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Frequently called the Belgian answer to beef bourguignon, carbonnade flamande, or Vlaamse stoverij as it is often referred to, has replaced the French’s red wine with the ultimate proof of Belgian craftsmanship: beer. Hearty brown ales and abbey-style beers are used the most to simmer the cubes of beef in, though any malty beer should technically do the trick.
Besides selecting the right beer (a real Belgian favorite is Oud Bruin), the secret to making this succulent casserole is, we’re sorry to say, a whole lot of patience. The preparatory process of searing your beef and properly caramelizing your onions can take up to 45 minutes, and that’s not even including the hour and a half you’ll need to leave your pot to simmer on a low heat stove in order to get the meat to fall apart in those tender chunks you want. Also key is not forgetting to add a dollop of mustard, a trickle of cider vinegar, or a handful of bay leaves – or a combination of all three – to enhance that mouthwatering sweet-sour quality that makes the carbonnade so delicious.
A Flemish dish par excellence that dates back at least to the 18th century, Belgians take a lot of pride in their carbonnade. Humble yet packed with rich flavors, it’s a hallmark dinner for family get-togethers on cozy fall and winter evenings. Many a Belgian granny has passed down her special recipe to her children and grandchildren, often with wildly different ingredients depending on the region. While Ghent isn’t afraid to experiment with liver or kidney, Little Brabant has historically often put horse meat in its stew. An old custom in many areas is dropping in a slice of bread or gingerbread topped with mustard and stirring until it dissolves, making the sauce that much thicker.
Today, the carbonnade flamande is still ubiquitous in the Belgian kitchen, which means you’ll find it in the smallest of friteries (where it is also dubbed stoofvlees) to the poshest of restaurants. Its carby companions helping to cheer you up on rainy days are usually frites or a generous helping of pureed potatoes.