Monday, March 25, 2013

UnRecipe: Beer-Thirty on the Plate

Beer. Fizzy, foamy, wheat-hops-barley-flavored goodness that carried us through our college years and well into adulthood. And while our tastes may have changed over the years, the Cardinal Rule of Beer remains: No Beer Left Behind! This includes leftover beer from a party, maybe a half-full growler full of microbrew goodness from a local brewery -- it's been a couple of days, it's likely gone flat by now, but the College Kegger Spirit within you whispers in that Animal House/John Belushi voice, "Don't disappoint me. And hey... look, I'm a zit!" Party On, dudes and dudettes -- it's beer for dinner!

Chicken and mushroom beer-sala with pasta - CHEERS! - Photo by Wasabi Prime

We cook with wine. We don't think twice about sacrificing a near bottle of vino for braises. Different wines -- red and white alike -- impart herbal, rich flavors as they reduce and infuse the meats and vegetables they're cooked with. Duh. And it's no different with beer. Granted, I'm not talking throwing in a sixer of High Life or PBR with a lovely, organic, free-range chicken you got from the local butcher, but just as there are complex wines, the same can be said for beer. If you're going to use a beer to make a flavorful sauce, you of course go to the stronger beers, such as Scotch Ales, Porters and basically brown ales in general. The toasty caramel/copper color typically comes from the roasting of barley, and that means extra flavor. Porters have a deeper roast -- downright burned -- and those beers tend to be compared with coffee, for its pleasant bitterness.

So we've established that beer is not only a good think to drink, but a fine n' dandy thing to cook with. Typically I throw a bottle of beer into a chili or a stew -- it's just the right amount of flavored liquid to retain the consistency I like and it's better than just throwing in plain water. The beer's flavor isn't that strong in a big pot of stew and less-so in chili, what with all the spices, which is why I pick lighter beers, inexpensive ones, or just leftover stuff that's gone flat but not skunked. To really bring out the flavor of a beer in a sauce, you build everything around the beer. I wound up with some leftover growlers of Scotch Ale over the holidays. The flatness of the beer beat out our ability to finish them, but the brew itself was not stale or skunked. Yet. To the Batcave Kitchen, Robin!!

I love Chicken Marsala. I know, it's such a simple, basic dish, but it's got all the things I love in it: tender, thin paillards of chicken (or veal, or pork, whatever you got), earthy mushrooms, strong herbs like thyme and rosemary, and the sweetness of a reduced Marsala wine sauce. Earthy-Simple-Savory-Sweet. I think that will forever be my default profile, as this has been my default dish for, like, EVER. I made a version of this with the Scotch Ale, which I like to call Chicken Beer-Sala -- I still use Marsala to balance out the beer's hopped smokiness, but the beer adds a robust flavor. The preparation for the dish is fairly standard -- take a chicken breast, pound it flat and lightly coat in flour, salt and pepper. Sear it off with a little butter in a heavy skillet, just until it's browned on both sides. Set the chicken aside on a plate and deglaze the pan with about a cup's worth of the Scotch Ale, and then about a quarter cup of the Marsala. You'll let it reduce for a bit, add in some finely chopped garlic, rosemary and thyme, toss in some sliced mushrooms, and season the sauce with salt and pepper. Before the sauce gets to a finished state, add the chicken back in to let it finish cooking in the sauce and soak up the flavor. My version had an extra kick of flavor -- I added some porcini powder, which sounds exactly what it is: finely ground dried porcinis. You can find it in specialty gourmet shops, or in my case, over at DeLaurenti at Pike Place Market. It's my inexpensive way to upgrade plain white button mushrooms and add an extra earthiness to a dish, if you're big on mushrooms. I tossed my finished Chicken Beer-Sala with spaghetti noodles, but it's just as good served over mashed potatoes or polenta, to help soak up that lovely beer sauce.

Beef and Beer Stroganoff - delicious! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
My other favorite one-pot dish is beef stroganoff, which worked marvelously with the Scotch Ale. I used more of the beer for this sauce, so it had a much more pronounced smoky flavor. I did a quickie version of beef-beer stroganoff, searing a pound's worth of thinly sliced of beef in a heavy cast iron pot, then setting the meat aside, and then throwing in a pound or so of thinly-sliced onions to cook down and caramelize. I deglazed the pot with quite a bit of the beer, mostly to get rid of whatever was left in the growler, so several cup-fuls. I let the beer reduce and I had to push and pull the seasoning, adding a bit of salt and pepper, thyme, and even a little bit of sugar to balance the beer's bitterness, but the caramelized onions help quite a bit. More mushrooms. More porcinin powder for the earthy upgrade. Something to note: I also used some sliced fennel when I was cooking down the onions -- this isn't a requirement, but it's a nice addition since fennel gets quite sweet when it's cooked, plus the fronds make for pretty garnish when you don't have parsley! When the sauce was in the final simmer stage, I added plain low-fat yogurt. You're supposed to use sour cream or just straight-up heavy cream to enrich the sauce, but I have to say unsweetened yogurt is a versatile ingredient. It gives the sauce the slight tang of sour cream, but lightens the guilt of such a rich dish. While not traditional, I was extremely pleased with the result. It made for a hearty, protein-packed meal, which the Mister always appreciates. And no good beer went to waste -- every last drop was used and cherished.

Beer on the table and in the glass - Photos by Wasabi Prime

So, the next time you're stuck with random beers in your fridge after a party, fret-not. Pull out a skillet or heavy stew pot and make up a tasty food that pays homage to the heavenly brewski. And even if you would rather drink the beer -- which you should -- these dishes pair marvelously with a beer. The Mister is certainly looking forward to enjoying some of his hoarded holiday beers, including one of the rare bottles of Russian River that we snagged before they stopped distributing to  Washington!! Cheers, y'all.

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