When I was young and foolish and full of high ideals, I spent a semester away from college studying European politics in London. The whole merry band of scholars was ushered to Brussels for a week to visit the European Union headquarters and NATO and lots of other sites twenty year-old college student find fascinating. We were, however, granted a free day to do as we wished. The male half of our contingent chose to take the overnight train to Amsterdam and spend a full day (and night) taking in the, shall we say, less cultural attractions for which that city is so famous. But we were women of culture and intellect. We ladies determined to spend our free day improving our minds and learning about art and history…in any place that was an easy train ride away and cheap. So we chose Bruges.
Bruges is a beautiful city, with medieval squares and winding canals, just oozing with mind-improving things. We managed to get from the rail station to the center of town and wandered around aimlessly, as our brilliant plan did not include a guide book or, in fact, knowing anything whatsoever about Bruges. My mother had told me that I should buy some Belgian lace while in the country, so we found a little shop and each picked out a souvenir. I did my mother proud and I bought four lace placemats and four lace napkins. Eventually, our aimless wandering worked up an appetite, so we stopped in a seemingly quaint little restaurant, right in the center of things, with dark paneling and old plates hanging on the walls. To us, it looked very authentic. The menu was limited, but featured carbonnades flamandes, a hearty beef stew I was familiar with, how I can’t imagine. So I insisted that we order this typical Belgian culinary tradition and everyone agreed. It made us feel as if we were truly experiencing local culture, as our day so far had largely consisted of lace shopping and pointless rambling, with very little of that intellectual improvement we were so determined to experience.
The waiter was surly – we thought it was charming – and didn’t, or didn’t want to, communicate in English. But we made ourselves understood and ordered that traditional carbonnades flamandes. We had managed to round up a few tourist brochures, so we sat back and started to plan the afternoon. Occasionally, a lady with her gray hair wound in a tight bun would pop her head out of the kitchen and look at us skeptically. Time passed, and we started to notice. Thirty minutes and no food – and no waiter. Another fifteen passed. The waiter appeared but we were unable to make any headway in communication. The little grey haired head kept popping out. More time passed, and it occurred to us that no one else was in the restaurant. By this time, we’d finished our beers and the basket of stale bread, down to the crumbs. We would try to get the attention of the head, each time it popped out, but it would only dart quickly back behind the swinging door. We could have left, but we were hungry, and a little overwhelmed that our high-minded plans were proving such a wash. We reached the breaking point and had just decided to leave when the head popped out and then the waiter reappeared and plopped down our big steaming bowls of carbonnades flamandes.
I can’t say it was the best meal I have ever had, and was undoubtedly much improved by our ravenous hunger and frustration, but in the end it proved to be memorable. We spent about three and half hours in the restaurant. By the time we left, the rest of our day was pretty much gone and we had to start figuring out how to get back to the rail station. We took the wrong bus, though we didn’t realize it until the driver turned of the lights, got off and shut the doors and we had to bang on the windows to get his attention. A long, cold, walk and expensive cab ride got us to the last train back to Brussels. And I can tell you, after all that, a big steaming bowl of carbonnades flamandes would have hit the spot. As you can imagine, the story we told to the boys who stumbled back bleary-eyed from Amsterdam in no way resembled the one I’ve told here.
This is a wonderful fall and winter stew, perfect for your Oktoberfest celebrations. And it features my favorite kind of cooking – a little time in prep and a slow cook in the oven that transforms simple ingredients into a rich, flavorful meal. And your house will smell wonderfully warm and inviting while this cooks.
Belgian Beef and Beer
The character of the beer is a big part of this dish, so choose one you enjoy and want to drink with the dish. For authenticity, you can use a Belgian Trappist Chimay. I love the flavor of marjoram, but it can be difficult to find, so you can leave it out.
3 pounds boneless beef chuck or round steak, cut into 1 inch cubes
1/2 cup flour
1 ½ teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil, plus more as needed
4 medium onions, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup light brown sugar
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup beef stock
12 ounces beer, amber or dark
2 bay leaves
a few sprigs of fresh marjoram (optional)
Heat oven to 325 degrees.
In a zip top bag, combine flour, salt, pepper, sage and thyme. Add the beef cubes and shake to coat.
Heat 3 Tablespoons of oil in a large oven-safe Dutch oven over medium heat and brown the beef on all sides. You will probably need to work in batches adding a few more drops of oil for each batch. Remove the browned beef pieces to a plate.
When the beef is browned, pour in the remaining oil and add onions to the pot over medium heat. Saute the onions until soft and translucent, stirring to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Add the brown sugar and stir to coat. When the onions are nicely browned and soft, stir in the garlic and the browned beef cubes with any juices that have accumulated on the plate.
In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the beef stock and cornstarch until smooth. Pour over the beef and onion mixture then add the beer, stirring to combine completely. Add the bay leaves and marjoram, if using. Cover the pot and transfer to the oven for 2 to 2 ½ hours until the meat is tender. Remove the bay leaves and marjoram stems. Season with salt to taste.
Serve the Carbonnades Flamandes with buttered noodles tossed with chopped parsley.
Can be made up to two days ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator. Reheat in a low oven before serving.