Brisket, Chuck, Shank and Short Rib are all good stewing cuts. Ask your butcher and they will steer you in the right direction.
- Sear your meat hard. Use more heat that you think necessary. Meat needs colour, so don’t worry about burning it – be brave! As meat browns the sugars caramelize and the maillard reaction also takes place. Both of these processes add flavour. So be bold, don’t worry if it looks too dark, it will be fine.
- Use a sour Belgian ale. The stew is meant to have a sweet and sour flavour. An Oud Bruin or a Flanders Red Ale would be best. If this isn’t possible, cheat and add vinegar and sugar, but be sure to add both in small increments as too much of either could ruin your meal. Some recipes may call for Stout or even light beer, but just don’t do it, it’s not right.
- Salt! Salt! Salt! Food needs salt to taste good. Taste your stew, if it seems timid, add more salt. Continue this process, adding salt in small increments until your meal reaches maximum flavour.
- Serve with beer. Again, an Oud Bruin or Flanders Red Ale would be the best and also the most traditional pairing, but anything dark and Belgian will do just fine.