Although I make it with some regularity every winter, I am not head-over-heels for beef stew.
Although there are many ways to flavor a beef stew, the method I've relied upon for years uses beer for the braising liquid, and is finished with a bit of tomato paste to brighten the flavors. It is sturdy, dependable and warming, and while I would never refuse a bowl, it bores me. The flavor strikes me as a bit too dull and brown. The tomato paste provides a jolt of acidity, but to my palate, it's inherent sweetness dampens the effect.
Recently I discovered carbonnade, a Belgian stew of beef and beer. The meat is braised in beer with a generous amount of onion, but finished with mustard, and this, I think, makes all the difference. The beer gives it bitterness, the onions provide sweetness, and the mustard provides tang, which pulls it all together.
The result is a gentle balance of sweet and sour. It is homey and unpretentious, with a touch of elegance. Thanks to carbonnade, I no longer merely tolerate beef stew, but look forward to it.
Carbonnade (Belgian beef stew with beer)
Adapted from Marc Bittman's How to Cook Everything
2 tablespoons neutral oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
2-2-1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut in 1-1/2 inch cubes
salt and pepper
3-4 medium onions cut into eighths
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1-2 bottles dark beer, like Guinness Draught (not Extra Stout, which is too bitter)
Heat a large pot with a lid on medium high for 2-3 minutes. While the pan is preheating, generously salt and pepper the beef.
Add the oil, garlic clove, and about half of the beef, being careful not to crowd the pan. You want to brown the beef, so err on the side of more space in the pan, or the meat will steam. Cook undisturbed on one side about five minutes until a nice crust forms, before turning the cubes. Repeat with remaining beef.
Remove the beef to a plate, spoon of most of the fat off, and reduce heat to medium. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally until softened, about 10 minutes. Add enough beer to partially submerge, but not completely cover the beef. Start with one bottle of beer, adding more if necessary. Add the bay leaf and thyme and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and cover. Cook undisturbed anywhere from 60-90 minutes, until beef is tender. Before serving, add the mustard, stirring to combine, which will give the stew a bit more body.
I like to finish this with chopped parsley and serve with mashed potatoes.