It’s been a long time since I’ve written a food blog, but not because I haven’t been cooking. Just been waiting for an appropriate topic to cover here, and I think I’ve got it here.
The idea of pairing wine with food is a well-established culinary topic that everyone knows about, if few really understand. But there’s no question that an excellent wine pairing can truly enhance a dish, unlocking portions of the flavor profile that would remain hidden if eaten alone, and magnifying the portions that are already present. No arguments there.
However, it’s only been recently (like within the last 5-10 years) that the same type of attention has been paid to pairing beers with food, especially in the U.S. For this I blame the big, yellow-fizzy macrobrews that were the only thing that most people for decades knew as “beer.” These days the country has truly rediscovered its glorious, immigrant-driven brewing past (which was all but wiped out by Prohibition), and the availability of interesting, innovative, and rare artisan brews is widespread. This offers a great opportunity to the modern amateur chef…can I craft a menu with craft beer specifically in mind?
Well of course the answer is yes…you can find a beer that will pair with literally any dish, from burgers to foie gras. But making the connections when there are literally thousands of possibilities is the difficult part. Brewing aficionados will even go so far as to tell you that pairing beer properly can be more difficult than pairing wine because of the vast variety of styles that are completely different from one another, while one red wine shares a lot of the same baseline characteristics as most other reds. (This is of course a matter of opinion…don’t think I’m some sort of uncultured rube. Well, not for that reason anyway. If you must think of me as a rube, focus on my incomprehension of musical theatre instead.)
Anyway, all of this is leading up to a meal I recently prepared for a group of friends. The dinner was actually done as a charity event for outreach programs in my wife’s church, a type of dinner known as Dining For Dollars. Everyone buys a ticket for a limited number of seats at the table, and my wife and I cooked. Five courses following a theme of autumn seasonal flavors, with a specific beer paired to each. We actually held a test run of the dinner a few weeks ago...some of the photos are actually from that occasion, but mostly the same stuff.
Let’s talk about it!
Course 1: Appetizers
This one was a little loose and free, so I hesitate to call it a “course,” but it was still an interesting opportunity to introduce the guests to the concept of examining the way beer pairs with food, while giving everyone a chance to mingle and get to know each other. It was essentially a buffet-style spread of light, finger fair to roughly fit the theme. Apples, pears, table grapes, as well as a variety of cheeses to cover a range of the palette, from a soft, “fragrant” Chaumes to hard aged cheddar. A couple of dry Italian sausages rounded it out, a Sopressata and a red-wine salami, and various crackers and sour dough bread.
The pairings for this course were fairly easy, since you just need something that can lightly accent all the different flavors without overpowering any of them. In this case I chose Duvel blonde and a very nice kolsch from Reissdorff.
The Belgian Duvel is dry and faintly floral, with a very slight bitter finish and virtually no malt. I found that it worked beautifully with the fruit, and was still light and dry enough to cut through the heavy flavors of the meats and cheeses. The Reissdorf kolsch is an excellent example of an admittedly wide-open style, on the malty side with a fair amount of body. To taste it after the Duvel is to immediately recognize it as a very different beer, and yet it worked equally well with the food. I was not as impressed with the match to the fruit, but it was a generally good pairing to the heavier appetizers.
Course 2: Fall Salad
The first formal course was a complex little salad to highlight the season and touch on all the major flavors. A bed of baby greens was accented with candied walnuts, dried cranberries and creamy Gorgonzola cheese, with a fresh-made raspberry vinaigrette. Thus, one small plate contains bitter, sweet, salty, and sour elements, all pulled together by the subtle vinaigrette…an interesting pairing challenge.
The pairing chosen (after much deliberation) was Jolly Pumpkin brewery’s Calabaza Blanca.
This is a challenging beer for newbies especially, but a delightful surprise with the salad when first tasted. It’s a Belgian “biere blanche,” literally white beer, wheat/barley malt spiced with coriander and orange peel and aged in oak casks. It is one of the most complex tasting experiences I’ve ever encountered, running through several iterations from sip to swallow. It starts with attention-grabbing tartness, not unlike a lambic or other sour ale, but this quick fades and is replaced with a dry spiciness that mellows as it finishes. On the whole, the perfect way to draw and blend the various flavors of the salad without overpowering and engulfing any of them.
Course 3: Smoky Squash Bisque with Crème Freche and Bacon
For the soup course, I’m going to the safety of a recipe I’ve presented here before, with a small aggressive twist. The soup is a relatively simple combination of butternut squash, mirepoix, chicken stock and chipotle chile. I used bacon at the front end (aromatics sweated in bacon drippings) and the back (rendered bacon as garnish), with the crème freche to smooth the whole experience out and add a bit of needed fat. What results is a warm, hearty and savory soup, with a strong presence of heat from the chiles.
The pairing chosen would seem to be fairly obvious, Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale.
When pairing beer with spicy food, I find it’s best to go with a malty brew that allows the heat to dissipate from your tongue slowly, without short circuiting it entirely. Since capsaicin (the chemical that makes chiles hot) is alcohol soluble, that helps too, although too much and your body actually reacts the wrong way by opening up pores and letting the heat in too far. Okay, maybe some of that is bullshit, but this imperial pumpkin ale works fantastic with the soup. It’s not spiced so much that you can’t even taste the pumpkin, and is high enough alcohol content (around 8%) that it helps with the mouth-burn. Squash notes still very present in the soup tie directly to their cousins in the ale, and everything just…works.
Course 4: Porchetta and Boulangerie Beans with Potatoes and Leeks
The main event, and far and away the most difficult of the dishes to prepare (it should be that way, shouldn’t it?). Porchetta translates from Italian as, roughly, “whole roasted pig,” and this recipe tries to recreate that with boneless pork loin and skin-on pork belly. An earlier test of the dish revealed it to be pretty bland and fatty (fatty, really? The hell, you say.) This was solved quite handily by brining the pork belly for two days before assembling the porchetta, using Fergus Henderson’s recipe . The result was a flavorful and moist (and yes, fatty, but in a good way) roast, accented by the fennel, garlic and orange worked into the roll, surrounded by that awesome, cracking skin.
How about a couple more pictures, huh?
The roast is rustically sliced and served on a bed of boulangerie beans and potatoes, with leeks as a beautiful addition. This is a version of a very classic French peasant dish—basically their version of Boston baked beans in terms of culinary anthropology. And let me say this one thing: I love leeks. Leeks are just the bees’ knees. Leeks are what onions could be if they’d just get off their ass and apply themselves. And leeks with butter could win the Democratic presidential nomination (but not the Republican one…too “elitist,” like arugula).
The pairing here is another one that could be considered obvious, at least from a cultural and geographic consideration: Saison DuPont
Yet another Belgian style (it wasn’t supposed to be the theme, that’s just what fell out), saison is a farmhouse ale, meant to be a table beer served with traditional “home-cooking.” Crossing some national boundaries serving it with an Italian main course, but it fits pretty perfectly. It’s actually cheating a little bit, because saisons will pair well with just about anything savory—heavier stuff like this, but also seafood, salads, you name it. It's also one of my personal favorites. The flavor profile is very complex but not as easy to separate out like our friend the Calabaza served with the salad, which suits the dish well.
Course 5: Dense Chocolate Tort with Salted Caramel Sauce
I will take no credit for the dessert course. My wife, who happily cedes most of the cooking duties to me, takes great pleasure and pride in her desserts, and this one clearly reflects that. The flourless tort is made with Irish butter, two different types of chocolate, and what I can only assume is some sort of black magic. It is a bittersweet dream to behold. The caramel sauce is made with a red sea salt from Hawaii that is one of her little secrets (sorry, babe, but the truth must be told). Oh, and she also likes to do sugar art, as you can see from the photo above. Amazing.
Such an amazing dessert deserves an amazing pairing that won’t total overpower or destroy it. And yes, of course you can drink beer with dessert—stop thinking like a yellow-fizzy. Southern Tier Crème Brulee Imperial Stout was the hands-down favorite.
Chocolate can go well with a lot of stouts and porters, or other malty styles, without much trouble. But this beer, with its creamy texture and burnt-caramel notes, seemed designed specifically for this tort. It’s made with dark caramel malt, real vanilla bean and lactose sugar, producing and incredibly smooth and mouth-heavy stout. Creamy, stable head on top enhances the nose as well. If you could make crème brulee drinkable, this is what you’d end up with.
So that’s the meal. It worked so well that I think I’m going to do it more often, with different themes. Maybe a nice grillout with great summer ales and crisp IPA’s. Or a meal of reconstructed Cincinnati favorites—Skyline, goetta, and Graeter’s anyone?—with the best of the reborn Cincinnati brewing scene for accent?
Anyone have suggestions? And if you want any of the recipes described here, just let me know and I’ll send them your way.