Saturday, January 30, 2010

Carbonnade a la flamande or Belgian beef, onion and beer stew

 For an American male, as well as apparently a Belgian male, few things in life are as satisfying to both the mind and the body as beef and beer.  Thankfully sometime in the last millennium our Belgian brothers-in-arms decided that if these items were good separately, then combining them together would make it just THAT much better.  And it is SO much better.

This is such an easy thing to cook, and the bonus is the 1/2 bottle of good Belgian beer that is left over, which unfortunately must be finished rather than wasted.  And I am sure, being the socially conscious members of Modern Society that you are, you will do the right thing and down that bottle.  Preferably with the stew.

Traditionally, this dish is made with lean beef stew meat, which I was able to easily find, and Flemish Sour Ale.  Flemish Sour or Red Ale is traditionally a lambic beer, meaning natural fermentation processes instead of inoculated yeast and bacterial additions in the brewery.  Even in some modern producers who inoculate, this inoculation is with different organisms than most beers.  These unique processes create a very wine-like character, and a sour and acidic nature, perfect for cooking and of course drinking.  Flemish Sour Ale however, is quite expensive in the good ol'US of A.  I found one small bottle at Whole Foods for 7 dollars.  I would have had to buy 2 to make the recipe, and that would not even leave any for the cook, so that was out.  Reading through lots of recipes, I decided to use Chimay Blue Label (Grande Reserve) at 9 bucks for the 750 ml bottle.

Chimay Grande Reserve (Blue Label) is truly an amazing beer, with vinious character and the ability to cellar for short periods of time.  It is a big beer, 9% alcohol, and the big, deep flavors to match.  It has a sweetness that I often find in Belgian beers, but this is a restrained sweetness, one that is balanced by the slight bitterness on the finish.  This beer cooks down really well, and was absolutely amazing in the dish, with the dish and with the Pumpernickel that was on the side.  Yum.

I also used Grass Fed, Organic Beef for this meal, and you can really taste the difference from the grain-fed, typical store variety of beef.  I don't eat beef very often, so the extra expense that the Grass Fed Organic incurs is certainly made up by both the health benefits and the taste.  It is a stronger, meatier flavor, but one that certainly goes well in this dish.

This dish also usually has a distinct sweet and sour flavor, which can be fashioned by the traditional method of strong mustard spooned on to stale bread or gingerbread and added at the end of cooking, as well as the addition of some type of berry jam, usually red currant, for the sweetness.  In this recipe, since the beer I used was sweeter than the traditional and since I did not have any stale or ginger bread handy, I simply added mustard by the spoonful for the sour and spicy flavors that it brings.  If you prefer a slightly sweeter edge, adding brown sugar or a spoonful of red currant jam at the end of cooking will satisfy your desires.

Recipe : Carbonnade a la flamande

Serves 3-4 people as a main course

2 lbs Lean Grass Fed Beef Stew Meat cut into 1" Cubes
2 Large Yellow Onions, chopped into 1/4 inch semi-circles
1 1/2 cup of Chicken Stock or Broth
1 750 ml Bottle of Belgian Beer, preferably Chimay Blue or Red
2 Bay Leafs
Large inch of Dry Thyme, or small handful of fresh thyme
Pinch of Smoked Paprika
Salt and Pepper
2 1/2 Tbs Flour
2 Tbs Good, Strong Mustard - Either German, French or Belgian.

Heat a heavy stew pot over medium-high heat, and place 2 Tbs of butter in bottom. Aggressively Salt and Pepper meat.  When butter is getting slightly browned, working in batches, brown beef on all sides, not stirring to allow crust to form on all of the pieces.  Set meat aside.  Turn down heat to medium.  If needed, add butter to pan, add onions and slowly cook until they are browned and soft, about 15 minutes.  Add 1 Tbs butter and 2 1/2 Tablespoons of flour to pan.  Cook flour for 2-3 minutes.  Add broth and scrape the bottom well.  Add 1 1/2 cups of beer, beef, bay leaves, thyme, smoked paprika and bring to a simmer.  Simmer until meat is very tender and liquid has reduced dramatically.  If needed, and additional beer to prevent sticking and over thickening.  When meat is nearly finished, add 1/2 cup of beer for flavor and mustard, allow to cook another 5-10 minutes and remove from heat.  Serve over egg noodles, french fries (traditional) or as I did, with simple mashed potatoes.  Drink the left-over beer with meal and sliced Pumpernickel or other dark bread.  Fall asleep 10 minutes after dinner.


  1. Next time, try it with a more sour beer like Petrus Oud Bruin or Goudenband and during the last hour or so, spread some gingerbread with the whole grain mustard and plop it on top and let it melt in. Red currant jelly on the side when serving if guests want to sweeten it up (I defintely add a little)

  2. RobM - I went looking for something a bit more true to the Flemish Sour Ale traditional use, but the duchesse de bourgogne was 7 bucks, and I find that beer really sweet as well... They were out of the Petrus, but next time I will give it a try. Thanks for the tip with the Gingerbread, I had heard of that but the only bread I had handy was the Pumpernickel I had made.. I guess I just need another excuse to make it another way!

  3. "strong mustard spooned on to stale bread or gingerbread and added at the end of cooking?"

    When you lay the mustard-smeared bread over the stew toward the end of ocoking, do you lay it mustard side up, or mustard side down?

    Sean Dailey

  4. In Flanders we always put the bread with mustard on when we start cooking, because the bread is in there to make the sauce thicker.
    I also don't really know why you would use chicken stock... We normally use just the beer and if that doesn't provide enough fluid, then add some water.

  5. Aline - I have heard of both methods of making it, with broth and with water. I have made it with both and I found that the flavor was much richer with the broth, for better or worse. The fattier the meat is, the better off you may be with just using more beer or some water to loosen up the sauce.