Sunday, July 03, 2011

Turning leftover beer into gourmet fare

Published Wednesday, May 25, 2011 in the Athens Banner-Herald

My nephew Russell, who recently moved to Athens, and who even more recently turned 21, fulfilled a fantasy at his birthday party - a small keg to moisten the palates of his family, friends and fellow musicians. Although he and his friends played Celtic and traditional music late into the night, the next morning found plenty of beer still in the keg.

Unrelatedly, while researching for a column on beer cookery (Athens Banner-Herald, March 2), I had encountered a traditional beer-based specialty from Alsace, the Germanic region of Eastern France across the Rhine from Germany. I then tasted that dish, "Poulet à la Bière" (literally, chicken in beer), at Café Alsace, a small, authentic restaurant in Decatur run by an Alsatian couple.

Now suddenly with plenty of beer available, Poulet la Bière reemerged in my consciousness as it, in turn, began to clear after the party.

Trying several approaches to reproducing the dish I had enjoyed, I settled on a boneless version rather than the more typical whole leg style. The result passed muster with family guinea pigs, including Russell. It also went quite well with a freshly tapped glass of leftover party beer.

The typical beer for cooking this dish would be a pale lager, fairly low on hops. In France, that would likely be "Kronenbourg 1664," which is brewed in the heart of Alsace. A workable Athens substitute would be Terrapin Golden Ale. The one I used, successfully, was Miller High Life, the beer from the party.

This dish typically would be served with buttered egg noodles, particularly homemade "spaetzle" noodles, a specialty of Alsace and the nearby regions of Germany and Switzerland.

While beer is considered the de rigueur drink for beer-based dishes, certain white wines also could serve with this one.

These include (dry) Riesling, Grüner Veltliner (from Austria), and Albariño, a Spanish wine whose ancestral grapes were introduced many centuries ago from the Rhine Valley, apparently by German or French monks. But those wines can be pricey. Beer is fine.

Chicken braised in Beer: Poulet a la Bière

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thigh
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons rendered chicken fat or olive oil
1 medium-large onion, diced
2 large sticks celery, in 1/2-inch slices
1 clove garlic, minced
2 1/2 cups (11/2 12-ounce bottles) low-hop lager-type beer
3 medium carrots, peeled, in 1/2-inch rounds
2-inch strip orange zest
3-inch sprig fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup heavy cream
Minced parsley for garnish

Trim excess fat and tough parts from chicken. (Render fat in cooking pot for flavor; save 2 tablespoons and discard cracklings.)

Cut each chicken thigh into 3 roughly equal pieces. Sprinkle both sides with mixture of 1 teaspoon salt plus the pepper and nutmeg.

Fry chicken in rendered chicken fat or olive oil, turning frequently and scraping pot, until color fully changes. Add onions and celery, and stir and fry until onions soften. Add garlic and fry 1 minute, stirring frequently.

Add beer, carrots, orange zest, rosemary, bay leaves plus 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Simmer, uncovered, until chicken and carrots are tender, stirring from time to time. Add a little water if liquid begins drying down.

Taste, and add salt if needed. Remove whole seasonings.

Stir in cream. Bring back just to a bubble.

Serve dusted with minced parsley.

The recipe serves six. Accompany with buttered noodles or potatoes.

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