Beer & Food Pairings

Cooking with Beer by | Jun 2008 | Issue #17
Illustration by John Bogan

When pairing beer with food, a chef has two choices: compare (complement the flavors on the plate with a beverage that possesses similar characteristics) or contrast (counterbalance the flavors, e.g., pair sweet with sour). What makes a good food and beer pairing? I believe it is when a carefully chosen beer and a meticulously crafted dish blend in a taster’s mouth to create a harmonious blend of flavors.

Along these lines, here are some pairing techniques with a selection of dishes from a menu I designed and cooked for the Belgian beer dinner David Keene, owner of Toronado bar in San Francisco’s Lower Haight district, hosts every year.

Pairing Basics:
First, decide what is in your cellar that you want to share with your guests. Next, choose what direction you want to take the pairing. Do you want to compare or contrast the dish with the beverage? Or you could do both for each course throughout your menu.

What is fresh and in season? When I created this menu, hop shoots were just starting to break the earth’s crust.

“It’s about time hop shoots were discovered on this continent,” explains Brian Hunt, brewer and owner of Moonlight Brewery and Hop Farm. “Just like beer, hop shoots are delicious both by themselves and in food pairings! How could one go wrong with the flavor of hops in a vehicle you eat like asparagus?” The shoots below were paired with a Delirium Tremens sabayon sauce, highlighting the spicy characters of the tender vines with the clove, white pepper and sweet finish of the beer.

Designing the Menu:
Think about how the flavors of the first course will affect those of the second course and so forth. Start with beers that are not over the top in alcohol or flavor. Think attenuated beers earlier in the meal, finishing with sweeter and more intense beers that can overcome a fatigued palate. Remember, the more courses you have, the smaller your portion size will be per serving.

After tasting some cheeses flown in from Belgium (which were paired with Beatification-pickled pearl onions and radishes), the guests’ palates were full of fat and fromage goodness. With these contrasting flavors, fatigue on the taste buds became an issue. By serving a slightly sour sorbet made with Cantillon Saint Lamvinus, the cold and acidic qualities helped to revitalize their palates, preparing them for the next course.

The Beer:
When pairing, identify the flavors that you want to showcase and from where they are derived (i.e., malt, hops or yeast/fermentation). Are there lots of fruity esters? If so, try adding some cherries, dried figs, dates or dried apricots to the dish. Or are there hints of spicy phenolics? Then adjust the seasoning with some cinnamon, clove or light chili heat to bring out those flavors. Is the beer hoppy in a floral or citric sense? Is it dank and oniony? If either are the case, add a touch of lemon or orange peel or juice. Is the beer malty and roasty? Think heavier flavors like lamb and beef or vegetables like butternut squash and caramelized onions.

Duck Braised in Hanssens Oude Kriek
On a bed of celery root potato purée and milk-poached white asparagus

“This was my favorite dish of the evening, if I had to pick just one,” reflects David Keene. “My favorite pairing was the Duchesse and the duck.” (See the pairing notes below.) The earthy flavors of the celery root and white asparagus added extra zest to the whole course, contrasting the sweet and sour of the cherries and the sumptuous duck. This course shows that a fruit beer doesn’t just belong in a dessert pairing.

Makes: 8 servings

Braised Duck Ingredients:
1/2 cup sea salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
8 each duck legs
8 oz dried Montmorency cherries
750 mL Hanssens Oude Kriek
2 cups leeks (light green and white part only), cleaned
4 each shallots, peeled and chopped
1 bunch thyme, minced
2 cups sour cherries, pitted and in light syrup
3-4 cups duck or chicken stock, preferably homemade

In a small bowl, mix together salt, cinnamon, sugar and freshly grated nutmeg. Rinse the legs under cold water to remove the backbone and any excess fat or remaining feather quills. Pat dry with a paper towel. Using a sharp knife, score the skin (not the meat) in long slats across the leg and thigh. Season with the cinnamon salt on both sides, rubbing the salt into the scored skin. Place into a nonreactive container and refrigerate for 24 hours. This will help fully season the legs and also cure them, removing some of the liquid in the meat and intensifying the duck flavor. Remove the legs from the container, rinsing well under cold water and pat dry.

In another container, add dried cherries and cover with the Kriek, leaving any dregs behind. Seal the container and let cherries rehydrate for 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a large Dutch oven, add enough legs, skin side down, to cover the bottom of the pan without crowding them. Turn heat to medium, allowing the pan to come to temperature slowly, melting the fat in the legs. Brown the legs for 10 minutes; you’re looking for a medium golden color on the skin side. Flip legs over and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove legs to a large plate and repeat as necessary until all of the legs are seared.

Once all legs have been seared, pour off all but 1/2 cup of the duck fat (save the remaining liquid for another use; it’s liquid gold in the kitchen) to the pan, adding the leeks and cooking over medium heat for 5 minutes to sweat them. Next, add the shallots and cook them for 3 minutes or until translucent. Add the thyme and bay leaves, stirring to combine. Deglaze with the Kriek-soaked cherries, removing any fond from the pan with a wooden spoon. Add the pitted cherries (remove the syrup but save it to add later if sweetness is needed) and duck stock. Place the browned legs back in the pot, checking the level of liquid (the legs should be mostly submerged in the Kriek stock mixture). If not, add enough stock to almost cover the legs. Season with any remaining cinnamon salt and black pepper. Cover the pot with a lid and place it in the center of the oven, cooking for 1 hour, 45 minutes-2 hours. The legs are done when you can grab a bone, lightly twist it and the meat releases from the bone with little effort.  Remove pot from the oven, carefully taking the legs out of the braising liquid and placing them into a side dish, (which has been kept warm in the oven). Place the pan over high heat and reduce the liquid by half, for about 8 minutes.

Celery Root Potato Purée Ingredients:
2 each celery root, peeled and cubed
6 each russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1/2 cup butter, unsalted, melted
kosher salt and white pepper to taste

In a large pot over medium heat, add the cubed celery root and potatoes. Top off with enough cold water to cover the root vegetables by an inch or so, seasoning the water with salt to taste. Bring to a boil and cook for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes and celery root are fork tender. Drain into a colander.

Using a potato ricer or spaetzle machine, press the potatoes and celery root into a bowl, creating a fine purée. If you do not have either device, a potato masher or fork will also work, resulting in a chunkier final product. Stir in the melted butter and season with salt and pepper. Keep warm until ready to serve.

Milk-poached White Asparagus Ingredients:
4 cups whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp sea salt
18 each white asparagus spears

Place milk, sugar and salt into a sauté pan and bring to a simmer over medium low heat. Prep the asparagus by removing the bottom 1 1/2 inches, as it can be fibrous. Add the asparagus to the milk and cook for 4-5 minutes. Toss periodically to cook evenly. Taste one to make sure it is fully cooked, but not overdone: They should still have a tiny crunch to them. The milk and sugar will help bring out the nice earthiness that is characteristic of asparagus. Remove from the poaching liquid and keep warm while plating.

To Plate:
To the side of the plate, add a generous scoop of the celery root potato puree. Place a duck leg with the foot end pointing up. Add an asparagus spear to each side of the leg and drizzle with the reduced sauce. Garnish with fresh chervil or fennel fronds.

Pairing Notes:
To stand up to the duck’s richness, David and I paired Russian River Brewing Co.’s Toronado 20th Anniversary beer, Duchesse De Bourgogne. To highlight the cherry flavors, the slight sour edge from the Kriek and the intense duck stock, we paired St. Bernardus Christmas Ale as well. The Toronado 20th has just a hint of cinnamon in the finish, so I created a cinnamon salt to cure the legs, which brings that element forward for a better pairing. The sourness also helped to create equilibrium on the palate. The Duchesse brought out the raspberry, cherry and grape essences in the Kriek but balanced out the residual acid of the Kriek with its sweetness, helping to also cut the richness of the sauce. And the Christmas Ale was more in the middle of the three beers, bringing a malty sweetness but balancing that with the spicy notes of nutmeg and cinnamon, touching on the hints of cherry pits, which have an almond finish.

Rodenbach Grand Cru Panna Cotta
Drizzled with Drie Fonteinen Schaerbeekse Kriek syrup and fresh raspberries

The beauty of this dessert is how it plays with the flavors of the Flanders Red, heightening the flavors of the beer by using a Kriek syrup with its hints of tart cherries, almonds, vanilla and lactic finish to help cut the dairy in the dish. Due to the acetic sourness of the Rodenbach, cream is used instead of milk to prevent curdling.

Makes 8 4-ounce servings

Panna Cotta Ingredients:
1 envelope unflavored gelatin powder (about 1 tbsp)
2 tbsp Rodenbach Grand Cru or Flemish Red Ale
2 cups heavy whipping cream, organic
1 cup Rodenbach Grand Cru
1/2 cup sugar, organic
1 each vanilla bean, Tahitian, split lengthwise
1/4 tsp kosher salt
8 each ramekins or coffee/tea cups
1 pt fresh raspberries

In a small saucepan, add 2 tbsp of the Rodenbach, dust the surface with gelatin and let rehydrate for about 1 minute to soften. Place pan over low heat until gelatin dissolves and then remove pan from heat.

In a large saucepan, bring cream, Rodenbach (the remaining ale from the bottle, leaving any sediment behind), sugar, vanilla bean and salt to a boil over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally. Remove pan from heat once a boil has been reached and stir in gelatin mixture. Divide cream mixture among eight 1/2-cup ramekins and cool to room temperature. Chill ramekins, covered, for at least 4 hours or overnight. Panna cotta can be made two days in advance.

Kriek Syrup Ingredients:
375 mL Drie Fonteinen Schaerbeekse Kriek or other cherry Lambic
1 cup sugar, organic

In a medium saucepan, add half of the Kriek and 3/4 of the sugar, placing over medium heat. Bring mixture to a boil for 1 minute, dissolving the sugar. Taste the syrup to see if more sugar is needed. A balance of sweet and tart acid is the desired end result. Remove from heat and cool mixture to room temperature. Now, add the remaining beer, leaving any sediment behind. Adding the second half of the beer after the first half has been cooked will help preserve the flavors of the ale and not cook off the alcohol, nor change the resulting flavor of the final syrup.

Place the syrup into a squeeze bottle or container and refrigerate until ready to use. Syrup can be made two days in advance and will hold for five days if stored cold.

To Plate:
Run a thin, warm pairing knife around edge of each ramekin and invert ramekin onto center of a small plate, preferably black. Next garnish with fresh raspberries and drizzle the Kriek syrup over the top of the panna cotta.

Pairing Notes:
Selecting beers to serve with this dessert was tricky. I had to balance the vinegar component of the Flanders Red Ale with the cream and light sweetness of the panna cotta. David pulled 26 bottles of Westvleteren 12 for the first pairing. The richness of this Trappist Ale with its hints of dried fruits (plum, cherry, fig and date) played up the fruit flavors in the dessert. At the same time, the creamy residual tartness from the Flanders Red and Kriek was counterpoised by the honey and toffee/caramel finish in the Westvleteren. Next was Bacchus, another Flanders Red style; however, this selection was as tart as the Rodenbach. Again, it reinforced the flavors of the dish but adds a slight twist, as it is a different beer in the same style. To finish this tasting, a Malhuer Brut Noir was popped open. This “Champagne beer” brought lots of carbonation to help scrub the palate clean, bringing notes of chocolate, molasses, light apricot and cherries rounded out with some yeasty spiciness to the tongue. Each beer bought a different element to the dessert: sweet, sour and a touch of spice.