A Taste of the Past

I have been lucky enough to be able to get in touch with my heritage by visiting the places that my ancestors came from. Work has taken me to Europe twice so far and allowed me to not only see where they lived, but, on the first trip, meet not so distant relatives.

One of my favorite parts of visiting is returning home with favorite new recipes. On my first trip to Brussels, Belgium, my cousins introduced me to Belgian Beef Stew. When we sat down in the restaurant they ordered for me, beer and stew. What was sat before me was a wonderful mix of tender beef in a heavenly sauce with a bit of onion and carrots. All of this topped off with a cold Belgian beer and the best French fries ever, crispy on the outside, soft, warm and tender on the inside. The aroma was heavenly and I dug straight in. When I returned from my travels, I went straight into researching that wonderful meal.

The cubed beef had been slow cooked in beer for several hours, rendering it moist and tender. The flavor of the sauce was dependent on the richness of the beer, plus mustard slathered on bread that flavored and thickened the sauce the last part of cooking time. I don’t know if my Belgian great-grandmother had this on her favorites to cook list, but it sure is on mine. Recipes from her were never handed down through the family.

I purchased a couple of Belgian cookbooks and searched on line for a recipe that would match the flavor of that first experience. It was called Carbonade Flamandes, French for Vlaamse Stoverij, stew from Flanders. This is the recipe that I have been using to make this hearty meal.

Vlaamse Stoverij

1 ¼ lbs. stewing beef or chuck steak (we use chuck roast), cubed

3 tbsp. all-purpose flour

4 tbsp. butter

1 large onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

4 carrots, peeled and sliced

11 ½ oz. bottle dark Belgian beer (the darker the beer the better the broth, enough to cover the beef)

Bouquet garni (6 parsley sprigs, 2 bay leaves, and 2-3 sprigs of thyme tided together with kitchen string)

2 tbsp. red wine vinegar

2 tbsp. light brown sugar

4 large carrots chopped

2 slices of rustic bread – white, dark brown, or spice cake)

2 tbsp. Dijon mustard

Handful of fresh parsley, chopped

Salt and ground black pepper

Generously season the beef cubes with salt and pepper, then coat in flour.

Heat a large, heavy cast iron kettle (oven safe) that has a tight-fitting lid. Melt the butter and the oil over medium to high heat. Add the cubed beef in batches and brown over fairly high heat for about 4 minutes to seal. As each batch browns, remove cubes from the pan and place them on a plate.

Add the onion to the fat remaining in the pan and cook gently for 6-8 minutes, until translucent, then add the garlic and fry for 3 minutes more. Return beef to kettle.

Return the meat to the kettle and stir well to combine with the onions.

Pour in the beer and bring the mixture to just below boiling point. Add the bouquet garni, vinegar and brown sugar. Cover the pan and place in a preheated 325 degree oven for 1 ½ hours or until the meat has become tender.

Add carrots to the meat and spread the bread thickly with mustard and place it on top of the stew, mustard-side down. Replace the lid and return to the oven for 30-60 minutes more. The bread will absorb some of the pan juices and dissolve to thicken the stew. (I found I had to stir it into the stew)

Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Remove the bouquet garni and stir in the parsley. Serve with fries, potato puree or breads, also good on egg noodles or rice.

A comment from a Flanders native on a blog site called the original beef-in-beer stew, Gentse Stoverij, Stew from Gent. It is a poor man’s dish of beef, white bread and stale beer. His recipe was cooked on the stove top, not oven and included beef liver, a pound and a half of old white bread and a gallon of beer.

From personal experience, the darker the beer the better the sauce, so go for a dark rich lager. While in Brussels, this past October, I talked some of my coworkers into trying the local stew. It didn’t take much nudging once I mentioned that the beef was cooked for hours in beer. It was interesting for me to taste the difference in this version over my first experience, although slightly different in flavor, was just as good.

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