The Secret to a Rich and Comforting Beef Stew? Just Add Cookies
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It’s been basically a year since the world has been able to engage in legit food tourism. To compensate, some people have watched destination chefs like Massimo Bottura offer cooking tips. Others are recreating dishes at home that evoke dream vacation spots, investing in a Tulum-worthy backyard grill or a good paella pan.
One such dish is carbonnade, the emblematic beef stew from Belgium. It’s the heartiest of dishes, made with big chunks of meat, plenty of onions, and a sauce enriched with beer. As we endure a prolonged cold snap across the U.S., its time is now.
In the new cookbook, Plat du Jour: French Dinners Made Easy (Norton; $30), Susan Herrmann Loomis offers an ode to the everyday specials beloved at bistros, brasseries, and cafes across France. (She ties carbonnade to the northern region, near the Belgian border.) Plats du jour invariably fall into the category of comfort food, which makes them well-suited to pandemic times. There are cheesy gougeres with thyme, butter-drizzled steak with potato gratin, and chocolate mousse.
Loomis also offers the “Ultimate Beef Stew” along with the following detail: “According to a poll taken by FranceTV in 2017, if France were a dish, it would be beouf bourguignon.” (Some 23% of people in France called it their favorite.)
But that beef stew has nothing on her carbonnade. Loomis lists the French pain d’epice, a quick bread that stars ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg, as a key ingredient to thicken and season the stew.
“Carbonnade is a dish born on the farm, where nothing goes to waste. A chunk of spice bread that is too hard to slice will make its way into the pot,” she says. Because spice bread can be hard for Americans to source, Loomis lists two alternatives. One is straightforward—day old bread, fine, but yawn—and the other is pure genius: cookies. Spiced cookies, like any un-iced molasses or gingerbread ones, won’t have the heft of bread, but do they have the invigorating flavors that will make the stew sublime.
“Surprisingly, spice bread and beef—or spice cookies and beef—are a very happy marriage indeed,” says Loomis. “It’s the hint of sweetness one often finds in a rich, French beef dish that gives it flavor and style.” Some versions of boeuf bourguignon, for instance, have been known to include a square of dark chocolate.
Indeed, the cookie seemingly made for carbonnade is speculoos, the cult-favorite shortbread flavored with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg that just happens to be Belgian (and you might have hidden away in your cupboard after hoarding them on a Delta flight). The cookies are added to the stew before it’s tucked into the oven for its multi-hour simmer. The result is fall-apart-tender chunks of beef and onions in a thick, velvety sauce that balances sweet spiciness with a bitter kick from the beer.
“It’s so rich, it almost fills you up before you take a bite,” writes Loomis, accurately, in the book.
The following recipe is adapted from Plat du Jour by Susan Herrmann Loomis. Tester’s note: It’s 100% worth making the stew with cookies, but the sauce will be a little less thick than if you use bread. If you want the sauce to be thicker, remove the beef from the stew and simmer down the sauce before serving.
Carbonnade de Boeuf
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 ½ lb. stewing beef such as chuck or shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 large yellow onions, finely sliced
4 shallots, finely sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 heaping tsp. light brown sugar
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
One 8 oz. bottle Belgian beer (or your favorite dark ale)
3 cups beef stock, beef broth, or water
Bouquet garni (see note)
10 crisp spice cookies, preferably speculoos, or 4 medium slices of spice bread or day-old bread
Flat-leaf parsley sprigs for garnish
Boiled new potatoes, for serving, optional
Heat the oils in a large, ovenproof casserole over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Season the beef with salt and pepper then brown on all sides.
Transfer the meat to a large plate. Add the onions, shallots, and garlic to the casserole and stir. Sprinkle with the brown sugar and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the mixture begins to brown and smell like caramel, 5 to 6 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 325°. Add the vinegar to deglaze the casserole, stirring to scrape up any caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle in the flour and stir for at least 2 minutes, so the flour loses its flavor. Stir in the beer and stock. Return the beef to the pot, add the bouquet garni and cookies, pushing them gently into the liquid.
Cover the pot and transfer to the oven. Cook for about 2 hours, stirring every 20 minutes or so, until the meat is tender. If necessary add additional beef stock or water to keep the meat moist.
Remove from the oven and check the seasonings. Garnish with parsley, and serve with potatoes if desired. The dish is even better made a day ahead and reheated in the oven.
Note: A bouquet garni is a very classic herb bundle used to flavor soups and stews, classically made by tying large sprigs of fresh herbs like thyme and/or rosemary with a couple bay leaves with kitchen string. Although use whatever sturdy herbs you like. Discard the bundle before serving.
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