Beef stew cooked in beer has long been part of the culinary heritage of Belgium, and it is still one of the most popular stews in Flanders. Through the ages, the recipe has varied, and every mother passes on her "secret" to her children. My mother likes to add some liver or kidneys to the beef, which certainly gives the stew a more distinctive flavor. My grandmother likes it, more "sweet" and adds a slice of pain d'epices, an old-fashioned honey spice, bread, or even a slice of country bread spread with a strong mustard. These spicy and sweet flavorings have been an integral part of the Belgian palate and cuisine since the Middle Ages.
The following version is a basic one and my favorite. Like many other stews it is best made a day or two ahead since it improves in flavor. The success of the dish depends greatly on the quality of the beer you use. Look for a rich, dark, and slightly bitter beer, such as Rodenbach or a dark Abbey beer.
Serve this stew with French fries or boiled potatoes, applesauce, and plenty of "golden ambrosia," the name the old Belgians gave to their beloved beer.
1. Season the beef cubes with the salt and pepper and dredge with the flour. Shake off any excess.
2. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large heavy skillet over high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the beef cubes and saute until nicely browned on all sides. Work in batches so as not to crowd the beef cubes, or they will steam instead of saute. Add 1 tablespoon of butter, if necessary. Transfer the beef cubes to a heavy Dutch oven.
3. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter to the skillet and melt over medium heat. Add the onions and cook stirring occasionally, until browned, about 15 minutes. If necessary, raise the heat toward the end of the cooking time. It is important to brown the meat and the onions evenly to give the stew its deep brown color. The trick is to stir the onions just enough to avoid burning the but not so often as to interrupt the browning process. Combine the onions with the meat in the Dutch oven.
4. Deglaze the skillet with the beer, scraping with a wooden spoon to loosen any brown bits, and bring to a boil. Pour the beer over the meant. Add the thyme and bay leaves.
5. Simmer, covered, over low heat until the meat is very tender, 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Before serving, stir in the red currant jelly and vinegar; simmer for 5 minutes. This sweet-and-sour combination will give this hearty stew its sprigs and bay leaves. Taste and adjust the seasoning and serve.
Note: If this recipe looks like it will make too much for you, go ahead and prepare it anyway, for the stew freezes beautifully. Then you have an instant dinner awaiting your pleasure.