Beef and onions, made better with beer

A platter of beer-braised beef and onions, flavoured with Belgian beer, bay leaves and sweet paprika. PHOTOS: NYTIMES
A pot of beer-braised beef and onions, flavoured with Belgian beer, bay leaves and sweet paprika. PHOTOS: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - 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 plainer carbs.

And in this hearty, warming stew, they melt into a soft-textured sauce for brawny cubes of beef.

Pound for pound, there is nearly as much onion in the pot as there is meat, with the two flavours melding into each other.

Bite into a strand of onion without any meat attached and you will emphatically taste the beef, while the meat absorbs all the onion-y 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 see it in Greek stifado, flavoured 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, it is 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 cannot 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 onion-y, meaty sauce.

A pot of beer-braised beef and onions, flavored with Belgian beer, bay leaves and sweet paprika. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Beer-Braised Beef and Onions

1 Tbs kosher salt, more as needed
1 tsp black pepper, more for garnish
6 bay leaves
2 tsp sweet paprika, more for garnish
1.8kg boneless beef stew meat, cut into 4cm chunks
1 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
4 Spanish or very large yellow onions, thinly sliced
6 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh parsley, plus chopped parsley, for garnish
1 Tbs tomato paste
1 tsp ground coriander
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
1 Tbs all-purpose flour
2 cups beef or chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 cup beer, preferably Belgian-style or brown ale
Flaky sea salt, for garnish
Dijon-style mustard, preferably extra-hot, for serving

1. In a large bowl, combine salt, pepper, bay leaves and paprika. Toss meat to coat, then cover, refrigerate and marinate at least two hours or overnight.
2. Heat oven to 160 deg C. In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot, heat butter and oil over medium-high until shimmering. Working in batches, brown beef on two sides until dark and crusty, transferring to a bowl when browned (reserve bay leaves). As you cook, add more oil and adjust heat if necessary to prevent burning.
3. When all the meat is browned, add onions to the empty pot and raise heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring and scraping up the brown coating on the bottom of the pan as the onions release their liquid.
4. Continue cooking until onions are deeply golden brown and soft, for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Meanwhile, make a bouquet garni by tying thyme, parsley and reserved bay leaves together with kitchen string (or just throw them in the pot and warn your guests not to eat them).
6. Push the onions to the sides, then add tomato paste, coriander and cinnamon to the bottom of the pan. Cook, stirring for about one minute until paste is darkened and fragrant. Stir in flour, cook another minute, then add stock, beer, one cup water and bouquet garni. Return beef and any juices in the bowl to the pot, bring to a simmer, then cover and transfer to oven. Cook until beef is tender, about 2½ to three hours, turning it over halfway through.
7. If the sauce seems thin, remove the meat with a slotted spoon; cover with foil to keep warm. Return pot with liquid to stove and simmer until thickened to taste for 5 to 10 minutes. Return the meat to pot and stir to heat through. Serve from the pot or a platter. Garnish with chopped parsley, flaky sea salt, pepper and paprika. Serve with mustard on the side.

Serves eight to 12

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 Chateauneuf-du-Pape, from the southern Rhone Valley, would be great so long as they are not too fruity. Cornas from the northern Rhone 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 flavours.

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