<P>Lovers of spicy foods who are also lovers of drink have often found themselves in a bind - how to best complement their fiery entrée? Some may disagree, but there does not seem to be an easy answer in the world of wine. Indeed, with most Indian, Southwestern or Cajun cuisine, beer is the popular choice. But as readers of this magazine are well aware, beer is not just beer. The past two decades have seen a tremendous explosion in the number of beers available to the average American. Legions of people have discovered the great pale ales, stouts, pilsners and wheat beers on store shelves today, but yet the issue of beer and food pairings is still relatively new and untested.
<P>So in the interests of making some sense of the bewildering array of options, I have conducted an experiment to find the perfect beers to complement a variety of spicy dishes.
<P>When it comes to fire and beer, common wisdom runs two ways. The most popular theory is that the beer should be an ice-cold lager, to put out the fire. But while a near-frozen lager will do that job well, should not our libation of choice do something more? True fire-eaters, after all, love hot foods, and as such can handle the heat. Thus, quenching is a role greatly reduced in the eyes of serious spice lovers.
<p> The second school of beer-heat pairings promotes the idea that the best way to complement hot dishes is with very hoppy beers. Now, I'm from the West Coast, so you know I love my hops, and I readily admit that nothing sets your sinus-clearing chili alive like a pint or two of India Pale Ale, but the world of hot food goes far beyond chili. As an avid beer lover and fire fanatic, I had to ask myself if this one-size-fits-all approach wasn't doing an injustice to spicy seafood stirfrys, chicken dishes, pasta and other non-Tex Mex cuisine. So, armed with a handful of recipes, I set out to my local beer store to gather up a few bottles for a little experiment. I needed to find the perfect beer matches for a wide variety of fiery foods.
<P>The first exploration sent me to the world of pasta. Now, I personally am not especially picky about the type of pasta I'll use, although I lean towards ravioli, but I am picky about the sauce. Much like the operation of the family barbeque, the preparation of homemade pasta sauce is something of a man's domain. Like a lot of guys, I've spent years trying to perfect my pasta sauce, and while the recipe is ever-changing, there are some constants: green peppers, mushrooms, oregano, cumin, thyme, parsely, sage and a lot of garlic. I also have an affinity for adding chipotle sauce, for both heat and smokeyness.
<P>Amongst beer aficionados, prevailing wisdom has it that tomato-based sauces are best complemented by the reddish, malt-accented Vienna-style or Märzen lager. But my sauce has a tendency to overwhelm many of these beers, and the added dimension of smoke cries out for something heftier, and more complex. It may seem counterintuitive to look to Germany for the answer to my pasta problem, but in Bamberg, they are brewing the beer I seek. Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen solves all of my problems. It is based on a rich and well-made märzenbier, which complements the tomato, but has the added bonus of beech smoke. The smokiness of the beer and the chipotles blends brilliantly, and the malt cuts through the acidity of the tomato nicely, leaving your palate to bathe in smoke, spice, garlic and heat. If you find that the Rauchbier Märzen is not sufficiently big enough to balance off the intense flavors of the sauce, there is always its big brother, the substantial Rauchbier Urbock from the same brewery. Unfortunately, there are very few American microbreweries making authentic German-style rauchbier, but DeGroen's in Baltimore has a deftly balanced Rauchbock, which I have enjoyed with my pasta sauce on occasion.
<P>My next project was the tricky issue of spicy seafood dishes. Working with fish presents a challenge both in the usage of chiles, but also in the pairing of beer. I have found that Thai chiles are generally amongst the most forgiving peppers when it comes to seafood, due to their lack of earthy tones. Yet at the same time, they are fiery hot, and the kind of IPA that would be required to match them would overwhelm the fish.
<P>The dish I chose to experiment with was my curried cuttlefish stirfry. This stirfry is made with coconut milk for moisture, garlic, onions, snow peas, bean sprouts, green pepper, mushrooms, roasted cashews (added at the end for texture), and Thai chiles. I have seen recipes where whole Thai chiles are added to the cooking, and removed before eating. For this recipe however, chop them up and leave them in, for maximum heat. But be wary not to overdo it, since you do not wish to completely overwhelm the rest of the ingredients. Three chiles should do the trick for two people.
<P>The reason that I do not see a standard lager working for this type of dish is that most examples simply do not have enough complexity to match the layered flavours of the stirfry, and since a hoppy IPA would dominate the delicate seafood and vegetables, I find it best to go in another direction for beerological accompaniment. I find the perfect match for this fiery seafood dish in the strong Belgian ale La Chouffe.
<P>La Chouffe is an ale of some substance, and its complexity allows it to match up to the myriad of flavors found in the stirfry. It starts off with a malty, yeasty character that perfectly complements the seafood and coconut milk. As the beer crosses the palate, it becomes drier and spicier - the hoppy finish matching the spicy finish of the Thai chiles. The La Chouffe does not cleanse the palate so much as invigorate it, blending so seamlessly that one might in future be inclined to use the beer in the very preparation of the stirfry itself.
<P>I would be remiss if I did not include at least one Mexican dish in an exposition about fiery foods. Though I love the simple pleasures of quesadillas and pupusas, I have a more complex dish in mind, that will allow me to explore a number of different fire and beer themes. Pollo en Escabeche Oriental is a Yucatan recipe that I have modified to incorporate ingredients more readily accessible in my neighbourhood.
<P>This dish has a lot of different elements and a very complex flavor. While the chiles, the smokiness, the garlic, the chicken, the citrus and the oregano all come together marvelously in the pollo en escabeche, that exotic combination makes for a difficult beer pairing. To that end, I gathered four distinct beers from my local store, along with a loaf of bread for palate cleansing, and proceeded to eat and drink my way through this challenge. Such is my dedication to my work.
<P>The first beer to test was the Cypriot pilsner KEO, a fairly restrained example of the style, but a clear step above a typical frozen quencher. The question was whether KEO would be dry enough and flavorful enough to match the entrée. Faced with such a complex and searing dish, the Cypriot beer was utterly overwhelmed. Worse yet, the malt accent clashed with the plethora of flavors dancing around my palate.
<P>Next up was the light, but fairly complex and slightly drier St. Peter's Organic Ale, from England. While lagers are meant to have clean flavors, ales are more complex in structure, and are generally considered better for spicy foods. I immediately took to the way that the herbal hoppiness played to the pepper and oregano on the tongue. This ale is ideally suited to chicken to begin with, and with just enough dryness to handle the heat, it proved a favorable companion on this occasion.
<P>Third on my list was the classic Trappist ale Orval. Normally, a strong abbey ale would be a terrible match for this type of dish, but Orval is distinctively dry and herbal tasting. While I felt that the strength of Orval would keep it from being overwhelmed, this match-up failed to live up to expectations. The problem is that Orval is one of the most flavorful and complex beers on the planet and although it proved a good match early on, it started to dominate things towards the end of the session. Better off having the Orval before the meal, a role for which it is perfectly suited.
<P>Although this is a Yucatan dish, the generally watery beers of Mexico (we don't get Casta here in Toronto) would stand little chance against this powerhouse of a meal, so I decided to include as a final possible partner a Caribbean beer - the strong, vibrant, fruity, sweet Royal Extra Stout from Trinidad. I expected that Royal Extra would have the buoyancy to weave around the spices and that the roasted barley notes would be an admirable complement to the chile mora. While the latter may well have held true, the sweetness of this particular stout contradicted the spicy flavors of the pollo en escabeche.
<P>Four beers later and the jury is still out. The St. Peter's Organic Ale definitely works, but not nearly as sublimely as, say, the La Chouffe with curried cuttlefish stirfry. While the lightness of that beer handled the chicken with ease, something with a little more heft may be more suited to the overall meal.
<P>The final challenge that I presented myself was a chile cornbread, which I made with some of my remaining moras. I chose this not only because I happened to feel like cornbread, but also because of the prominence of corn, which would generally clash with a highly hoppy beer. This particular cornbread possesses great balance, with smooth, insistent smoky flavors and a late-emerging heat.
<P>The Mexican dark lager Dos Equis is brewed with a fair amount of corn in its recipe, and has some caramel notes, which I had hoped would deal with the smoke. Indeed, the relative lightness of the beer matched the fluffy cornbread, and there were no obvious clashes, but Dos Equis proved to lack sufficient dryness for the heat.
<P>The next beer was Beckett's Gold, from the Dublin Brewing Company, which is a flavorful example of golden ale, featuring an earthy maltiness, good complexity and depth, and a relatively dry finish (an American alternative might be Gold Stock Ale from New England Brewing or Rogue Oregon Golden).
<P>This combination proved notably strong, as the earthy malts and smoky moras matched nicely, and the ale finished just dry enough to carry the heat along the palate. The bread-like malt flavors that work so nicely with the cornmeal are more prevalent in a golden ale than they are in most pale ales, so this match-up seems ideal.
<P>The pairing of beer and food is a concept still in its youth. Over the past few years, the groundwork has been laid with regards to basic match-ups. But by no means have all the combinations been explored in sufficient depth. Eyes were opened when it was discovered that an IPA was a better accompaniment for chili than Lone Star. But we've only scratched the surface, and we must continue to challenge the commonly-held assumptions in order to fully realize the potential of beer and food together.
Chipotle Pasta Sauce
5.5 fl. oz. tomato paste
5.5 fl. oz. water
1 large mushroom
1/4 cup chopped green pepper
1 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. each of sage, thyme, marjoram and basil, parsley
1 tsp. curry powder
2 tsp. Bufalo chipotle sauce
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 guajillo chile, chopped (optional)
1/4 cup chopped chorizo sausage (optional)
Mix ingredients in a small pot and simmer at low heat until bubbling.
Curried Cuttlefish Stirfry
1/2 lb. Cuttlefish
5.5 fl. oz. coconut milk
3 tsp. hot curry powder
2 cups bean sprouts
1 cup snow peas
5 cloves garlic, chopped (yes, five, now stop crying)
1 medium or large onion, chopped
3 or 4 Thai chiles, chopped (including seeds)
1/2 green pepper, chopped
3 large mushrooms, chopped
Soy sauce to taste, preferably a Japanese brand like Yamasa
1/4 cup roasted cashews
Add cuttlefish, curry powder, half of the coconut milk, and a couple of splashes of soy sauce and the snow peas to wok. Sear at high heat for five minutes. Add other vegetables and the rest of the coconut milk, and sear another five minutes, adding soy sauce where you feel it necessary. Add roasted cashews last, sear one more minute, and remove from heat.
Pollo en Escabeche
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground or chopped oregano
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbsp. vinegar
1 large red onion
1 head garlic
Juice of 1 large orange<p>
1 lb. chicken breasts
1/4 cup water
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground oregano
3 mora chiles
2 aji panca chiles
Mix the pepper, onion powder, oregano, and salt. Combine this powder with the garlic and vinegar and make a paste. Set aside. Roast half of the onion and the head of garlic in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. Let cool. Peel the remaining onion half, slice it into rings, and marinate it in the orange juice. Place the chicken in a stockpot with water to cover, salt and oregano, and simmer until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes. Drain the chicken, reserving the broth, and transfer it to an ovenproof dish. Add the pepper paste and 3 tablespoons of the orange juice, and bake uncovered at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Peel the roasted onion and garlic and combine them with the reserved chicken stock. Add the chiles and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the marinated onion, with the juice, bring to a boil, and remove from the heat immediately. Drain the broth and reserve both the broth and the chiles and onions. Keep a couple cloves of garlic in the broth, if you so desire. Separate the chiles from the onion and coarsely chop them. Chop the chicken breasts into pieces. Add the chopped chiles and the onion to the chicken and mix well. Reduce the stock by boiling to 1 1/2 cups and add it to the chicken mixture until the mixture is moist but not soupy. Roll mixture into tortillas and serve.
Chile Mora Cornbread
1 cup flour
1 cup corn meal
3 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups milk
6 tbsp. melted butter
3 mora chiles (or chipotles), chopped<p>
Mix together all dry ingredients, and mix together all wet ingredients. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry until mixed. Add mixture to a shallow baking pan and cook for 30-35 mins. @ 400F.