In food, beer becomes almost sweet

Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)

In Paradise, it is said, the rivers run golden with beer.

Fields of bright green hops bow and sway with the gentle breezes. The inhabitants hoist their steins high, steins that are miraculously ever-filled with ale. Little trays of peanuts and pretzels waft by on clouds.

And the food? Much of the food is made with beer, too.

But cooking with beer is not something that the rest of us — those who live in the Paradise suburbs and beyond — do very often. The reason is simple: Beer is generally bitter.

But there are plenty of ways to work with this bitterness, or work around it, to add a startling amount of depth to a meal, and nearly endless variations of flavor. By using a few simple tricks, you can negate the bitterness and coax the beer to blend harmoniously with the dish.

You can even make beer ice cream.

Simmering: Perhaps the most common method of cooking with beer and exploring new horizons of taste is to simmer tough pieces of meat gently in it for a long time.

Stews and braises

slowly cook off the bitterness while retaining the essential flavor of the beer. At the same time, much like wine, it also enhances the more appealing aspects the meat.

The best-known example of a beer stew is Carbonnades a la Flamande, which was brought to this country almost single-handedly by Julia Child. It is a beef stew, heady with onions and the floral scent of Belgian beer. For many Americans it represented the first time they saw that beer, when

treated in a specific way, can almost become sweet.

It is such a standard dish, and so well known, that I chose not to make it. But I made something similar, Old-Style Chunky Beef and Beer Stew With Onions, Peppers and Tomatoes.

Granted, the name is not the best. But the dish itself is sublime, a subtle mixture of thoughtfully prepared ingredients that blend irresistibly into a vibrant whole.

It has beef, obviously, cubes of chuck, that are simmered in a dark beer. The onions, peppers and tomatoes listed in the title add more sweetness than bite, with a single tablespoon of brown sugar to fully overcome the lingering bitterness. The other ingredients — thyme, bay leaves, cloves, garlic — only add their aromatic magic.

Braising: Next, I used beer to make a braise. A braise is very much like a stew, except the meat is not entirely submerged in the liquid; the beer only goes partly up the side of the meat.

In this case, the meat was turkey and the dish was Beer-Braised Turkey Tacos. The beer was Negra Modelo, a dark brew from Mexico.

You begin with dark meat, both for flavor and its ability to stand up to braising. Turkey drumsticks or thighs (I used drumsticks) are browned and then cooked in a mixture of beer, water, onions, garlic, oregano and tomato.

Three extra ingredients make all the difference: a hot jalapeno pepper, a mild and flavorful ancho pepper (it’s the dried version of a poblano) and a stick of cinnamon. The peppers and cinnamon create a warmth, rather than a heat, that suffuses the meat and sauce and brings it all to life.

Be sure to serve it on corn tortillas. The corn is a perfect foil for the still-assertive flavor of turkey that has been tempered by its extraordinary sauce.

Bread: Next, I made a loaf of bread. Bread is an obvious example of cooking with beer because, when you think about it, beer is basically just liquid bread.

I have made beer bread several different ways in the past, but my favorite is the way they used to make it at the famous Berghoff restaurant in Chicago. Depending on the type of beer or ale you use, you can make the beer flavor of the bread strong or mild, according to your taste.

My taste is for it to be mild. I like a hint of beeriness to the bread, not an overwhelming dose, so I used a Pilsner in my version. Stronger ales lead to a loaf that tastes like chewy beer, not beer-kissed bread.

Either way, it is phenomenal toasted or just with butter. It makes a great bread for meat sandwiches, too. But jam? You’re better off spreading that on a different loaf of bread.

Dessert: I could not end my adventures in beer-based cooking without dessert. I made Guinness Ice Cream with Chocolate-Covered Pretzels.

Some ice cream parlors I could name serve Guinness ice cream that does not actually have any Guinness in it. They simply make a caramel flavor and slap the Guinness name on it to cash in on the cachet.

But true Guinness ice cream is made with actual Guinness stout. And it tastes like it; you get a definite sense of ice cream that has been made with Guinness. And for all the descriptions of Guinness being creamy, it still is a little bit bitter.

It is a pleasant ice cream, but not much more than that — until you add the chocolate-covered pretzels. The salt, the crunch, the sweetness of the chocolate, these all take the Guinness ice cream into the stratosphere.

It’s one of those rare, perfect combinations. But then, beer always did go well with pretzels.

Beer-braised Turkey Tacos

Yield: 12 tacos

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2 (1-pound) bone-in turkey thighs or drumsticks, skin and fat removed

Salt and pepper

4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 medium white onion, cut into 1-inch dice, plus minced white onion for serving

1 large oregano sprig

1 large jalapeno, stemmed, seeded and sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick

1 medium tomato, coarsely chopped

1 ancho chile, stemmed, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 cinnamon stick

12 ounces Mexican dark beer, such as Negra Modelo

1 cup water

12 corn tortillas

2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted

Cilantro sprigs

In a Dutch oven or large pot, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Season the turkey with salt and pepper and cook over moderately high heat until richly browned all over, about 8 minutes. Transfer the turkey to a plate.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the pot, along with the garlic, diced onion, oregano and jalapeno, and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened, about 8 minutes. Add the tomato, ancho and cinnamon stick and cook, stirring, until the tomato releases its juices.

Return the turkey to the pot, add the beer and water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat, turning once, until the turkey thighs are tender, about 1 hour. Transfer the turkey to a plate and let cool. Discard the oregano sprig and cinnamon stick and boil the sauce over high heat until reduced and thick, about 12 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Wrap tortillas in foil and bake about 8 minutes, until softened and heated through. Meanwhile, remove the turkey meat from the bone and shred it. Transfer the sauce to a food processor and puree. Return the sauce to the pot and stir in the shredded turkey. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon the turkey onto the tortillas. Top with minced onion, sesame seeds and cilantro sprigs, and serve.

Per serving: 173 calories; 6 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 44 mg cholesterol; 12 g protein; 17 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 11 mg sodium; 52 mg calcium.

Recipe by Deborah Schneider in Food & Wine.

Berghoff Beer Bread

Yield: 16 servings

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading

11/2 cups whole-wheat flour

1 (1/4-ounce) package rapid-rising active dry yeast

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

1 (12-ounce) beer of your choice, see note

2 tablespoons canola oil, plus extra for bowl and pan

Note: Lighter beers, such as Pilsners and lagers, will create a milder flavor. Heavier beers, such as red ales or dark beers, will make a heartier bread.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, place the all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, yeast, salt and brown sugar. Mix on low speed. Add the beer and oil, and mix on low to form a cohesive dough. Turn off the mixer, scrape down the paddle and replace with the dough hook. Knead the dough on low for 10 minutes, adding all-purpose flour as necessary by the tablespoon for desired consistency. The dough should leave the sides of the bowl and cling to the dough hook. (This can also all be done by hand — mix dry ingredients with a whisk, stir in the liquid ingredients with a sturdy spoon and knead by hand).

Turn out the dough onto a surface lightly dusted with all-purpose flour, and knead to shape into a ball. Lightly oil a large bowl. Put in the dough, turning once so the oiled side is on top. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, 11/4 hours to 11/2 hours.

Turn out dough on a surface lightly dusted with all-purpose flour, and knead to remove any air pockets. Shape into an oblong loaf and place in an oiled 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Cover with a lint-free, clean kitchen towel that has been wetted and wrung almost dry. Let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.

While the loaf is rising the second time, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Bake 40 minutes, until the top is browned. Transfer from the pan to a wire rack. Do not slice until completely cool.

Per serving: 162 calories; 2 g fat; 0 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 4 g protein; 30 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 11 mg sodium; 294 mg calcium.

Recipe from “The Berghoff Family Cookbook,” by Carlyn Berghoff and Jan Berghoff, with Nancy Ross Ryan.

Guinness Ice Cream With Chocolate-covered Pretzels

Yield: 8 servings

2 cups Guinness beer

2 cups heavy cream

13/4 cups whole milk

15 large egg yolks

1 cup granulated sugar

Chocolate-covered pretzels, for serving

In a large saucepan, combine the Guinness with the cream and milk and bring to a simmer over moderately high heat. In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar. Gradually add the hot Guinness cream to the yolks, whisking constantly until well-blended.

Pour the mixture into the saucepan and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly until it coats the back of a spoon, about 6 minutes; do not let it boil. Pour the custard into a medium bowl set in a large bowl filled with ice water. Let stand until the custard is cold, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

Pour the custard into an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions (this may have to be done in 2 batches). Pack the ice cream into an airtight container and freeze until firm, about 4 hours.

Serve with chocolate-covered pretzels.

Per serving (not including pretzels): 462 calories; 32 g fat; 18 g saturated fat; 419 mg cholesterol; 9 g protein; 33 g carbohydrate; 30 g sugar; no fiber; 141 mg sodium; 60 mg calcium.

Recipe by Cory Barrett, in Food & Wine.

Old-style Chunky Beef and Beer Stew With Onions, Peppers and Tomatoes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

3 tablespoons vegetable oil, or more if needed

3 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 2-inch cubes

Salt and pepper

2 large onions, peeled and diced small

3 red bell peppers (or a mix of red and green), cored, seeded and diced large

3 tablespoons minced garlic

11/2 cups beef stock

16 ounces dark beer, or more if needed

2 cups whole canned tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

2 teaspoons dried thyme

1 bay leaf

2 whole cloves, crushed

In a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot with a lid, heat the oil over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking. Dry the meat well with paper towels and sprinkle it generously with salt and pepper. Place meat in the pot in a single layer, in batches if necessary to avoid crowding, and brown well on all sides, about 10 minutes total. Transfer the pieces to a platter as they are done.

Pour off the fat or add oil to the pot as needed so you have a total of about 2 tablespoons in the pot. Add the onions and bell peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, 7 to 9 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Return the meat to the pot along with any juices that have accumulated on the platter, then add the stock, beer, tomatoes, brown sugar, thyme, bay leaf and cloves, and stir well to combine. (If the ingredients are not completely covered, add enough extra beer to cover them.) Bring to a simmer over medium heat and skim any scum off the top of the liquid. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently until the meat is fork-tender, 11/2 to 2 hours. When the stew is done, skim any scum from the top of the liquid.

Per serving (based on 8): 363 calories; 17 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 116 mg cholesterol; 36 g protein; 14 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 53 mg sodium; 294 mg calcium.

Recipe adapted from “How to Cook Meat,” by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby.