Session #8: Food and Beer

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Our eighth Session, hosted by Captain Hops at Beer Haiku Daily, involves the pairing of beer with food, a subject near and dear to my heart. I have been persuaded by extensive testing — better known as eating — that beer and food go together far better than wine will for the average meal. Oh, I’ll grant you that there are fine pairings that can be made with wine, but a diet of heavier flavors, potent seasonings and meat dishes will yield to beer’s superior ability to cut through this complex and thickly rich mélange of tastes. There are many people to thank for that awareness, from Michael Jackson to Garrett Oliver to Bruce Paton.

Friday night, I was happy enough to be invited to the 10th annual beer dinner at the Northern California Homebrewers Festival held at Lake Francis Resort in Dobbins, California. It was put on by Sean Paxton, the Homebrew Chef and ran to six courses. And many of the courses had several dishes, too, so the amount of food was truly staggering. Sean went all out for his tenth anniversary dinner. And with eight great beers being paired, it was sure to be a memorable evening. I had come with the entire family and because the weather had grown quite cold, we were all bundled up and brought our appetities, ready to eat. We were not disappointed. Chef Sean Paxton deserves much praise for not only his pairings, but also using the beer in the dishes, as well. When you consider the entire dinner was accomplished by amateurs, the achievement is all the more impressive. But enough praise, here’s a nutshell account of the evening’s culinary and fermented delights. But before we can begin, a haiku is both necessary and appropriate:

Pairing food and beer
To compliment or contrast
That is the question

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Our chef for the evening, Sean Paxton, addresses the hungry and thirsty crowd.

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The beer paired with our first course, a Belgian endive salad, was Watermelon Funk, a collaboration between 21st Amendment Brewery and Russian River Brewing. This is perhaps the fourth time I’ve had this beer and it just keeps getting better, it’s too bad it’s virtually all gone. Here Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River tells the beer’s story in humorous fashion. They took a barrel of Shaun O’Sullivan’s popular Watermelon Wheat and aged it in an oak barrel, sparking it with brettanomyces. It worked nicely with the crisp flavors of the salad, especially the pomegranate seeds.

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I sat with Vinnie Cilurzo at the dinner and happily he brought along a few extra beers for the table. Here my wife Sarah holds up one my personal favorites: The Damnation Batch 23.

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A bit unusual for the typical beer dinner, but — and I can’t stress this enough — Frittes should become de rigeur for every beer dinner. You can just never have enough frittes for my tastes. Served with two kinds of aioli sauce (Duvel Shiso Aioli and Fou’ Foune Aioli), Sean’s frittes were spectacular.

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Two of the other beers served at the dinner were brewed by these two gentlemen, Peter Hoey, from Sacramento Brewing, and Todd Ashman, from Fifty Fifty Brewing.

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We weren’t the only ones thrilled that Vinne brought some of his beers along with him. Matt Bryndilson, from Firestone Walker Brewing, kisses a bottle of Russian River’s Toronado 20th Anniversary Ale.

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Piping hot steamed mussels, steamed in beer that is. They were Prince Edward Island mussels, with shallots and thyme steamed in homebrewed wit, which was also the beer paired with them. Delicious!

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For the vegetarians among us, pumpkin steamed in beer topped with spinach, sorrel, parsley and a Japanese mint (that Sean had grown in his garden). Yum.

At this point I got too busy eating and drinking and forgot to keep taking pictures of the food. The next beer was one of the GABF Pro-Am beers for this year. It was brewed at 21st Amendment Brewery and was Jamil Zainasheff’s award winning Belgian Strong Dark, which he named The Beer Hunter. It was paired with a thick stew of a dish, Les Carbonnade Flamandes, which Sean described as a Flemish stew cooked with beef, lamb, dark candy syrup cured bacon, leeks, shallots, thyme and, of course, the Belgian Strong Dark beer. It was piping hot and very rich. In the cold October night air, it warmed our souls.

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An extra treat, Sean created a sorbet-like dish at our table using liquid nitrogen.

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Much to the delight of my daughter Alice.

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Sean stirring the sorbet looked more like a scene from Halloween than a restaurant. But the sorbet was delicious.

The fourth course paired Peter Hoey’s sour mashed farmhouse style saison with a Waterzooi, described as a classic Ghent milk stew made with cod, leeks, fennel, onions, shallots, saison, milk and herbs. A very nice saison, it worked well with the complex and diverse flavors of the stew.

The fifth course paired two beers from Russian River, Sanctification and Temptation, with two amazing dishes, duck legs cooked in a brett blonde and beer-braised veal cheeks. These were served with Brussels sprouts cooked in brown butter and nutmeg and cauliflower gratin, which had been blanced in an ale and topped with a Gruyere cheese sauce. Also, there was a bier risotto made with heirloom tomatoes and pearl barley served with a sauce made up of Temptation, lobster mushrooms and roasted thyme shallots. There were just so many different tastes going on here it made your head swim. Luckily the two Russian River beers cleared your head as they cleansed your palate so that each subsequent bite could be enjoyed as much as the first one.

Finally, the dessert course had two sweet pairings. First there was Todd Ashman’s Trifecta Belgian Style Tripel, from his new brewery in Truckee, California, Fifty Fifty Brewing. It went with a vanilla bean tripel infused pot de creme, a very creamy dessert using Todd’s beer along with vanilla beans infused into cream and slowly cooked in a water bath. If that sounded too light, then there were the dark chocolate framboise truffles. Sean took a Brendan’s wisky barrel and filled it with porter and dark chocolate, spiked it with Brettanomyces and let it age for seven months before blending it with Thirsty Bear’s Golden Hallucination and Brown Bear. It was served with Brendan Dobbel’s Thirsty Bear Menage a Framboise. I could have eaten these all night, as full as I was, because they were so damn good. I just kept telling myself with each one, “they’re wafer thin,” which, though a lie dead surely, allowed me eat as many as I possibly could guilt free.

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After the dinner, chef Sean Paxton and my wife, Sarah, share a hug.
 

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