Gently cooked onions, simmered in butter or oil until they collapse in a golden-brown heap, need very little help to become a meal.
Add broth and some toasted bread, and they become a soothing soup. Scoop them onto pizzas or stir them into risotto or pasta, and they shine sweetly against the plainer carbs.
And in this hearty, warming stew, they melt into a soft-textured sauce for brawny cubes of beef.
Pound for pound, there’s nearly as much onion in the pot as there is meat, with the two flavors melding into each other. Bite into a strand of onion without any meat attached, and you’ll emphatically taste the beef, while the meat absorbs all the oniony broth that surrounds it, becoming redolent as it falls apart on your fork.
For a simple stew like this one, you could use any meat. Pork, lamb or even venison would provide ballast for the mellowness of the allium. But beef cooked with copious onions is a classic. You’ll see it in Greek stifado, flavored with red wine vinegar; in Ugandan Bunyoro stew, scented with curry powder; and in ale-spiked Flemish carbonnade, on which this recipe is very loosely based.
The ale here is essential. It adds a restraining note of bitterness to counter the onions, which can become overwhelming depending on their natural sugar content and how long you cook them. The longer and slower they go, the sweeter they become. A shot of ale keeps them in check.
The same can be said for a spoonful of strong Dijon mustard served alongside the stew. Although many traditional beef carbonnade recipes call for stirring the mustard into the stew pot, cooking mustard tames its bite. I like it pungent and raw, a bracing contrast to all the beefy tenderness on the plate. If you can find extra-hot Dijon, even better.
Another ingredient to seek out is good, strong fresh paprika. Contrary to the beliefs of many cooks, paprika should actually taste like something, and should not just be a bland and ruddy garnish for deviled eggs. If you can’t remember when you last bought a jar of paprika, buy a new one. Then open it and inhale. It should smell sweet, fruity and a little funky.
Like all good stews, this one needs a soft bed on which to land. Noodles, potatoes, polenta, rice or quinoa will all work to absorb every drop of that gloriously oniony, meaty sauce.
Recipe: Beer-Braised Beef and Onions
And to Drink …
With this variation on Flemish carbonnade, beer would be a natural selection: a Belgian ale, a brown ale, or a dry stout or porter. Good sturdy red wines would be delicious as well. Gigondas or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, from the southern Rhône Valley, would be great so long as they are not too fruity. Cornas from the northern Rhône would go well, as would structured cabernet francs from the Loire Valley. You could also try syrahs from California or Washington. I would be happy with a Rioja reserva. From Italy, you could try an aglianico from Campania or Basilicata, or a Sicilian nerello mascalese from Mount Etna. The key for the red is to have enough body and structure to stand up to the assertive stew but not overwhelm it with sweet fruit flavors. ERIC ASIMOV
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