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Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009 03:22 pm

Pairing beer with food

Locals taste IPA beer at the Goose Island Clybourn Brew Pub in Chicago.

It’s one of the oldest beverages in the world — almost certainly the oldest alcoholic beverage. There are references to it in some of the earliest writings discovered in ancient Sumeria and Mesopotamia. In its modern forms it has a range of flavors and complexities that can match and often exceed wine. So why is it that beer, to quote comedian Rodney Dangerfield, “don’t get no respect?”

Says beer authority Michael Jackson [no relation to the singer]: “Wine and beer are companions of honor: the world’s two great fermented drinks, derived from grape and grain respectively. Thus conjoined by the force of language, they are too often rent asunder by social snobbery.” He’s right; there can be a degree of snobbery associated with wine that looks down on beer as “common or lowbrow.” How did that come to be?

In the U.S., at least, it may have been because beer was commonplace. Beer was fresh, made locally, and even in small cities such as Springfield, there was often more than one brewery. Wine — other than homemade or commercial plonk — was more exotic, for special occasions.

During the last half of the 20th century, beer became even more commonplace as local breweries folded one after another, drowned by a tidal wave of mega-breweries whose oceans of bland, characterless beers were (and are) barely distinguishable from each other.

All that sameness, however, gave birth to rebellion. At first there were a just few upstart microbreweries — San Franciso’s Anchor Steam on the West Coast, and Boston’s Sam Adams in the East. Today there are hundreds of breweries (and brewpubs) all over the U.S., including Two Brothers and Goose Island in Illinois, and Schlafly and Boulevard in Missouri, who are making beers that range from the lightest summer wheat-based beers meant to be served with a lemon wedge, to fuller-flavored beers, including smoked stouts and porters, that can stand up to and compliment the heartiest winter dishes and everything in between. Americans also began discovering beers from outside the U.S., including rice-based brews from Japan and Asia and the astonishing array of European beers.

Springfield beer enthusiast Kevin Brown wants to promote craft beers and show locals how well fine food and beer compliment each other. Actually, Brown isn’t just an enthusiast: he’s the Great Lakes regional editor and Illinois columnist for The Ale Street News, the largest beer-based paper in the U.S.

Brown has teamed up with Charles and Limey’s chef Peter Munds to create a menu that’s luxurious, yet familiar, for a special four-course dinner on Jan. 11. Brown will match each course with appropriate beers. The menu begins with imported cheeses and meats, as well as hot hors d’oeuvres. Next comes either beer/cheese soup or a salad of organic greens, candied walnuts and an ale vinaigrette. The main course is either roasted prime rib of beef and Yorkshire pudding, or beer-battered cod with homemade blue cheese potato chips. Dessert will be a trio of chocolates: chocolate pyramid, white chocolate sin cake and chocolate stout pudding.

Cost for the beer dinner is $45 and covers all food, beer, tax and gratuities. Call Charles and Limey’s at 522-6300 for reservations or more information.

Contact Juilianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com

Pairing beer with food doesn’t necessarily mean that the food has to be made with beer — it’s about choosing beers and foods that compliment each other. But beer has many uses in cooking, from making batters for frying, to soups, to sauces, and even desserts, such as cakes and ice cream made with stout.

Cookbook author and food authority David Rosengarten has called Carbonnades Flammandes, one of Belgium’s signature dishes, the best beef stew in the world. Being dubious about hyperbole, especially regarding food (after all, one person’s treasured caviar is another’s disgusting fish eggs), I’d like to argue that with him. But, admittedly, I can’t think of another beef stew that tops this one. As with all iconic dishes, there are as many recipes for Carbonnades Flammandes as there are cooks who make it. All contain onions, and beer is essential. However prunes, though common, aren’t always part of the mix. Using them, though, gives the stew a unique unctuousness and depth of flavor while adding the merest breath of sweetness that’s countered by the malt vinegar. I almost always double this recipe so I can freeze some for quick midwinter midweek meals.

Belgian Beef Stew with Beer

3 lb. beef chuck, or other beef for braising,

such as short ribs
1 T. salt, plus additional if needed
4 oz. thick-cut or slab bacon, diced, plus

extra bacon fat or vegetable oil if needed.
4 c. thinly sliced onions, NOT super-sweet
4 cloves
3 bay leaves
A handful of parsley sprigs,

preferably flat-leafed
1 tsp. dried thyme leaves (NOT ground)
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper, or to taste
3 c. amber or dark beer, preferably Belgian

or Belgian style (2 12 oz. bottles)
1 c. beef stock, or other stock such as chicken

or vegetable (homemade or low sodium)
3/4 c. pitted prunes, halved if large
2 T. malt vinegar, or to taste

Trim the beef of excess fat and cut into large chunks. Sprinkle with salt and toss to distribute it. Set aside for an hour or more. (Refrigerate if letting stand for more than an hour.)

In a large heavy pot with a close-fitting lid, fry the diced bacon over medium high heat until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and pour off all but about 1 T. of the fat, reserving the rest.

Place the pot over high to medium-high heat, depending on your stove. Sear the chunks in a single layer until they are dark brown on all sides. DO NOT CROWD THE PAN — do this in batches. Set the meat aside when browned, adding a little more fat to the pot before putting in a new layer of the chunks.

When all the beef is browned, drain off all but about a tablespoon of fat. Return the pot to high/medium-high heat and add the onions, thyme, and pepper. Stir to combine the onions with the fat and cover the pan. Let the onions “sweat,” stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until they’re translucent.

Uncover the pot, reduce heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are caramelized and deep brown, 30 minutes or longer.

Meanwhile, stem the parsley, setting the leaves aside. Chop the stems and put them, the cloves and bay leaves in a mesh ball or tie them all together in a square of old (clean!) white t-shirt. Put the herb/spice bundle in the pot along with the beer, stock, prunes and vinegar. Add the beef. It should be almost completely submerged.

Bring the pot to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for an hour, gently stirring occasionally. At this point, if the liquid is reducing too rapidly, cover the pot. The liquid will be reducing, but the meat should also be shrinking, so the level of liquid in proportion to the meat should always be slightly — but not too much — lower than the meat. Continue cooking, checking the liquid level and occasionally stirring (gently so as not to break up the meat) for another 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the meat is fork tender.

Remove from the heat, remove the herb/spice bag, and let stand for ½ hour. Skim off the fat that has risen to the top. Alternatively, cool down rapidly, then refrigerate overnight and remove the hardened fat. (As with all braised dishes, Carbonnades Flammandes is even better the next day, and it’s much easier to remove the excess fat. Leftovers freeze very well.)

Gently reheat. Adjust the seasonings, adding more salt, pepper, or vinegar if desired. Serve by itself or over mashed potatoes or noodles, sprinkled with the reserved parsley.

Serves 6 generously.

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