Carbonade

August 24, 2010

There is a Belgian dish, which I do not make, called Carbonade Flamande – a Flemish beer stew made with beef (the Wiki tells me that it’s Vlaamse stoofvlees in Flemish).  I make a variation.

If ever there was a meal that qualifies as Emergency Food, this is assuredly it.  The first time I made this meal in college for anyone besides myself and my carnivorous roommate was after a large outdoor concert my alma mater holds called WILD – Walk In, Lie Down.  We had returned from campus as the weather began to get nasty.  We were all going to go our separate ways for dinner when the tornado hit.  The roads were unsafe for walking, much less driving, and most of us had been drinking, and it was raining really hard.  So we decided to take shelter in my apartment.

I said, “Don’t tempt the fates, you guys!  I’ll make dinner.”

I was also desperately trying to impress this girl.  I was so excited to get the chance to cook for her; we’d gone wine shopping together for a wine-and-cheese party the weekend before, and she’d lingered over a bottle of Nero D’Avola that was perhaps just a little too expensive to bring to someone’s party where it would shrink, unloved, among the jug wine.  Well, okay, 18 bucks is definitely an expensive wine to bring to a college party.  Even a college wine-and-cheese party.  So we bought a Sicilian pinot noir ($6) and a vinho verde ($7).

But I went back to that same wine shop shortly after that party and bought the wine she’d been looking at, because I was that kind of crazy about this girl.  I brought out the bottle at my apartment when we all met up before the concert, and she got so flattered and excited that I had remembered the wine she’d wanted that I thought, for one long, pretty moment, that she returned my affections.  But a well-meaning mutual friend told me in a burst of vino-veritas that my attentions made this girl, friend of mine though she was, really uncomfortable. She enjoyed my company but just… wasn’t interested.  I was devastated, as you tend to be when a crush crushes you.

And this made my heart heavy the whole night.  So by the time we got back to the apartment, I had made up my mind: I was going to woo this girl from a comfortable distance.  I was going to impress her by being wonderful, being perfect, being me (!), but in a diffuse way, so that she didn’t feel like I was singling her out.  No more bottles-of-wine-just-for-you, no more let’s-have-dinner-at-my-place-alone-sometime.  Nevertheless, I intended to lay siege to her heart.  Just with, y’know, a very long-distance catapult, so she wouldn’t know it was me flingin’ rocks.  Look, I promise it makes sense.

I was also rather intoxicated.  But as I started chopping the onions, I began to realize that this girl would never love me, I was stupid to persist, and that I would keep at it regardless.  Humans are dumb that way.

I used what was available, which luckily happened to be a number of carrots, some onions, some chicken thighs, and, yes – a large quantity of beer.

Now, you don’t need to be mooning over a girl to make this dish,  nor do you have to be ruinously drunk.  At the time of this writing, I am neither.

But senses have stories.  A song on the radio can grab you by the limbic system and hurl you into reminiscence, a scent on the breeze can remind you of a long-lost-someone’s perfume.  And food.  One need only recall Ratatouille, in which the eponymous dish transports Peter O’Toole’s character back in time to a rustic Provençal cottage, where his kindly maman serves him a chunky, homey bowl of the stuff.  For Chrissake, Proust wrote, what – seven books? – inspired by a cup of tea and some plate of lemony biscuits.

Eating this, I remember the storm.  I remember the almost gleeful hunt around my kitchen for ingredients, the madcap enthusiasm that crept upon me as I worked, the way the alcohol seemed to simmer out of me as I simmered it out of the dish, and the polite face that The Girl made when i had finished preparing the meal (I swear this was her), accepting a bowl graciously, but saying, “Oh.  I don’t really like carrots.”

You certainly can’t win ‘em all.

You will need:

Olive oil
1-2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed into one-inch pieces
one large onion, diced fine
1/2 lb to 3/4 lb carrots, sliced on the bias
2 tbsp oil (for roux)
2 tbsp flour (for roux)
About 20-24 oz of beer – 2 cans, a bottle and a half, whatever.  Ideally an ale, rather than a lager.  More on this later.
1 tsp dried thyme
2 or 3 bay leaves

Instructions

1.  Heat a large dutch oven over medium heat.  Add a tablespoon of olive oil and add the chicken, in batches if necessary, searing the outside and getting a little color on them.

 

2.  Remove the chicken and reserve in a bowl.  The chicken will have rendered out some fat, because that’s what happens when you cook dark meat.  Into this fat, you should throw in your vegetables.  You may do this as a mirepoix, if you like – use slightly less carrot and replace with an equivalent portion of celery.  Congratulations, you have made this recipe even Frenchier, exacerbating the tensions between the Francophone Walloons and the Germanic Flemish.  Good job.

Salt these veggies lightly and sweat them over medium heat until soft – probably about ten minutes, but don’t worry about softening the carrot.  Just focus on the onion (and the celery, if you’ve got it).

3.  Now it is time to make a roux!

What is a roux, you may ask?  It is a stew-and-sauce-thickening French (aha!) culinary suspension of flour in fat; cooking the former in the latter makes the the starch granules pop and sop up liquids, making the stew or the sauce much thicker.

You can start a roux on its own, by cooking the flour and the oil together in its own little pan, but for my money, I like to do it (for this sort of dish) in the same pot as everything else.

So.  Turn the heat down over your vegetables, sprinkle your two tablespoons of oil and flour over everything, and mix vigorously.  Few things are less welcome in food than raw flour, and most of those things are illegal to possess anyhow.  You want to see the roux become a paste, adhering to the vegetables.  Make sure not to burn this.  Low heat here is essential.  The vegetables will buffer you against this somewhat, but you mustn’t walk away from the roux during this stage.  Just stay in front of the pot and stir.  It’s a corollary of Murphy’s Law that a roux will burn the very instant you look away, or take a phone call.  In fact, let’s declare that a Kitchen Axiom right now.

Kitchen Axiom No. 8: A roux burns the moment you ignore it.

It shouldn’t take too long to cook the flour.  About five minutes of concerted stirring should do the trick.

4.  Add the chicken back in, and – here’s the magic – open your beers and pour them right over everything.  I did this on that stormy night (with a magician’s flourish) with a can of Bud Lite and a can of Newcastle Brown Ale.  If i had had two cans of the brown ale, I would have used them.

The important note on beer: You want a beer that has good body and character, but isn’t too thick or hoppy.  The Flemish use an oud bruin, which is a sort of sour, malty beer that I have never had.  But it’s a brown ale with medium body and not a lot of hop.  IPAs and Stouts have no place here; too much hop and body, respectively.

From my various experiments with this recipe, I have discovered that hefeweizens work great (particularly the one I brewed myself).  A regular pale ale (like, not an India Pale Ale) is also excellent.  But a brown ale is your best bet.  The beer should contribute significant flavor to the stew, but not to the point where it’s the star of the show.

Note over. Where were we?

5. You’ve poured in your beer.  Add the spices, and bring to a boil.  Then, simmer, uncovered, until everything is cooked to your liking, about 45 minutes, and until the stew is nice and thick – don’t go too long, or all the water will cook out.

It’s hard to overcook a stew, especially at low heat, do don’t worry about the chicken.  First of all, don’t worry about it being undercooked.  It’ll be at a safe temperature to eat.  Hell, it’s probably at a safe temperature to eat after fifteen minutes.   Secondly, it’s thigh meat, so it’s way more resistant to overcooking than breast meat is; it’s denser, it’s fattier, you’ll be fine.

I serve this over garlicky mashed potatoes, spiked with chives and a little buttermilk instead of cream.  It makes it taste butterier at the cost of fewer fat grams, but it spares you the ignominy of margarine on potatoes.

Do we like this system?  Pretty much every recipe I know has some kind of story behind it.

Seriously.  I could go on.

-D

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