Belgian carbonnade flamande is one of the few dishes from that little country to gain wide renown. Cousin to the more-famous French beef Bourguignon, this is a sort of hybrid stew-braise that relies on beer, not wine.
It’s hard to say when this dish was invented, but I’d guess sometime in the Middle Ages because it relies on a little bit of sweet-and-sour that is characteristic of that age of cooking.
Regardless of its history, carbonnade (carbon-ah’d) is a damn good dish to make with any sort of red meat. In this case, an elk shank. No, I haven’t been off elk hunting and didn’t tell you. I got the shank from my friend Suntino, who shot one a year ago. Deer shanks, beef shanks, or any sort of shoulder meat will also work fine, too.
You can take this dish one of two ways: as a full-on stew, or as a braise you then eat with a knife and fork alongside a starch and a vegetable; the “stew” then becomes the sauce. Holly and I ate ours with mashed potatoes and a salad. Either way you’re in for a treat.
What does it taste like? Well, I like to use the hard-working, sinewy cuts of meat because when they finally do get tender, they get super silky and nice. So you’ve got meat falling off the bone, nestled into a lot of nicely caramelized onions, wild mushrooms and sometimes carrots, which we skipped in this version.
It’s the sauce/gravy/stew that makes it though: Dark, rich with a very European version of that magic combination of sweet-spicy-sour-salty. Mustard, cider vinegar and a little bit of red currant jelly mixed in does this; you can use brown sugar if you can’t find red currant jelly.
It is really, really good. I mean, really good. Make it this weekend and you will thank me later.
I use shanks here because they have so much connective tissue: Once they break down, all that stuff makes the broth silky and it tastes as if there is a ton of fat in there, but there isn't. If I don't have shanks, shoulder is the way to go. You could do this with a large hind leg roast, but it would not be as silky. If you are using store-bought meat, my top choices would be beef shanks, stew meat and lamb shoulder. The beer matters here. Make this with a real Belgian abbey ale and you will understand why this is such a famous dish. The mustard is also pretty important, although not as much as the beer. Try to get a natural mustard, like a Dijon, not one with turmeric added for extra yellow. You don't need color here, you need flavor. As for the mushrooms, I use dried morels or porcini. Any good dried mushroom will do.
- 3 pounds elk shank, venison shanks or shoulder meat
- 1/4 cup duck fat or unsalted butter
- 3 onions, peeled and sliced root to tip
- 1 ounce dried mushrooms, rehydrated in 1 cup warm water and chopped
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 3 or 4 tablespoons flour
- 2 tablespoons mustard, Dijon is best
- 1 cup venison or beef broth
- 1 or 2 bottles of beer, Belgian abbey ale is traditional
- 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 1 heaping tablespoon red currant jelly
- Black pepper
- Chopped parsley for garnish
- If you are using elk shanks, cut the shank off the bone in large pieces, about 2 to 4 inches across; same thing if you are using shoulder meat. If you are using venison shanks, you can leave them whole if they will fit into your pot.
- Heat the duck fat or butter in a large Dutch oven or heavy lidded pot over medium-high heat. Pat the meat dry and brown it well on all sides. Salt them as they cook. You might need to do this in batches. Remove the pieces as they brown and set aside in a bowl.
- When the meat has all browned, add the sliced onions and mix well. Turn the heat down to medium and cook the onions until they are nicely browned and soft, which can take a solid 20 minutes. About halfway through, salt the onions and add the chopped mushrooms and thyme.
- When the onions are ready, return the meat and all juices from the bowl into the pot. Mix in the mustard, then add enough flour to dust everything in the pot.
- Stir in the mushroom soaking water (strain it if there is debris in it), the venison broth and at least one bottle of the Belgian beer. You want the meat to just barely be covered. Pour in more beer if need be. Bring to a simmer, add salt to taste, cover and cook slowly until the meat is really tender, anywhere from 90 minutes to 4 hours if it's a big ole' bull elk.
- Once the meat is tender, whisk in the red currant jelly, the vinegar and add black pepper to taste. Garnish with the chopped parsley. Serve with spaetzle, egg noodles or potatoes.
Like all stews, this one is even better the next day, and it reheats beautifully -- so it's perfect to make on a Sunday for lunches or quick dinners during the week. If you're into Belgian flavors, try my Venison Steak Belgian Style.