Beef stews are a thing of wonder and as I live in the low countries, here’s a (nearly) local classic. Although I live in Holland and this is a Belgian recipe, it’s originally from the Dutch-speaking Flemish part of Belgium so I’m ignoring the political border. Plus Dutch food isn’t all that.
The typical template for any beef stew involves browning the meat, throwing in vegetables and flavourings, then braising it all for a couple of hours. Treating cheap cuts of beef this way is common all over the world, with variation in local ingredients and braising liquid being the distinguishing factors. Hence French beef stews generally use wine for braising, a daube de boeuf from the south of France has orange and olives as extra flavours, corn and chayote go into a Mexican caldo de res, and Korean kalbi-jim includes daikon and nashi, and is braised in soy.
So what’s specifically Belgian about this stew? Serious Belgian beer for starters, preferably a dark Trappist like Chimay or Westmalle. And ‘ontbijtkoek‘, a kind of Belgian/Dutch gingerbread, is added to flavour and thicken the sauce (this is often left out of English versions of this stew, but is standard in French- or Flemish-language recipes). Other distinguishing features are an awful lot of onions and a crust of mustard-coated bread to finish the stew. The end product is a very thick, rich and slightly sweet sauce that clings to extremely tender hunks of beef and is gently flavoured with the spices from the ontbijtkoek.
1kg of shin of beef/stewing beef
2 tblsp oil & 2 tblsp butter
150g lardons or diced bacon
Two 300 ml bottles of dark Belgian beer
3 onions, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
2 bay leaves
small bunch of parsley
2 springs of thyme
1 tblsp dark brown sugar
2 slices of ontbijtkoek/pain d’épices/gingerbread (see note below)
4 slices of crusty bread/baguette, slathered with Dijon mustard
salt & pepper
(A note about ontbjitkoek – I’m aware that getting hold of this might be tricky if you don’t live in Benelux, so all I can say is that it’s almost the same as French ‘pain d’épices‘ or the kind of gingerbread you’d slice and butter. Failing that, you could always thicken the stew with cornflour & water and throw in a little cinnamon, allspice and ground ginger.)
What to do:
Slice the beef into large (4cm) chunks and roll it in the seasoned flour. Heat up the oil and butter in a frying pan (feel free to just use oil if butter-averse, you fools), then brown the beef chunks and transfer to a casserole. Fry off the lardons/bacon until just browning, then throw in the onions and garlic and fry until translucent. Transfer to the casserole, and with the frying pan still on the heat, pour in the beer and bring it to the boil to deglaze the pan. Pour this liquid into the casserole, throw in the herbs and the sugar, crumble in the ontbijtkoek and then bring it to the boil. Then reduce to a simmer for two hours, stirring occasionally. Taste and season it, then place your bread slices mustard-side down on top of the stew and simmer for another 30 minutes. Serve up with that other Belgian classic, chips, and wash it down with some more Belgian beer – Van Dammage to the palate.