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When beer is food

(article, Liz Biro)

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“Mmm, beer,” we said in unison as our trio entered Wilmington, North Carolina's Lighthouse Beer Festival last October. 

My companions were ready to fill their 4-ounce glasses over and over again with as many of the 45 brands they could sample in three hours. I, the chef and designated driver, was more interested in beer outside the glass. I wanted to know how people cooked with beer. 

My interest in beer cookery goes back to the rich-yet-light beer batter that my father made exclusively for frying fish. He simply poured whatever lager he had, usually Lowenbrau, into a large bowl containing a couple of cups of self-rising flour seasoned with salt, pepper, and paprika. He used just enough beer to make a runny batter, then dipped fresh fish fillets in the mixture.  

Years later, I concocted my own beer-plus-seafood recipe when I didn’t have wine for a batch of linguini with clam sauce. I was sipping my partner’s home-brewed pale ale, and it seemed dry enough to punch up the sauce. 

[%image beer float=right width=400 caption="Sampling the wares."]

So I sautéed some garlic, added dried basil and oregano, then poured about a quarter-cup of beer into the pan before adding two 6 1/2-ounce cans of chopped clams. Bellissimo! The sauce had a deep flavor that I thought tasted better than the version I usually made with wine.   

Apparently, I’d followed a basic rule about cooking with beer: Because beer is bitter, it pairs well with sweetish flavors such as corn, caramelized onions, and seafood. 

There are a few other such rules. My dad knew that the carbonation and yeast in beer would lighten his batter, but bakers using beer in recipes should remember that beer can alter the delicate flavor of some baked goods. Many cooks I talked to at the October beer festival added suds to their chili and meat stews, which can take the strong flavors of porters and stouts. Vegetable or chicken stews, on the other hand, need lighter beers.  

[%image ticket float=left width=150 caption="Entry to the party."]

I had my doubts about finding recipes at a beer festival attended mostly by college students who swayed even when the jazz-reggae band wasn’t on stage. But surprisingly, the festival (along with ideas from friends and fellow cooks) produced a lot of ideas — a mixed six pack of recipes, all with different styles of beer. 

Chelada and michelada. Not exactly food, but worth a mention, are these are two popular Mexican drinks I always crave at beer blasts. 

For a chelada, rim a highball glass with salt, then fill the glass with ice. Squeeze half a lime into the glass, or about 2 tablespoons of juice. Fill the glass with light lager from a bottle, refilling after every few sips to maintain the sour lime flavor. 

A michelada is sort of like a Bloody Mary made with a lot of beer instead of a little bit of vodka. Simply add a dash of hot sauce or hot chili powder and about 4 ounces of tomato juice to the lime juice in the chelada recipe.  

Brown-ale brisket. The woman working the Tilburg’s Dutch Brown Ale tap at the festival suggested placing a 1 1/2- to 2-pound brisket in a baking pan. Pour a bottle of brown ale and an equal amount of apple juice in the pan, along with your favorite meatloaf seasonings. Bake the roast, covered, at 325 degrees, for three hours. Reduce the heat to 200 degrees and bake another two hours.  

Beer burgers. One red-eyed festival-goer slurred out this recipe, swearing that she makes it all the time and “it’s good.” She adds 3 or 4 ounces of beer to a pound of ground meat, or just enough beer to moisten the meat, along with salt, black pepper, and plenty of fresh chopped garlic. She lets the mixture sit for about 30 minutes before shaping and grilling the patties. She looked annoyed when I asked what kind of beer. “Any,” she said. I thought stout sounded good. 

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Beer quick bread. After the festival, a friend remembered a cookbook she compiled to help market a mortgage company where she once worked. Inside was a beer quick bread recipe by, as she said, “one of those people who entertains a lot.” 

In a large bowl, whisk together 3 cups of self-rising flour and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Gently fold in a 12-ounce container of wheat beer. Don’t overmix, or the bread will be tough. Place batter in a greased loaf pan and bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour or until golden brown. Brush warm bread with melted butter.  

Beer slaw. The Monday after the festival, I emailed my friend Lucy Saunders, who writes about drinking, making, cooking with, and traveling for beer. According to Lucy, “beer is food in cooking, at the table and by the glass.” She shared her recipe for Sweet-and-Sour IPA Slaw. 

Beer soup. Before I went to the beer festival, I met with North Carolina chef and restaurateur Scott Haulman. Haulman owns Deluxe, in Wilmington, arguably one of the best restaurants on the Carolina coast, and in the last two years has become a wine expert. He stocks around 400 labels at Deluxe, but he can’t deny the growing popularity of beer. 

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Haulman recently conducted a beer-tasting dinner. He developed one of his favorite beer recipes, Onion “All-Good” Ale Soup, while heading the Mast Farm Inn kitchen in Valle Crucis, North Carolina, where he had access to an organic vegetable garden. At the time, Cottonwood Brewery used hops grown near the inn to make its All-Good Ale. 

You, on the other hand, don't need to source special hops for your own soup; just use the fullest-bodied ale you can find. After all, it's food.

p(bio). Liz Biro writes about food from Hubert, North Carolina.


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