This is a medium-weight stew. A spring or autumn affair like an earth-tone cardigan for your mouth. The pork and apples are brighter than, say, beef and ale, and the spices keep it light while the dumplings add some satisfying heft.
I was talking about it to friends the other night, and I was sure I’d posted it already. Apparently not. I only had the recipe as a scrappy handwritten scrawl in an old notebook. So if I’m writing it up, you might as well all have it too.
It’s reasonably easy, and uses meat you don’t see super often outside roasts. While little seems likely to cure our national gammon we can at least reclaim this retro carvery favourite while there’s still food on the shelves, eh?
Carbonade – 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 carbonade 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?
Puchero is a soupy Spanish peasant stew. It’s also one of the earliest things I remember eating. My mother used to make it when I was growing up; a bastardised take, worked up from a half-remembered recipe with whatever she could find in 1980s & 90s Darlington.
You can find a lot of recipes for South American puchero, and the Spanish variants are multitudinous. Standard for those rustic dishes named after a stewpot a few hundred years ago. Elisabeth Luard tracks it back to Andalusia, making it as a simple broth of roasted chestnuts and whatever ham’s going spare. That sounds amazing, but it’s not what I remember.
No, what I remember is a vivid broth of tender pork belly and plump chickpeas, flavoured through with scant chunks of chorizo. They were always the best bits – an unusual ingredient in that time and place, a treat to be hunted out in any bowlful. The sausages were a finer-grained Lincoln, sometimes a Cumberland, giving a plainer offset, but with the pepper adding interest.
I’ll wager we ate it with a good deal less meat per head than I’ve allocated here, and likely more carrots and chickpeas. I’ve amped up the indulgence, but you can dial it back down and go in hard on the veg. A little fatty pork goes a long way after all.
Anyway, here’s my best guess. I think my mum’s old recipe notebook is still floating around somewhere. It’d be fascinating to compare.
When I was a teenager, my dad taught me to cook. I mean, he tried. I was a truculent little fucker even then, and I doubt I really listened. Still he taught at a catering college, and somehow some basics of technique and flavour sank in. I don’t think I really learned to cook though until a bit later, living in a grotty shared house, having rage-quit the family home, post graduation.
As tantrums go, “I’m moving to Cambridge” was a bit dumb, and more than a little expensive. But not wanting to let the cooking shtick wither entirely, my dad packed me off with a few books. Some core catering texts, a well-thumbed Delia, and a couple of quirky extras that have since become two of my favourites. They were Elisabeth Luard’s European Peasant Cookery, and Rick Bayless’ Authentic Mexican, and they massively influenced my early cooking forays. The latter introduced me to Tinga Poblana, one of the first things I learned to cook then really ran with.
It’s bound up in a whole bunch of memories – if I cook for you at all in person, the odds are you’ll have eaten some version of it. Hell, I’ve been titting about with Tinga Poblana for about ten years, and this won’t be the final version I settle on by any means.
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.
It’s time for miniature vegetables in all the sherry. Yeah? Yeah. Sherry is great – more on that later.
Without the disembiggened carrots and twee micro-onions, this would just be a pallid coq au vin. But because the base flavours are quite timid, it felt like an opportunity to let the sherry shine. Plus, I really wanted to write a recipe that included the instruction “now pour in a bottle of sherry”. I’ve stopped a little short of that, but you’ll still need most of a pint of crisp, delicious fino.
It’s a synthesis of a couple of recipes I found on the usual pointless content farms, the odd decent site, and the waterzooi I made months ago. It has an egg-thickened sauce, which gives it a rich creaminess, without any dairy.
I have a massive food writing boner for Elisabeth Luard. Oh, the purple prose is saturated all up the spectrum, but the way she writes about food just hits me where I live. She gets it.
For my favourite of her books, European Peasant Cookery, she basically bummed around Europe for a few years, bothering people in cottages. The result is a vast (if occasionally austere) compendium of stews, broths, salads, and thrift food.
Some of the recipes you can use verbatim; some benefit from a tweak. This simple lamb stew is one I’ve mucked about with, but the core concept is delightful – melting, slow-cooked lamb, a shiver of citrus through it. This is the good stuff, and it works just a well on a lazy spring evening as for winter comfort.
Kabanos are salty, smoky, relentlessly moreish, and have thankfully become more and more readily available at passable quality in supermarkets. I picked some up this evening, and was casting about for something to do with them. So I ended up making this by mistake.
The most promising recommendation was bigos, a Polish hunters’ stew which sounds seriously tasty, and which I think I may have eaten at Polonia some time last year. It’s all earthy flavours and cabbage. Unfortunately the recipe I was linked to rendered like arse on my phone and I got very confused about the ingredients.
So I impulse-bought some sauerkraut, and served it on the side of a very basic butter bean stew.
This is just what it looks like,really. I fried a couple of onions, added garlic, sliced kabanos, and flat-leaf parsley. Once it has worked together and the onions were soft, in went a couple of tins of butter beans, three diced tomatoes, some vegetable stock and a little thyme. It simmered for about 20 minutes, and reduced more harshly for another 10 or so.
In hindsight, I should have made the bigos, and I will. But the simple flavours and the smooth richness of the beans lets the smokiness of the sausage stand at the front, and the sauerkraut is a delicious piquant offset. So I’m calling this a lucky break.
That said, some root vegetables would help a lot. I guess that’s what I get for blundering around Tesco in a daze.
Next to the sauerkraut in the supermarket, however, were several types of croquette. And this has me thinking. So tomorrow or Thursday is likely ground-zero for working a lot of potato and stiff Béchamel together with various fillings and getting down to some aggressive frying. Fuck, but croquettes are splendid.
I worked up a revised version of this for the book, adding the sauerkraut to the stew:
It’s a gorgeous afternoon. I’ve just had a slice of excellent pizza from the newly-opened Norfolk Street Bakery. Their bread and butter pudding cake looks astounding. I’m in a great mood, and I’m putting off playing Pokémon for the OneMetal Podcast. So it’s time to crack open a St. Idesbald Tripel and build a Waterzooi recipe.
Waterzooi is the most interesting thing I came across on a recent trip to Belgium. The most interesting edible thing, anyway. There were some fucking splendid beers, and a lot of interesting art, too, but gastronomically it was the Waterzooi that stood out. So I’m going to have a crack at recreating it.