Reasons to be Cheerful

Book Review, Reasons to be Cheerful, the works – Cooking with Beer

If ever there was a reason to be cheerful, it’s a good beer.  A pint of something lovingly crafted, served at the right temperature.  Something Belgian, perhaps…  I got into brewing at University when it was  far cheaper to brew my own than to  buy it from the supermarket or the student bar.  After a brief hiatus in Kent (where the water’s not good for brewing unless you’re Shepherd Neame) we started brewing again here in Shetland.  Bitters, ciders, wheat beers, barkshack gingermeads, experimental pale ales, the list goes on.  Right now we’ve a couple of kits bottled, they’ll be ready to drink round about the end of March.  Life is good.

But something that I’d not done very much of was cooking with beer.  I’d cooked the odd rabbit in ale, a delightful dish that’s a real winter warmer, but that was about it.  And then one day my wife brought home a present from town.  This:

It’s an Australian book, by an Australian chef, but I knew I’d get on with him from the sub-title: “If there’s liquid in a recipe, it might as well be beer.” Noble sentiments indeed.  In fact the book’s full of advice like that – “If there’s any left over, drink it” being one that crops up time and again.  Granted, the last time I did that it was a little like Baldrick’s short holiday in Blackadder.  1 fluid ounce of beer was left.  So I drank it and enjoyed it but it did leave me wanting to open another bottle.

Paul starts off with an overview of beer and a wonderful rant about how the mass-produced stuff isn’t really beer at all.  As someone who was a member of CAMRA and likes Real Ale in general, I salute this 100%.  He then eases you gently into the swing of things with a chapter on recipes that work well with beer but don’t actually contain it.  All well and good.  Moving through the book he takes us from nibbles, through the stove, into the oven, onto the grill and finally to dessert and baking.  There doesn’t look to be a bad recipe in the book, although some of the ingredients might be hard to get hold of here in the wilds of Shetland – once you’ve worked out what the English for flathead tails is (some kind of fish, apparently).

The range of recipes is amazing, running the gauntlet from American ribs (as pictured on the cover), through assorted curries – both Indian and Thai, on into risottos, pastas, paellas and chilli.  He cooks fish, goat, octopus, quail, rabbit, lamb (in Guinness, no less, along with a superb Moroccan tagine) and more.  He gives us ice creams, soups, birramisu, beer breads, and more.

Each recipe includes notes as to which beers work best.  You can tell he’s done his homework, long hours spent testing each one with the ranges of beers at his disposal.  For the UK, there’s plenty of Belgian and German beers in play and even I can get hold of those on this rock.  And if I don’t have the right one, I’ll substitute something from my own cellar.

Right now, I’m halfway through cooking this:

Spanish lentils with chorizo in Belgian ale

  • A pinch of saffron threads
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
  • 1 red pepper, roughly chopped
  • 300g chorizo sausages (cured, rather than fresh), cut in half lengthways then sliced on the diagonal 1cm thick
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 4 fresh thyme sprigs
  • 2 tomatoes, chopped
  • two 330ml bottles of high-alcohol Belgian ale
    • Beer Notes:  Try Westmalle Tripel (9.5%), Hoegaarden Grand Cru (8.5%) , Chimay Blue (9%) or Rochefort 8 (9.2%).  We’re using the Tripel today
  • 500ml good quality chicken stock
  • 2 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 375g green lentils
  • 125g small button mushrooms, quartered
  • 200g courgettes, finely diced

Steep the saffron threads in 60ml boiling water for 15 minutes

Meanwhile, heath the olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat.  When the oil is smoking, add the onion and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes.  Stir in the garlic, pepper and chorizo and cook for another 5 minutes.

Stir in the paprika, then add the saffron and its soaking liquid and stir it through.  Add the bay leaves, thyme, tomato and sea salt to taste.  Stir to combine then cook for several minutes.

Pour in the beer and stock and bring to the boil.  Season with freshly ground black pepper, add the sherry vinegar and stir to allow the flavours to combine.  Add the lentils and mix them through while the liquid comes back to the boil.  Turn the heat to low, cover with a lid and simmer for 1 hour.

Stir in the mushrooms and courgette, put the lid back on and simmer for another 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the lentils are tender but still have a little bite.  If you have too much liquid, take the lid off and simmer over a higher heat to reduce it.

Enjoy with a glass of the ale you cooked the lentils with.

Serves 4.  Allegedly, but I reckon we’ll feed all 7 of us happily tonight with this.  But then 5 of them aren’t adults yet.

I did the lamb tagine from this book last week and it was superb.



Random Wednesday

Save money! Brew your own beer! #randomwednesday

Brewing beer is great fun.  Not only do you save a shedload of cash (can you say fifty pence a pint?) but once you’ve got the hang of things you can start experimenting…

I started brewing at university.  Kind of an occupational hazard for a microbiology student.  It’s practically homework, when you think about it.  Made a few kits, then was given a book…  We brewed a Christmas ale from first principles, left it in bottles for the best part of a year before opening it.  Yowzah!  The first year, it was strong.  A lovely, rich, dark, liquoricey ale.  Went down a treat.  But it kept getting stronger!  Second year in and you could have a pint of it at best before you started feeling sleepy.  Third year and we were down to wine glasses.  I left 4 bottles of it in the flat when we moved out.

Moved to Kent, found a good homebrew shop, started up again.  Had to throw away the first 40 pints of cider – Kent water is not good for brewing, especially not the area we were in.  Lesson learned, next round we bought a load of water from the supermarket just for brewing.  To be fair, we also had to buy water if we wanted a decent cup of tea.  Down in Kent we had an abundance of superb local ingredients.  Elderflowers and elderberries, the fruit section of Perry Court Farm Shop for strawberries, apples…  When we moved here to Shetland we brought the last of the elderflower wine with us.

And then we took a break for a few years.

A couple of years ago we started up again.  Just to get back into the habit and skills, the family brewed some kits.  Ciders, bitters, a couple of wheatbeers.  And we’ve been experimenting with them.  A muslim bag of elderflower heads went into an IPA during its first fermentation and resulted in a lovely, light, flowery pale ale.  Very nice.  But the piece de la resistance has got to be the mead.

I was staying at my sister-in-law’s house, browsing through their bookshelves when I came across a recipe for something that sounded amazing:  Barkshack Gingermead.  The idea is fairly simple but you’ve a long wait before drinking.  6 months is a bare minimum.  People mutter quietly in forums about bottles that are 10, 12, 13 years old.  It just gets better and better with age.

As with any mead, you need honey.  And lots of it.  Root ginger, whatever fruit takes your fancy (we used raspberries, so the resulting colour is a gorgeous pink) and a few other ingredients.  Just to add a twist (and because I thought it would work), half the bottles got a shot of a very strong cinnamon tea before being capped and stored.  Start to bottling, a month or so.  Six weeks maybe.  Then the waiting began.

Over Christmas I sneaked a bottle of the cinnamon gingermead open, just to see.  Mistake.  Far too early.  Should’ve left it alone.  Last weekend, I opened another one.  Now we’re talking!  The cinnamon has matured into a nice bite, the mead itself slips down a treat.  Can’t wait to see what it’s like this Christmas!

And it’s turned into a nice family industry!  My eldest son helps out, sitting on the kitchen units and holding the syphon tube, they all like carrying bottles back and forth from the cupboard, and Thing Two’s getting to be a dab hand with the crown capper.  All of this is a useful addition to his skillset when he gets ready to go to university.  For the next batch of mead I’m going to get Thing One to do the bottle labels.

One thing you do need, though, is a good local home brew shop.  The kits are heavy and expensive to post.  We had a good one in Lerwick, but he closed recently.  Whenever I visit my parents in Ripon, I go to Drinks Well on the market square and stock up.  Hop & Grape do a good line in mail order for the lighter stuff.  If you’re lucky, you might find your local Tescos has a home brew section.  Hexham certainly did the last time I was there.  A lot of my original equipment is stamped “Boots”, as they used to sell it as well.  Not so sure they do now.

It’s a very rewarding hobby, and you’re never short of a beer.