Cover Photo by Michelle Furbacher (background) and Robin Sharp (inserts), from The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook (Whitecap Books)
THIS book is a delightful surprise. Normally, a book with a mission—in this case, cooking with beer—would seem a gimmicky, forced sort of an exercise, more marketing material than true cookbook. Or at the very least, the author might be so beer obsessed as to have lost sight as to what it tastes good the anyone who does not share his enthrallment with the drink.
I stand corrected, and happily so. I spent the most delightful morning with David Ort last week, author of The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook. He is a self-described “beer geek,” but that does not detract from his dedication to cooking and fine food. He has developed and tested all these recipes himself, and done so with great success.
Each recipe comes with a suggested Canadian beer. Some of them also have an American or European suggestion as well, mostly German, English or Belgian. It came up in conversation that many traditional Belgian recipes use beer instead of wine, because in areas of Europe where hops have always grown more easily than grapes (above the “wine line,” he tells me), beer has traditionally been what was local and available. Of course, locavores everywhere will tell you that marrying local ingredients is the best way to bring out complementary flavours in food. But sometimes beer just works.
For example, when I saw his recipes for Beer-Battered Fish and Onion Rings, I thought, well okay, this is an obvious and traditional use for beer, both as an ingredient and a complementary beverage. But when it was explained to me that the carbonation lightens the batter, I understood more about beer’s ability to work in a recipe. When making Ort’s Wild Fried Chicken Beer, for example, beer is not just an acceptable substitute for buttermilk, but rather a great improvement. Sour beer (a thing I’ve just heard of thanks to David) adds the same tang one expects of buttermilk, but adds a greater complexity of flavor, and makes an excellent companion to crispy, fatty drumsticks. As David points out, while it’s irksome to open a whole bottle of wine to cook if you don’t plan to drink it, that same problem doesn’t seem to occur with a single bottle of beer.
Photo by Robin Sharp, from The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook (Whitecap Books)
We picked a couple of easy recipes to try: IPA guacamole and Porter Gingerbread. First the guac.
I was horrified by David’s by refusal to put garlic in his guacamole. This just seemed obstinate and contrary to me. Should we tell the sun not to shine as well?
To make matters worse, I confessed to David that I saw no good reason to put beer in guacamole. I mean, wouldn’t it make it runny? And beer goes so well alongside guacamole. Do we need it IN the guacamole as well? Was this some lazy attempt too mash it all together? I pictured guac smoothies with cherry tomato-cilantro garnishes, big straws and people frying themselves on plastic lawn chairs. The new green juice with hoppy twist.
Oh, but I was so very wrong on both accounts. David proved himself a true food lover. The amount of beer used was only a third of a cup, so runny guacamole was not a problem. The beer provided the same level of bitterness one might hope for from raw garlic, but without the harsh bite. The more subtle bitter element introduced by the beer didn’t compete with the onion and allowed the cumin and cayenne to take centre-stage without seeming overwhelming. I could honestly say that this was better than my guac, with more flavor and less kick. Don’t trust me on this, try it yourself. I am a diehard garlic addict and wouldn’t have believed it myself without tasting it.
Gingerbread seemed a more likely place to use a British style beer. I was skeptical about the ingredient list, since my (former) favourite gingerbread recipe from Regan Daley’s In the Sweet Kitchen uses a greater range of spices, blackstrap molasses instead of the more tepid fancy molasses, and a bit of fresh ginger to boot. Boiling beer, however, and adding baking soda seemed like the kind of kitchen fun I hadn’t had since my kids were toddlers. Now that the age of lava volcanoes is over, I thought it time for bubbly gingerbread. Another pleasant surprise.
David’s IPA only uses cinnamon and dried ginger, but the lack of spice was replaced with the flavor of the bitter beer we used, since we were out of porter. (It’s okay to use your next best guess if you can’t find his recommendations in store. Home experimentation is what this book is all about.) The flavor was layered and complex, the texture was dense and moist without being overly damp. It was lighter than the gingerbread I make, both in flavor and texture, but I was once again convinced that this was an excellent adaptation of the recipe and not an imposition on tradition. I might try this one my mother-in-law who does not share my love of Christmasy spices.
Other recipes I look forward to trying:
- French Onion Soup, because as the author points out, the harmony between beer, cheese, bread and onions is obvious and heavenly.
- Steak and Ale Pie. Not only does the filling sound fantastic, this pie uses my favourite trick of adding a biscuit topping rather than pie crust. With beer in the biscuits, of course.
- Braised Smoky Ribs. With smoked beer. Yes, exactly.
- IPA Mustard. Dead easy, makes great gift and gives you next-level foodie cred.
- Pickled Onions made with Beer Vinegar. Another great homemade gift.
- Oak-Aged Old Ale Ice Cream. When I dared to doubt beer’s ability to star in a dessert dish, I read the ingredient list aloud to my husband. Oak-aged ale, cream, sugar, nutmeg… He wanted to know when I’d be making it.
- Banana Hefeweizen Custard. I learned to love hefeweizen with its strong overtones of banana and cloves at the former Dennison’s where the German-trained brewmaster made it along with his other heritage draft beers. Good banana extract or liqueur is pretty much a contradiction in terms, so I have great hopes for this dish to be a bold departure from plain old vanilla pudding with sliced bananas.
The book defies the expectation that is aimed at the macho-man type. I’m definitely going to buy this for my beer-guzzling, barbequing brother-in-law who loves to cook but typically only when meat in involved (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). But I’ll buy it for female friends as well, and for anyone who likes a good micro-brew or who makes their own beer. David seemed puzzled by the assumption that this is a man’s cookbook, since he loves to cook, as did both his parents, but acknowledges that he encounters it often. ”My hope is that Jill will buy it for Jack, and end up loving to cook with it too,” he told me. I think this a very likely outcome indeed.
The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook by David Ort. Whitecap Books 2013