Punxsutawney Phil and I are huddled in a corner celebrating the good news, the welcomed forecast that cloudy skies and a tardy shadow make for an early spring. We couldn’t be more pleased after breezing through the first half of a rather benign winter. With the promise of lightly fragrant vernal greens just around the bend it is almost easy to ignore the intensifying blustering winds rattling across the valley. But the sheer surprise of winter’s frigid breath and icy chill keeps us firmly rooted in our arctic reality, one that includes frozen paws, frosty tails and emotionless expressions. Something quick needs to happen before we retreat too far into ourselves, closed blind like a tight fist. To enliven our spirits a lusty decision is made to unite beef with brew, or body with soul and make a Carbonnades Flamandes. There is nothing new in tantalizing taste buds with meat fortified with wine or beer. Given the fact that liquor relaxes and mellows those that partake in its spirit, it stands to reason that booze will exhibit and extend the same properties to neighboring ingredients in the close quarters of a braising pot. Be forewarned, this concoction makes for a convivial atmosphere, the safe passage of an unbearably cold winter’s night and at least one loquacious dinner guest, guaranteed.
Phil’s Carbonnades Flamandes inspired by Saveur No. 62 November 2002
Serves 6 people/ just-out-of-hibernation groundhogs
Saveur suggests using a dark Belgian beer like Chimay or Orval. To my dismay I discovered that this was not an option open to me- I cracked under the pressure of selecting a suitable alternative and chose Apple Jack instead. The hard cider out of the bottle was completely unsatisfactory, no depth or shimmer. The caramelized onions and fennel give the body needed and the resulting soft velvety stew is a potent taste sensation which will echo flavor and warmth to the most closed of the closed.
1 Tbsp. oil
3 lb. boneless chuck (I used beef loin, short cut grilling steak- the butcher said it would be more tender) cut into 1 1/2” pieces
7 Tbsp. butter
2 large yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb ends and tops trimmed and thinly sliced
3 Tbsp. flour
1 ½ C beef stock
1 ½ C hard apple cider (Apple Jack brand)
2 bay leaves
½ tsp allspice
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
5 pitted prunes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Directions: Heat oil in a cast iron pot over medium high heat and cook meat in approximately three batches, browning pieces well on all sides. When each batch is done, put aside in a bowl. Lower temperature and add 4 Tbsp. butter to the pan. Add onion and fennel slices to the butter and mix to coat. Stir occasionally to allow the color to develop. Cook for about 35-40 minutes until the vegetables are a golden brown. Pull out the vegetables and add the rest of the butter. Once melted add the flour and stir to form a roux. Keep stirring for about 2 minutes until it turns nutty brown. Slowly add the stock and hard cider while mixing to incorporate all of the roux and cooked bits stuck to the pan. Add the bay leaves, allspice, vinegar, and prunes to the sauce. Add salt and pepper to season. Return the meat and vegetables back to the pan and stir. On medium low continue to cook the meat until soft and tender for another 1 ½ -2 hours, partially covered. Serve hot with plenty of brew on the side.