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Flash in the Pan

Preparing and pairing food with beer

—Ari LeVaux
When food and drink cross paths, wine is usually in the mix, either as an ingredient in the meal or as a beverage with which to pair it. We like to think of wine and food as equal partners in a deep and meaningful culinary conversation.

Beer, on the other hand, doesn’t share wine’s air of refinement, and the food with which it is customarily eaten is more often chosen for its sponging properties than for its pairing possibilities.  

This perception seems to be changing. The Internet has become flooded with beer-based recipes and beer/food recommendations, and many big city restaurants have hired beer sommeliers to assist customers in ordering complementary suds.

Some brew enthusiasts go so far as to claim that beer is more food friendly than wine, because while winemakers have only grapes to work with, brewers have bitter hops, sweet barley, bready yeast, spices, nuts, fruit, chocolate, pumpkin, licorice, orange peel—basically anything at their disposal. Such extravagance opens the door to more complex and nuanced pairings than wine’s color-coded rules of thumb, like red wine with red meat or white wine with white flesh.

Even so, a parallel is often drawn between lagers and white wines and between ales and red wines, allowing for a simple transfer of those paint-by-color rules into the realm of beer pairings.

This is where I draw the line. The number one rule in food and beverage pairing is that both food and drink should taste better as a result of the combination, and I don’t think there’s a beer in existence that will coax more flavor out of a steak than a cheap glass of red. And no beer, however sweet, will beat a good dessert wine alongside your lemon meringue pie. Beer with your cheese? No thank you please, not unless that cheese is cooked into beer friendly food like pizza, chile rellenos, or a burger.

Instead of using some pat formula to translate the rules of wine pairing to beer, back up and start with this simple question: Which category of beverage is best paired with which particular food? Some foods go better with wine, others with beer.

Foods that are greasy, salty, or spicy are particularly well suited to beer, as are foods cooked with beer—I’ll get to some of those in a moment. Spicy foods go well with hoppy beers, like India pale ales, if you want to emphasize the spice. On the other hand, if you’re afraid of spicy heat, you might want to smother it with a sweet, thick porter. Carbonation cuts grease, so heavily carbonated beer goes well with pizza. There’s also a case to be made for pairing beers with foods made from similar ingredients, so wheat beers make sense with bread-based fare like sandwiches.

But none of these suggestions are carved in stone. The bottom line is that beer drinkers are often particular in their preferences, and they’re not likely to switch beers based on what’s on their plates.

That’s why I believe cooking with beer deserves more attention then pairing particular foods with it.

A good beer batter can be magical. Just ask a college date of mine after she ate some chicken that I’d let marinate overnight in beer batter before deep-frying it. That meal got me a lot further than I probably deserved.

These days, halibut is my beer-battered protein of choice, and I use a recipe I pried from the proprietor of the Cooper Landing Roadhouse in southern Alaska.

Batter: 1 cup Krusteaz pancake mix, ½ cup amber beer, two pinches dried dill, one pinch seasoned salt.

Cut halibut into 1½-inch pieces. Dip them in the batter, and roll them in Japanese panko flakes. Place the battered pieces on wax paper so they don’t touch each other and freeze. When frozen, put them in a plastic bag, and keep frozen until ready for use.

To cook, immerse the frozen chunks of fish in hot grape seed or safflower oil. This halibut, with hot sauce and tartar sauce, needs beer like fries need catsup.

Another worthy beer-based recipe is that most delicately named of tailgating delicacies: “beer-butt chicken.”

Mix 1 T paprika, 2 t chili powder, 1 t oregano, 1 t salt, 1 t black pepper, 1/4 t cayenne powder, 1 T garlic powder, and 2 T brown sugar. At both openings of the bird, gently slide your hand in between the skin and the flesh, and carefully separate—but don’t remove—the skin from the flesh all around the chicken. Rub the spice mixture onto the flesh beneath the loose skin.

When the grill is hot, open a can of beer. Drink half, and add chopped garlic and onions to the rest. Place the can upright on the grill. Lower the chicken so the can enters the body cavity. In other words, shove the beer can up the chicken’s butt. Cover and cook until the wings hang loose.

Of course, no discussion of beer and food would be complete without mention of Wisconsin’s customary tribal pairing: beer and bratwurst. In principle, the brats are bathed in warm beer, often with chopped onion, garlic, and black pepper. This adds moisture and flavor to the brats.

I’m willing to wade only so deep into this topic, in deference to the great schism in the ‘Sconie beer-brat community—those who precook their brats in warm beer (not boiling, not even simmering, except for the occasional lazy bubble) before grilling versus those who bathe their brats in warm beer after grilling.

Each camp has reams of documentation and anecdotal evidence supporting its method as the one true way to prepare beer brats, and the battle lines are completely redrawn with regard to the sticky question of whether the beer must be Old Milwaukee.

But at the risk of being pelted to death with cheese curds, I’ll admit that, much to my surprise, in a side-by-side taste test, I preferred brats that were beer bathed after grilling. And my favorite beer for this procedure—and for drinking with the finished product—was a microbrew pilsner.

Between the beer bath, the beer batter, and the beer butt, you now have plenty of justifications to drink beer with your meal. And if none of these appeal to you, you can always start by putting on a pair of beer goggles, which will make almost anything palatable. Just ask that beer-buttered date of mine from college.

Dear Flash,

What is agave nectar? Is it better for you than sugar? My mom uses it in her coffee because she thinks it is, but it tastes like corn syrup to me. —I Can’t Believe It’s Not Corn Syrup

A: There are two kinds of agave nectar—the ancient sweetener that’s made by collecting agave sap and boiling it down into a sweet syrup, and the modern, commercially available sweetener that your mom is pouring into her coffee, which is made by a process that’s disturbingly similar to the way high fructose corn syrup is made.

While the labels on commercially available agave syrup often imply that their product is made the way Mexican desert Indians did it, it’s unlikely that these noble ancients had the technology to extract a starch called inulin from the pulp of agave plants and then hydrolyze the inulin via a process closely related to how oil is turned into margarine. Another stumbling block for the ancient hunter-gatherers would have been coming up with a way to convert hydrolyzed inulin into a syrup that’s 70 percent fructose. By comparison, the high fructose corn syrup in soft drinks is 55 percent fructose.

The process of converting hydrolyzed inulin to high fructose agave syrup, aka agave nectar, involves treatment with caustic acids, clarifiers, filtration chemicals, and genetically modified enzymes.  

I was just as surprised to learn this as you and your mom probably will be, but you can read the patent for the process yourself at http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/5846333/fulltext.html.

And for a full discussion of the startling similarities between high fructose corn syrup and commercial grade agave nectar, check out this article commissioned by the Weston A. Price Foundation: http://www.westonaprice.org/Agave-Nectar-Worse-Than-We-Thought.html.

With agave nectar revealed as yet another misleading food fad, good old sugar looks better and better. Especially the minimally processed kind, which is little more than evaporated cane juice.

 

     

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