Cheap Eats:
Vlaams Rundvlees en Bier Casserole
  (Flemish Beef and Beer Casserole)

"Eating beef," one Japanese historian wrote, "is a sign of an advanced state of civilization." I'll buy that. But then, I'm a big fan of beef. I don't know whether it's my Scottish-English heritage or my blood type (according to Eat Right for Your Type, beef is "highly beneficial" for type Os), but I can never go too long without beef in some form.

Legendary nineteenth-century French chef Marie Antoine Carême maintained that "beef is the soul of cooking." Indeed, worldwide, more beef is eaten than any other kind of meat—despite the fact that major population groups (such as India's Hindus) won't touch it. France actually eats more beef than England (despite John Bull and the Beefeaters), and Americans eat more than France. In Argentina, even the poor eat beef daily. Korea tops the list of beef-eaters in Asia. And even sheep-happy Australians and New Zealanders prefer beef. There are, in fact, more than a billion cows, bulls, and steers in the world.

By the time beef cattle first appears in recorded history, it is already in the form of domesticated and improved strains. All domestic cattle today are descendants of the aurochs, or Bos primigenius (so now you know why they sometimes call cows "Bossy"). While the aurochs is the bovine creature depicted in prehistoric cave paintings, it was still in existence up to the middle of the seventeenth century.

By 3500 BC, and possibly earlier, Egypt had domesticated cattle, and there are numerous references to cattle in the Old Testament. In Greece and Rome, cattle was an important trade item, and would often be used as a measure of the value of other things—for example, in Homeric Greece, a slave was worth four oxen, but a concubine cost twenty. In ancient times, the possession of much cattle was a symbol of wealth. In fact, even today a lot of our money-related terms come from the long-standing value of cattle in world markets. The word "cattle" gave rise to the term "chattel." The Latin for "cattle," pecus, can be seen in pecuniary.

Cuts of beef generally depend on where you are. In the United States, we've pretty well standardized things, so a sirloin steak on the West Coast is basically the same portion of the beast as a sirloin steak on the East Coast. This precise identification of cuts of meat is not universal. There are differences among countries as to how beef is butchered and, in many European countries, differences among regions. However, sometimes it is the name rather than the cut that changes—as in England, where the steak we call sirloin is called rumpsteak. (And by the way—that story about the English king knighting a hunk of beef is a happy fabrication. The "sir" in sirloin is simply a misspelling of the French "sur," which means "above," and refers to the position of this particular cut, which is above Bossy's loin.)

In case you worry about the health ramifications of eating beef—don't. As with all life's good things, moderation is your best option. Beef in and of itself won't hurt you. It's still the best source of iron (your body absorbs about 30 percent of the iron in beef, while it can only absorb about 2 to 10 percent of the iron in vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes), and offers a lot of other nutrients, especially B12. Now, this doesn't mean you can hunker down with one of those 2-pound steaks at the local Primo Steak House. But it does mean you don't have to cut it out of your diet if you love beef—and some people simply operate better on beef than on other protein sources. But do remember to trim the fat, and if you can find (and afford) the stuff that is raised without hormones and antibiotics, you'll be better off—and probably enjoy better flavor.

This hearty beef stew comes from Belgium. Belgium is divided almost in half linguistically: Flemish (language and people) in the north, French-speaking Walloons in the south. This is a northern dish. To be traditional, it should be served with plain boiled potatoes.

Vlaams Rundvlees en Bier Casserole
(Flemish Beef and Beer Casserole)

2½ lb. beef (boned neck, top shoulder, or thin flank)

½ lb. bacon

1 tsp. salt

1 lb. onions, thinly sliced

2 Tbs. flour

12 ounces beer

½ tsp. ground black pepper

2 tsp. sugar

one pinch each, marjoram, thyme, and rosemary (should be about ½ tsp. total)

1 clove garlic, minced

2 Tbs. vinegar

Cut the beef into strips about 2 inches long, 1 inch wide, and 1 inch thick. Cut bacon strips into thirds. Place the bacon in a large skillet and cook until the fat has begun to liquefy and the bacon is beginning to look done but not crisp. Remove the bacon and set aside. Brown beef in bacon fat. When beef is brown on all sides, remove from pan and sprinkle with ½ tsp. salt. Reserve, along with bacon. Brown onions in the fat remaining in the pan. Remove the onions from the fat and place in a separate dish. Drain off all but 2 Tbs. of the fat. Stir flour into the fat in the pan and make a light-brown roux. Gradually add the beer and stir continuously until the mixture boils. Add the remaining ½ tsp. salt, pepper, sugar, herbs, and garlic to the sauce.

Arrange alternating layers of meat (beef and bacon) and onions in a 2-quart casserole, then pour the sauce over the top. Cover the casserole. Cook in a preheated 300°F oven for 2½ hours. If it begins to dry out, add more beer. Just before serving, add the vinegar. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Serves 4-6.

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