Saturday, September 13, 2008

Blonde Carbonade: Lighter Belgian Fare

I know, I know. Carbonade, the heavily flavored stew from Belgium, is made with beef and dark beer. But there's a lighter way, though much less frequent, and it's chicken stewed with golden beer and carrots. It's a Belgian counterpart to French cooking.

'Les Carbonades flamandes' or sometimes 'Carbonade à la flamande' in French and 'Vlaamse Stovery' or 'Vlaamse Stoofkarbonade' in Flemish, in that bilingual and bicultural country, is a Flemish dish from the north where wine grapes don't grow but where the beers are magnificent. Normally, carbonade is made from stewing beef and dark, somewhat sour, beer. Just to make it heavier, in the Teutonic style, it is full of caramelized onions and finished with brown sugar and vinegar. The only lightness -- get this -- is from the boiled potatoes it is traditionally served over. I've had real carbonade several times, made by people who know what they're doing. And while it's tasty, it hasn't won my heart. It probably won't wind up on the blog, and we do not serve it at our restaurant in Athens.

On the other hand, a lighter version, where the meat is chicken thigh and the beer is golden or 'blonde' and the onions aren't caramelized, makes a delightful stew. And the carrots I've used give it some sweetness, eliminating the need for the sugar. I am practicing, frankly, for a 'local food' banquet our restaurant will be doing for the UGA School of Ecology plus for an article I'm writng -- with recipes -- on the 'Locavore' movement in Athens. The chance to make a centerpiece dish with local (free-range) chicken, an Athens microbrewed beer, and young locally grown carrots (local in the spring, at least -- I'll probably use North Georgia cabbage as the vegetable for the Ecology School banquet) is not to be passed up. 'Local' cooking means that wine and other key ingredients from far away (like rice and pasta, alas) have to be minimized. And by the way, our starch accompaniment will be Georgia stone-ground grits cooked like polenta with jalapeños, local beer, milk, and cheese.

Here is my effort at a lighter carbonade. The recipe is geared for six. Boiled potatoes are a good accompaniment, or you can use lightly salted brown rice. The accompanying drink would traditionally be a golden ale or lager, but a cold full-bodied white wine, like a chardonnay from California or Australia would do well too.

Blonde Carbonade -- Belgian Chicken Stewed with Beer Tim

2-1/2 pounds chicken thighs, including skin and bones
2 tablespoons flour, mixed with:
-- 1 teaspoon salt
-- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
-- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 tablespoons chicken fat (from the broth) and/or olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 stick celery, diced
1-1/2 cups (12-ounce bottle) golden beer (Terrapin Golden Ale, Killian's Red, etc.)
1 cup unsalted chicken broth (made from the chicken skins)
1 teaspoon salt, plus to taste
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon thyme
3/4 pound small peeled carrots
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley, plus 2 more for garnish

Remove skins and excess fat from the chicken thighs. In a small pan, bring the skins and fat to a boil with 2 cups water, then skim off foam and simmer, uncovered, to make broth. Later, the fat that rises can be used for frying the chicken and onion.

Cut the thighs evenly in half through the bone by placing a cleaver on top, slicing through the flesh, then pounding the cleaver with a mallet or hammer through the bone. Make a mixture of the flour, and the next three seasonings, Sprinkle evenly on the chicken pieces, turning them to coat evenly.

Heat a large stewing pot or Dutch oven to medium heat, and add the chicken fat and/or oil. Fry the chicken pieces, half at a time, turning them often and scraping the pan with a spatula. Remove the chicken to a bowl and finish the other half and add it to the bowl. Discard all but 1 tablespoon of grease in the pot.

Fry the diced onion and celery until well softened, scraping the bottom of the pan frequently. Add the beer, broth (skimmed of fat), bay leaves, thyme, and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, and boil rapidly 1 minute.

Add the fried chicken pieces and the carrots. Add a little broth or water if the liquid level is not up to the level of the chicken. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat and carrots are tender, 30 to 35 minutes. Skim off grease if it collects on the top (some chicken thighs have a lot of fat). Taste the sauce and add a little salt, if needed. Remove from the heat, and stir in 2 tablespoons chopped parsley.

The stew can be served at this point, or cooled, stored refrigerated, and reheated to serve. Boiled potatoes are traditional with carbonade. Sprinkle stew with the reserved chopped parsley.

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