My mother, although multi-talented, had an aversion to the kitchen and has often said that I learned to cook at an early age “out of self-defense.” When she made chicken à l'orange by smearing a chicken with powdered Tang, I quickly developed a necessary passion for creating tasty things to eat. Somewhere in the family photograph album is a picture of me at the stove, age ten, happily stirring marinara sauce.

I developed a lifelong fascination with food; good food. There was even a foray of working as a chef’s assistant at a French restaurant during my mid twenties, just for fun. I had always loved watching Julia Child and knew that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to be revered. It wasn’t until I read her biography (long before the Julie & Julia movie) that I really became fascinated with her work. From that book, I decided to prepare her recipe for mayonnaise.

Upon tasting it, I wept. . . .

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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Carbonnade á La Flamande - Beef in Onions Braised in Beer

Have you ever been just too tired to shop for food?

That’s how I felt today, yet I wanted to make something from Mastering for my friends that would, perhaps, bring more accolades than I deserved.

It neared ninety degrees in Chicago today. Trekking with my grocery cart to the nearby foodie triumvirate of Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and Jewel, while usually enjoyable, was just too much to endure on a sultry day like today. Besides, I had just “done” an hour of morning outdoor yoga at Millennium park; procuring ingredients for an impressive Julia entrée seemed downright distasteful.

What to do?

When in doubt, keep it simple.
Carbonnade á la Flamande
, or Beef in Onions Braised in Beer -- a Flemish creation consisting simply of beef and lots of onions braised in top-quality Belgian beer.

All I would need was the beef. Lots of onions and Belgian beer was already on hand.

This, how I imagine, is how such an incredible dish came to be:

A French-speaking housewife somewhere near that nebulous border between France and Belgium found herself with some beef remains, a bumper crop of onions and (most likely) many bottles of home-brewed beer, each with a bit remaining and left behind by a rowdy group of her husband’s friends from the previous night.

Why waste any of this? She braised the beef, sautéed the onions in pork fat, flavored it with herbs from the garden, covered the whole thing with beer and the rest is history.

I browned three pounds of beef shoulder (chuck) in batches, always remembering to dry the beef with a towel beforehand. Two strips of bacon were sautéed in order to obtain the requisite bacon fat. A pound-and-a-half of sliced yellow onions went in and tossed for ten minutes. (Hint: Don’t use Vidalia onions -- they’re too sweet and not “oniony” enough.)

Onions got mixed into the beef awaiting in a cast-iron casserole with the the pan de-glazed with beef stock. Garlic, bay, thyme were simmered into the reducing stock, then added to the beef and onions.

Belgian beer to cover. Almost two bottles.
The beer to use: America’s Test Kitchen conducted an extensive taste test of Carbonnades made with various beers and ales and recommended Chimay’s Bleue, or rather, their Grande Reserve. I’ve also conducted a taste test of Belgian ales a couple of years ago and, indeed, their Grande Reserve won, hands down.

It is the best -- that is, if you’re drinking Belgian ale. I absolutely love the stuff. It’s made by Cistercian monks in Belgium (and I happened to have been a Cistercian monk but that was in Dallas and years ago) and it has a sweet, aged, appealing quality that cannot be beat.

It'll also set you back twelve bucks a bottle.

Julia doesn’t ever call for Belgian beer or ale; simply a Pilsner.

While I’m not a beer drinker, I do appreciate and enjoy Belgian beer and ale. While I’m sure America’s Test Kitchen did their homework and conducted extensive testing, they only tested beers on a generic, garden-variety Carbonnades; not Julia’s Carbonnade. And with Julia’s recipes, as we know, technique is the key.

I used Blue Moon’s Belgian Style Wheat Ale. It has that sweet, appealing, full flavor we love in Belgian beers and it definitely lands between a Pilsner and Chimay’s Grande Reserve. Also, it’s only nine bucks for a six pack.
My adherence to a leftover vow of poverty did reign. . . .

(Note: America's Test Kitchen also claimed that O'Douls non-alcoholic beer worked surprisingly well. It came in second to Chimay.)

After braising for 2 ½ hours, the beef and onions were removed. The remaining 2 cups of sauce was simmered, flavored and thickened with 1 ½ Tbs of cornstarch and 2 Tbs of white wine vinegar.

I tasted the sauce, as Julia instructs us to do, in order to correct any seasoning. While it was exactly the right consistency, I thought it came across as a bit too sour. Even before I added the 2 Tbs of white wine vinegar, I knew not to add any more -- that seemed like a lot and indeed it was.

Frankly, we were heading past “Flemish sauerbraten” and suddenly nearing sweet-and-sour beef territory. Whisking in four tablespoons of butter seemed to straighten it out and with good results. Be sure to keep that in mind.

This was one time I think Julia could have improved the directions (gasp!). Adding slightly less than 2 Tbs of white wine vinegar might have been advisable. It was added to 1 ½ Tbs of cornstarch -- such two slightly different amounts seemed like a strange jaunt in the recipe. Maybe it was a mistake left in after all these years.

I would advise changing the 2 Tbs of white wine vinegar to 1 ½ -- and go ahead and add those extra 4 Tbs of butter anyway. It seldom hurts.

I like serving this with plain, boiled potatoes (buttered of course). A side vegetable might be a small, leafy salad of greens, perhaps topped with chilled white asparagus and a lemon vinaigrette.

Even though this dish is mainly comprised of three ingredients -- beef, onions, and beer -- it is surprisingly delectable, tangy and rich. A little really goes a long way. Whoever that Flemish housewife was that invented it, she was exceedingly clever and on to a good thing.

Julia, of course, taught us how to make it irresistible.

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