Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Today's column: Keeping warm with bubbling beer

(Recipes coming soon, btw. -Ben)

With the mercury plunging, a good beer or two may warm you up, once the capillaries in your face relax and turn your cheeks rosy. But that serving temperature — cool to ice cold — might just give you the shivers this time of year.

It's never too cold for a beer, really, but if you're looking for another way to warm up with a cold one, why not heat it in a pot? Of course, it's important to add more ingredients than just the beer.

Winter's chill winds make it the right time for savory, slow-cooked stew or a nice, hot chili. And a bowl of either can benefit from cooking with the right beer.

The dark, roasted flavors of porters and stouts are a big part of many stew and chili recipes.

Porters are ales made with barley that's dried at higher temperatures before the brewing begins, yielding a darker malt. Stouts follow the same model, with some of the barley actually roasted and unmalted for a dry, crisp effect.

Those methods tend to result in full-bodied beers with intense flavors. Adding a bit to a stew can lend a bitter complexity, and some recipes even replace the broth outright with a bottle or two.

Countless beef stew recipes classify themselves as Irish with addition of some the Emerald Isle's most famous export, Guinness Stout. A version from Margaret M. Johnson's Irish Pub Cookbook that credits the Guinness brewery's bar calls for a half pint of the thick, black beer. It swirls with the savory flavor of sirloin cubes browned in oil and butter, and the stout mixes well with the slight tang of carrots, parsnips and turnips.

In chili, stouts' and porters' roasted malts, plus the more intense bitterness from hops, can help to balance the spice from hot peppers. One colleague at The Star uses the Turbodog porter from Louisiana's Abita Brewing Co. in place of beef stock, then adds venison or bison meat for a truly unique flavor, though he says beef works just fine, too.

Another Star staffer (we eat a lot of chili here) uses dark lagers such as Samuel Adams Boston Lager or Michelob Amber Bock in place of inky porters or stouts in a lightly spiced chili recipe. Standing in for the dark complexity of roasted malt: bittersweet chocolate, which helps balance that spice even more.

Slow cooking is a favorite method for many of these dishes, in part because of the way it tenderizes chunked meat and allows seasonings to penetrate the other ingredients. Adding a bit of alcohol only intensifies the tenderizing effect, and the malt and hops can really work their magic given a few extra hours.

Using a slow cooker, though, takes time. Perhaps there's no better way to spend that time than sipping whatever beer didn't make it into the pot. At least the kitchen should be warm.