Our mission was to explore the concept of Amber ales, Red ales, and the foods they love. It was noon, but Sky High Brewing's taproom in downtown Corvallis, Ore., wasn't opening until 4 pm for Hoppy Hour, so brewmaster Laurence Livingston and I had the joint to ourselves. What Laurence's Big Kahuna Northwest Red brought to the party is exactly what I love about a fine-tuned American Red ale: a hoppy personality, tempered by a generous layering of caramel maltiness.
My spunky Cuban slider had its own delectable layers to anticipate: a garlicky-mustardy aioli sauce, smoked pork, ham, a nutty Jarlsburg, and slender slices of my homemade Damn Good Garlic Dills. After assembly, the sliders were warmed and gently pressed into submission, panini fashion.
Laurence pulled two 4-ounce pours of his Red from the tap. Then, just for comparison's sake, he pulled two more servings of his Amber ale. His thought was that the Amber might go just as well or better than the Northwest Red because in his 20 years of merging his beer with the foods he loves, Ambers and barbeque are a winning combo. Of course, I was equally confident that his Big Kahuna would be up to taking on the Cuban.
We dove into our sandwiches. "OK, Amber first," Laurence said. It only took a moment of chewing and sipping before his eyes lit up. "Wow! That really brings the smoked pork right out. Right in your face."
And he was right. The Base Jumper Amber Ale was really merging with the dominant flavor of the sandwich and creating an entirely new level of rich flavor, which is the very definition of a successful pairing: two flavors uniting to form a new and better flavor experience.
On to the Big Kahuna. Same program: Chew and sip. But it just didn't happen. What I thought was going to be the perfect pairing turned out just so-so. The Big Kahuna Red Ale failed to create the same synergy, and in fact, the high level of hops was actually fighting the character of the sandwich.
Yet all ingredients in the sandwich are listed as compatible for the Red. So what's the deal?
There's a lesson here: Sometimes, what looks good on paper doesn't come together in real time. Laurence's Big Kahuna is just assertive enough in hoppiness to not meld as gracefully with the sandwich's ultimate character. If I'd used a slightly less sweet bread and a more robust ham I predict it would have all worked out. After all, it wasn't a bad pairing; just not perfect.
Your take-away message here is that the ingredients you cook with impact the pairing experience, no matter what you've read on any given food and beer pairing list.
It doesn't matter who I serve these spunky little sandwiches to. The first response is total silence, followed by oh-my-gosh! Yep, they're that tasty.
There's the garlicky-mustardy aioli sauce, smoked pulled pork, richly flavored ham, a nutty Jarlsburg, and slender slices of Garlic Dills. After assembly, the sliders are gently toasted and pressed into submission, panini fashion.
8 soft rolls, about 3 inches in diameter (see note)
1/2 cup quick aioli with stone ground mustard (recipe follows)
1/2 pound sliced Jarlsburg cheese
3/4 pound good quality ham (cut slightly thicker than "deli-cut")
1/2 pound smoked pulled pork (NOT with barbecue sauce; the bare meat)
6 garlic dill pickles, thinly sliced
To assemble the sliders, slice open the rolls and spread a generous amount of the Quick Aioli on the cut surface of the top bun. On the bottom slice, place a piece of cheese, then top with a piece of ham, followed by a mound of the pulled pork and then some of the sliced pickle. Place the top half of the bun on the pickle.
After all of the sandwiches have been assembled heat a panini press. Cook the sandwiches in the press until they are toasted and hot throughout (the cheese will melt). Keep the cooked sandwiches warm on a baking sheet in a 200 degree oven until all of them have been cooked.
Makes 8 small sandwiches.
Note on soft rolls: Make sure your rolls aren't too sweet or they won't complement the Red Ale. As far as size goes, to be called a "slider," the rolls should be small. However, you can also turn this into an entree-sized sandwich simply by using larger rolls.
Quick aioli with stone-ground mustard
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
3 medium-sized cloves of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 cup good quality mayonnaise (I use Best Foods)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon stone ground mustard (Inglehoffer Original Stone Ground Mustard; see note)
Place the lemon juice and garlic cloves in a blender jar. Now add the mayonnaise and blend, turning the motor on and off and scraping the sides of the blender jar often, until the mixture is smooth and creamy. With the motor running, add the olive oil a teaspoon at a time, giving the sauce a chance to absorb one addition of the oil before adding the next. You may have to stop the motor and give the sauce a brief stir each time.
Scrape the sauce into a small container then stir in the mustard. The sauce will keep for weeks in the refrigerator (just like commercially made mayonnaise).
Note on stone-ground mustard: Inglehoffer Original Stone Ground Mustard is prepared by Beaverton Foods in Beaverton, Ore.
It's widely distributed, so you shouldn't have a problem finding it where most mustards are sold. It has a rich mustardy-whole grain character that I love.
If unavailable, use another brand that describes itself as being a classic whole grain mustard or deli-style mustard, which will mean it isn't too sweet or seasoned in an unusual way.
Makes a scant 1 1/4 cups.
Also delicious as a dip for shrimp boiled in beer.
Barley risotto with wild mushrooms and smokey bacon
1/4 pound smoked bacon, thin sliced and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2 ounces butter
2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 cup pearled barley
1/3 cup Amber or Red ale
4 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup (1/2 ounce) dried porcini mushroom pieces (see note)
3 ounces grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Chopped parsley for garnish
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, sauté the bacon over medium heat until it is richly browned. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve for later.
Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon grease. Add the butter and the onions to the pan and sauté over medium heat until the onions have softened and turned slightly golden.
Stir in the barley, ale, broth, and prepared mushrooms. Stir and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the barley has absorbed most of the liquid and is very tender. It should have a creamy character, but not be "soupy," and definitely not overly dry. Just like risotto!
When ready to serve, stir in the cheese, along with the reserved bacon pieces.
Note: I don't reconstitute the dried mushrooms, but I do chop them before adding to the pot. I use a food processor and just run the motor in quick bursts so most of the pieces are about 1/4- to 1/2-inch in dimension. Some can be smaller. But you want to avoid very large pieces so that the mushroom flavor is evenly distributed.
For a yield of 5 cups, enough for about 6 servings (3/4 cup each).
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit," and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at email@example.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.
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