Carbonnade – sometimes called Belgium’s answer to beef bourguignon – is a rich, simple stew of beef cooked in beer, with a little mustard and an ambiguous bread topping. Much, much more on the bread part later.
The etymology is probably via charbon, from meat cooked over a coal brazier, or perhaps the stewpot itself simmering over warm coals. Either way, it’s a Flemish classic that makes use of the sensational beer brewed in northern Belgium. At its very simplest, you can just dump a kilo of beef shin in a pot with some onions, herbs, and a bottle of oud bruin. But then you’d miss the (questionably authentic) mustard croutons, and those are sodding delicious.
I’ve been making carbonnade for as long as I’ve been cooking, and its evolution in my repertoire is a mini history of me learning to cook. If I had a change log (sauce control?) it would be fascinating. Not least because I recently got all in a lather about the history of the dish, wondering exactly when people started topping it with mustard-slathered croutons?
Slow-cooked ox cheeks are not often considered summer food, so I’m not even going to try pleading that this has fruit in it. It’s just something tasty I worked up after seeing cheeks on the butcher’s counter, and not being able to say no.
Heck, the plums aren’t even in season, so that’s me done for, really. I imagine there’ll be a tutting, hemp-clad psychopomp strong-arming me to a McDonald’s of perpetual flame in the hereafter. Might as well enjoy the stew while I’m here.
Actually, I’ve always thought seasonality was more inspirational than holy, and food miles are a bit of a crass simplification when you start factoring in other energy costs. Jay Rayner puts this all far better than I ever will, and anyway I’m drifting wildly off topic.
The centre of Cambridge is a miserable place to drink. I’m not going to rant about this, but between soulless chains, student vomit production-lines, and brave attempts that have failed by becoming a restaurant with an unconvincing pub-shaped mask on, there’s basically nowhere to go for a beer. So when the Pint Shop announced they’d be selling around ten craft keg beers, another five or so cask ales, and serving food while giving equal space to drinkers and diners it seemed a bit good to be true.
After having dinner there last week, I can confirm that it is both good and true.
If you want to skip the rest of this review, the tl;dr is: go there and eat the Triple Cooked Ox Cheeks – they are heart-stoppingly delicious.
I’ve been eating out quite a bit lately, it seems. The latest place on this list is the new(ish)ly opened Cau on Bene’t Street. This being Cambridge, yes, it’s a chain. But it is at least a small one.
If their shtick weren’t obvious from the name, the grass and sky motif hits it home. This is all about the beef. Their specialty is large sharing steaks in exciting sauces, culminating in an 18oz rib-eye, marinated in chimichurri sauce and slow-grilled.
Sadly, none of us felt up to tackling one of those, so this review doesn’t really get to the soul of the place. This is doubly sad, because the rest was enjoyable if unremarkable, and I’m worried I’m not doing it justice. I’ll need to recruit some heavy-duty carnivores and return in force.
A combination of going out for Chinese on Friday, and some stubbornly-tough stewing steak cluttering up the fridge left me mulling over tenderizing techniques. Stir fried beef in restaurant Chinese food often seems oddly tender given a taste that implies one of the cheaper, tougher cuts. I was curious.
A little leafing through McGee, and some idle Googling suggest there’s little enough mystery. A blend of acidic marinades, beating the fuck out of it, cutting across the grain, and occasional freezing or additives seem to be largely responsible. Nonetheless, it seemed worth a go.
Acidic marinades break down the meat tissue, and McGee pointed me to ginger as another source of chemical assault. Cornflour seems hotly debated. Half the internet is convinced it’s just for thickening, the other that it has a softening effect. McGee is oddly silent on the subject, and it turns out I don’t own a Chinese cookbook with which to cross-reference. This is a troubling oversight.
In any case, I decided to just do everything I could think of and see what happened; then add garlic.