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Cook with beer for rich vegetarian dishes

Zak Stambor
Chicago Tribune

Vegetarian food gets a bum rap.

Even as vegetable-centric restaurants have shone a new light on cooking without meat or seafood at the center of a dish, too often vegetarian home cooking gets reduced to drab faux meats or boring veggie burgers.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Vegetarian foods can be protein-rich and tasty. They can even be interesting. And they don’t even have to be hard to cook. So what’s the secret? Beer!

After all, beer makes everything better, right?

This isn’t a revelation. Beer has long been used to bring depth to simple recipes — think beer-battered fish, beer-steamed mussels, beer-simmered brats. The common thread among those dishes is that they leave vegetarians on the sidelines.

Yet many of the very elements that make beer a tasty addition to a fish or meat dish can do the same for vegetarian proteins such as beans or tofu.

Let’s start with beans. I get it, beans seem dull (although they aren’t if you know how to cook them. Try cooking them with herbs and/or aromatics in the oven — the recipe is below). But using beer to glaze beans gives them a new dimension that makes them a delicious filling in a taco or burrito, or served atop corncakes for breakfast.

Beer can also act as the base for a delicious batter to coat tofu that, when fried, makes for a vegetarian-friendly take on Baja-style beer-battered fish tacos.

But before you get started, remember the adage: Don’t cook with wine you don’t want to drink. It holds true with beer too. Trust me, I’ve tried. But remember: If the beer doesn’t taste good (I’m looking at you gluten-free beer that will go unnamed), it won’t make for a good meal.

Beer-glazed Beans

I like to use a malty beer, such as a stout or porter, but any beer will do.

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: About 31/2 cups, 4 servings

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 small to medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon chile powder

3 cups cooked beans, see recipe

1 cup corn, fresh or frozen

3/4 cup cherry tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup beer

1 tablespoon honey

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat; add onion. Cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and chile powder; cook, 1 minute.

Stir in the beans, corn, tomatoes and salt. Pour in the beer and increase the heat so the beer is bubbling. Add honey. Cook until the liquid has thickened.

Serve in a burrito or taco, or atop corncakes for a delicious hearty breakfast.

For oven-cooked dried beans (without soaking)

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Sort and rinse 1 pound dried beans, such as pinto or cranberry. Place them in a Dutch oven or another oven-safe pot. Cover with 11/2 inches water. Add 2 cloves garlic, crushed, 1 bay leaf, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. (Feel free to substitute any other herbs or aromatics you like for the garlic, bay leaf and oregano.) Stir, cover and transfer to the oven; cook until beans are softened, at least 1 hour, 15 minutes.

Beer-battered Tofu Tacos

For the beer, something light- or medium-bodied is best.

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: 6 tacos

14 ounces extra firm tofu

1 cup beer

1 cup flour

1 tablespoon coriander

Pinch of salt

Canola oil

6 corn or flour tortillas

Granishes: Shredded cabbage, chopped cilantro, chopped avocado, queso fresco, tomatillo salsa and lime wedges

Remove the tofu from the packaging; wrap it in a dishcloth. Place wrapped tofu in a colandar in the sink; weight with something heavy, such as cookbooks. Allow to rest and drain, at least 30 minutes. Once the tofu has been pressed, cut it into 1/2- to 1-inch squares.

Meanwhile, whisk the beer, flour, coriander and salt in a bowl until a batter comes together.

Heat a skillet with a 1/2 inch of vegetable oil over medium-high. Once the oil is hot, dip tofu, in batches, into the batter, then fry in the oil. Once one side has cooked, turn the tofu with a fork. Fry to cook the other side; transfer to paper towels to drain. Season with salt. Repeat to cook remaining tofu.

Serve in warmed tortillas with the cabbage, cilantro, avocado, queso fresco and tomatillo salsa. Pass lime wedges for spritzing over the filling.