Below is a recipe for Beef Carbonnade, which appears in The Braiser Cookbook. But first, allow me to reminisce about a bygone Brussels tradition: The Sunday bird market (marché aux oiseaux).
If you’ve ever been, you’ve probably raised a glass of beer here:
And you probably raised a few glasses of this:
And if you were very lucky, you had a plate of this:
I’ll never forget my first trip to Brussels….it was back when the dollar was oh-so strong—equivalent of 2 euros per dollar now. In New York City, where I lived at the time, I could barely afford rent. But in Europe that winter, it was “Drinks for all my friends!” I was traveling with my former French teacher from Québec, whom I’ve sadly lost touch with (oh, Richard Vachon, where are you?); we had drifted from Paris to Strasbourg (to visit a friend studying there). The day after Christmas we went to the train station and looked at the train schedule. Munich? Brussels? Amsterdam? Back to Paris?
What the heck, let’s go to Brussels, we said. Neither of us had ever been. And so we arrived, found a $20-a-night hotel, and spent 3 days drifting from café to café, drinking Geuze, Kriek, and those wonderful Lambic beers. And I couldn’t get enough of the Beef Carbonnade.
On a nostalgic note: The day we left—Richard went on to Amsterdam, I went back to Paris—it was a Sunday morning. We had to walk through the Grande Place on our way to the train station. From a block away, we heard squaking and chirping and flapping and all kinds of “fowl” noises….What was this craziness on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning?
It was the bird market in the Grand Place in Brussels. A bird market! Who knew. There were chickens and geese and canaries and parrots and all kinds of exotic birds. I didn’t see anyone buying any birds, and it seemed so beautiful and strange and otherworldly—and wonderfully useless.
“Why do you have a bird market?” I asked an old vendor.
“Because it’s Sunday,” he answered.
I have heard that the bird market is no more, closing down in the early oughts after 100 years or so.
I’m glad I was alive to see it.
And so here’s my recipe, which always reminds me of the coziness of Brussels in winter, and of my long lost friend and professeur de Français Quebecois. Richard.
From The Braiser Cookbook.
Beef Carbonnade is a thick Belgian stew of beef braised in beer with bacon and onions. For all its rusticity, it’s a beautifully balanced dish—the sweet, caramelized onions tame the bitterness of the beer, and when rich, smoky bacon gets in on the act….wow. Another great thing about the dish: All the work is done up front. Because the beef is coated in flour before it’s browned, the braising liquid thickens as it cooks. That means no last-minute finishing touches (such as reducing the pan liquid or making a sauce). Yay!
Refrain from using a stout (like Guinness), which could make your stew too bitter. I suggest an amber beer—which brings a caramely depth without going overboard. PS: A reader wrote to ask about the boneless beef chuck ribs. Click on the link for a definition and substitution if you can’t find them in your area.
6 ounces thick-cut bacon
2 medium onions, sliced into rings
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 pounds boneless beef chuck ribs, cut into 1-1/2 to 2 inch chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
Vegetable oil, if needed
2 bay leaves
1 12-ounce bottle craft or imported amber beer
1 cup beef broth
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
Baked rice or herbed noodles, for serving
1/4 cup snipped fresh parsley
1. In a 3-1/2-quart braiser, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove the bacon and drain on paper towels. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of bacon drippings.
2. Add the onions to the braiser; cook and stir until they soften somewhat, about 3 minutes. Turn the heat to medium-low, cover the braiser, and cook the onions, stirring, until very soft and starting to brown in places, about 20 minutes. Uncover the braiser and add the brown sugar. Increase the heat to medium; cook and stir until the onions range from golden brown to brown, about 3 minutes more. Add the garlic and cook briefly until it releases its fragrance. Remove the onions and garlic from the pan.
3. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
4. Sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper; toss with the flour and thyme, pressing the thyme into the meat, if needed, to help it adhere. Heat the vegetable oil in the braiser over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the meat and cook, turning as needed, until well browned on all sides, about 8 minutes.
5. Remove the meat to a plate. Add the beer and beef broth. Bring to boiling, stirring up browned bits. Return the beef, bacon, and onions to the braiser. Bring to boiling. Cover the braiser and place it in the oven. Bake for 1-1/2 hours or until the meat is tender, adding the vinegar the last 15-minutes of cooking.
6. To serve, divide into shallow bowls alongside baked rice or noodles. Sprinkle each serving with fresh parsley.
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