Beef, Belgian Beer, Bacon … Need I Say More?

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When we first moved to San Diego, I thought that was the end of hearty stews and basically anything that required the Maillard reaction because the temperature is so consistent that people lose their minds if it dips below 60ºF. Little did I know that this means that a meal that would be considered a winter staple to be consumed when the weather starts freezing bits off of your body would become reasonable because the theory of relativity kicks in. That is to say that temperatures that are considered bikini weather in Minnesota are considered a reason to break out the polar explorer outfits here.

The upshot being that I did not have to say goodbye to one of my favorite Belgian dishes, I just had to adjust to the bizarre fact that I was cooking it while looking out the windows at palm trees swaying in the sun under a clear blue sky wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

Anyhow, carbonnade, for the uninitiated, is a hearty Belgian beef stew that showcases one of the most awesome things that comes out of Belgium: beer. And this recipe calls for a lot of beer. While you could theoretically use a lighter colored beer, part of the charm of this particular dish is the dark color that screams “HEARTY!!” So try to find a Belgian dubbel ale or, better yet, stick to the recipe and use a quad. And no, those are not anything like stout or porter with the exception that they occupy the same neighborhood in the color wheel. You could conceivably use an imperial stout or porter, but that wouldn’t really be very Belgian now, would it? That being said, you don’t have to use a “real” Belgian Quad. There are a number of American brewers producing excellent Belgian style ales. Dogfish Head has “Raison d’Extra“, Lost Abbey has “Track 8“, you could even go with Ommegang’s “Three Philosophers” which would add another dimension. If you were inclined to use a “real” Belgian quad, the one most consistently available in the US is probably Chimay Grand Reserve (the one with the blue label). If you can find it, the ne plus ultra is probably Gouden Carolus Cuvée Van de Keizer Blauw but that’s a pricey stew addition …

Speaking of stew, I used to use plain old chuck for this, and in practice, you absolutely can, but a few months ago, the lovely folks at Da Le Ranch at the Hillcrest Farmers Market offered me a 4 lb slab of belly meat instead and it was a game changer. This is something you are likely only going to be able to get directly from a meat producer or a butcher. In the even that you have a choice between multiple slabs, get the one with the least fat on the outside. There is plenty of intramuscular fat and the outer fat doesn’t render like it would on bacon.

This should be served on a cloud of mashed potatoes, gratinéed Belgian Endives. While you can absolutely serve it along with the beer you are using in the carbonnade, there’s a strong case to be made for pairing it with a sour Flanders Red or a proper Kriek (not Lindeman’s) or Gueze as the slightly sourness (or astringent acidity if you pick a bad one) will cut the richness of the carbonnade. Oh, and maybe some Lipitor.

Equipment

  • 8 Qt. (or larger) Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid
  • Sharp chef’s knife
  • 2 plates
  • A paper towel

Ingredients

  • 4 lbs Beef belly slab with most of the outer fat trimmed off
  • .25 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon smoked salt
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • .5 lbs bacon end pieces (or slices cut into little squares)
  • 3 large white onions
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 4 sprigs thyme (or 2 tablespoons dried thyme)
  • 4 sprigs tarragon (or 2 tablespoons dried tarragon)
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 48 oz Belgian quadruple ale (4 12 oz bottles, 2 750ml bottle, or one magnum)
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons red current or lingonberry jelly

Time: 20 minutes prep, 2-2.5 hours cooking (about 30 minutes active)

Yield: This will feed about 6 hungry people, 8 people if you are having appetizers and dessert.

Instructions:

  1. Cut the beef into 2×2″ pieces
  2. Cut the onions in half and then slice them into 1/8″ to 1/4″ pieces
  3. Peel the garlic cloves and slice them thinly
  4. Heat up the Dutch oven (DO) over a medium high flame. I test if it’s ready by touching the bottom with a fatty bit of bacon. If it sizzles, then it’s time to start cooking.
  5. Put half of the bacon in the DO and render the fat leaving just the crispy bacon bits. If you start to get smoke, turn the heat down.
  6. Remove the crispy bacon bits to a plate covered in a paper towel and vow not to eat too much of the bacon because you will need it later. You can probably safely have 5 or 6 pieces while you …
  7. Arrange half of the beef pieces in the bacon fat and brown them on all sides. Do not overcrowd the DO as this will result in steamed meat which is not going to make anyone happy. The idea here is to seal in all the juices as much as possible.
  8. Remove the beef pieces to the second plate.
  9. Repeat steps 2-5 with the second half of the bacon and beef.
  10. Put the onions and garlic in the DO and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are a lovely khaki color and very soft. About 10 minutes
  11. Pour in half of the ale (this is .
  12. Add the herbs
  13. Add the beef and however much of the bacon you haven’t eaten
  14. Add the rest of the ale and
  15. Increase the heat to bring to a boil
  16. As soon as it is boiling, reduce the heat to low and put the lid on
  17. Simmer for 1.5-2 hours
  18. Add vinegar and jelly, stir and simmer for 5 more minutes
  19. Voila!