Upscale beer becoming a gourmet ingredient

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WHEN I WAS growing up, Ma Sixpack had a great, old recipe for pork chops cooked in beer. It was as simple as browning the chops with some thick-cut onions and brown sugar, covering them with beer and simmering for a half-hour, until the liquid thickened into a sweet gravy.

Simple and just full of flavor.

A few years ago, I asked her what kind of beer she used. “Oh, whatever was the cheapest,” she laughed. Probably Ortlieb’s, but it didn’t matter.

To her – and, until recently, most any home cook – beer was beer, and you just poured in a bottle of Brand X.

No longer.

In these post-Betty Crocker days of celebrity chefs and 24-hour food channels, the pork would be organic, the onions would be Vidalia, and the beer would be a smoked porter.

Would it taste any better? I don’t know. But the point is the evolution of beer from a simple adult refreshment to gourmet cuisine is already taking place in many American kitchens.

Page through cookbooks and surf the Internet, and you’ll find scores of recipes that specify exotic ales and lagers as an important ingredient. I’ve seen recipes that call for such unusual (and expensive) specialties as Weihenstephan Korbinian doppelbock in beef stew, Unibroue La Terrible abbey ale in marinated venison brochette and Rodenbach Grand Cru in steamed mussels.

When you pour a $15 bottle of barrel-aged Belgian ale into a $5 pot of shellfish, you begin to see how far beer has come.

Some of this is a calculated strategy by the very people who make these new varieties, to re-cast their product as a suitable alternative to wine. Some brewers now offer beer-and-food suggestions right on the bottle: light lagers with fish, strong ales with red meat. And how about spiced ale with that slice of pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving?

That’s one of the suggestions from the Brewers Association at www.beerandturkey.com, where you’re encouraged to put down the Burgundy and try an Oktoberfest or brown ale with that drumstick.

Selecting the proper beer as an ingredient in a meal is not just some artificial conceit – not when the shelves are filled with a new generation of so-called “extreme” beers made with so many different, wondrous ingredients.

You get a sense of the range of flavors paging through the recipes in Dogfish Head brewer Sam Calagione’s new book, “Extreme Brewing” (Quarry Books, $24.99). He defines these hugely flavored ales and lagers as “beers made with extreme amounts of traditional ingredients or beers made extremely well with nontraditional ingredients.”

Examples?

How about a pilsner made with two or three times the amount of barley and hops of a standard European import? Or a bock made with black and green peppercorns and flaked rye?

From that perspective, you understand why that onion soup might taste even better if, instead of an amber ale, you pour in a stout made with chocolate malt.

“The possibilities that come with cooking with beer,” Calagione writes, “are as infinite as the styles of beer that can be brewed.”

Maybe, but I’m not screwing with Ma Sixpack’s recipe for pork chops in beer. If only I could get my hands on a quart of Ortlieb’s.

Here’s a recipe for you to try, from Calagione’s book.

VID-ALE-YA SOUP

  • 2 pounds Vidalia onions
  • 2 ounces butter
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pint chicken stock
  • 12 ounces imperial stout or porter
  • 4 ounces half-and-half
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons crushed black pepper
  • 1 ounce shaved Parmesan cheese.
  1. Clean and cut onions into quarters, then slice into half-inch chunks. Melt butter and olive oil in cast-iron skillet until simmering, then add onion and saute until translucent. Add garlic and continue to saute until onions and garlic begin to brown.
  2. Add chicken stock and beer, cover skillet and continue to cook over medium heat for 20 minutes.
  3. Shut off heat, stir in half-and-half and egg yolks. Reheat soup and portion into bowls. Top each bowl with cheese and black pepper and serve hot with a glass of stout. Serves four.

Stone brewing

Bob Skilnik, author of the “Beer & Food: An American History” (to be published next spring by Jefferson Press), reports that matching extreme beer and food is not such a recent development. Down at Krebs Brewing in Oklahoma, they serve up a classic dish that goes back more than 100 years.

It’s Choc Beer & lamb fries.

Choc is a wheat beer that originates from an old Indian Territory recipe that was passed on to the community of Italian immigrants who settled in Krebs, Okla., to work the local mines, Skilnik reports.

And the lamb fries? Well, those are deep-fried sheep testicles. For you home cooks: Remove the skin (ouch!), slice them thin (yikes!), marinate them in the beer, powder them with fine cracker mean and fry ‘em.

As Skilnik said, the nuts “pair” nicely with Choc Beer.

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