Fans of Douglas Adams will recall that, according to Life, the Universe and Everything, the dirtiest word in the galaxy--the one for which an award is given for using it most gratuitously in a serious screenplay--is "Belgium."*
But this out-of-the-way, EU-hosting, easily-overlooked little sweetbread of a country produces some seriously good food. This thick, hearty, unabashedly meaty beef-and-beer stew is one of its classic dishes. It's still got half an hour or so to simmer downstairs, and it's already making my kitchen smell better than anything I can remember cooking recently.
Adapted from Martha Rose Shulman's Ready When You Are: A Compendium of Comforting One-Dish Meals, which I just picked up from the library yesterday and over which I have already spent several hours slavering in anticipation. (It's also got, I believe, a recipe for waterzooi, which is another Belgian stew--this one based on chicken--and a guaranteed stumper at the Portland Spelling Bee.)
* Actually, as I just learned a few minutes ago, it was only "Belgium" in the U.S. publication and the radio script. In the original UK novel manuscript, it was "fuck," which is substantially less funny.
Carbonnade à la Flamande
Serves four, theoretically
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
2 lbs boneless beef chuck or round, cut in 1" cubes
4 oz (or 4 nice fat slices) bacon and/or pancetta (I had two slices left of each; the original recipe just called for bacon)
2 Tbsp butter, divided
2 large or 3 medium-small onions, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp cider vinegar
12 ounces good dark beer (I used a porter)
A bouquet garni consisting of several sprigs each flat-leaf parsley and fresh thyme, plus one or two bay leaves, bound together in a bit of cheesecloth
More salt and pepper
2 thick slices good rustic-style bread
Sift together the flour, salt and pepper in a shallow soup bowl or plate. Dredge the cubes of meat lightly in the flour and set aside.
In a soup pot, cook half the bacon over medium heat until fat is rendered but bacon is not yet crisp. Add 1 Tbsp butter and all the onions. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until onions are deep brown and caramelized. Stir in sugar; remove from heat and set aside.
In a large skillet (the original recipe called for nonstick, but another time I would've probably just used more butter), cook remaining bacon until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and stir into onions. Pour off all but 1 Tbsp fat. Return skillet to heat; add remaining 1 Tbsp butter. As soon as butter stops foaming/hissing, add 1/3 of beef cubes and cook, flipping occasionally, until well browned on all (or most) sides. Spoon beef into pot with onions; add more butter to skillet if needed; and cook remaining beef in 2 batches.
When all beef is browned and added to onions, return skillet to medium heat. Stir in vinegar and cook, stirring vigorously to loosen browned bits from bottom of skillet, about 30 seconds. Scrape vinegar and browned bits into soup pot.
Add beer and bouquet garni to soup pot. Bring just to a boil, cover, reduce heat to very low and cook at the barest simmer for 3 hours. (You may find, as I did, that your stove can't maintain a low enough flame to keep the stew just at a simmer. In that case, you can use an official flame tamer to diffuse the heat, or you can do like I did and just set the whole soup pot into a larger cast-iron skillet. Works like a charm and doesn't cost a dime.)
After three hours, spread bread thickly with Dijon mustard. Taste stew and adjust salt and pepper if needed. Fish out bouquet garni, then lay bread, mustard side down, over stew in pot. Cover and cook for an additional 30 minutes.
You can make this a bit soupier for serving by using a cup of beef broth or water along with the beer (maybe adding some diced carrots an hour or so before you're done simmering, then stirring some green peas in at the very last) or you can do as we're doing tonight and serve the whole shebang over some decadently creamy mashed potatoes. Either way, raise your glass (preferably full of a fine Belgian sour) to the food-related ingenuity of our Flemish friends.