Raise the Bar
by Fanny Slater
photographs by Andrew Sherman
I remember partying in the ’80s. I was 4 and no taller than the hairy, high-socked legs of my grandparents’ friends. While many middle-age couples elect to eventually slow down their social calendars, my dad’s parents were in no hurry to cease celebrating life. Or Passover, or the Super Bowl, or any other occasion that called for a six-foot-long sub sandwich and an open bar.
As a child visiting my grandparents’ New Jersey home, I remember silently observing caterers as they scattered last-minute tufts of parsley over platters of lox moments before the first guests arrived. I remember my Uncle Mitch effortlessly snapping the cap off of a chilled Mexican lager and handing it to a nearby partygoer. I’m sure my family’s love of entertaining influenced the hostess I am today – well, that and my unbridled enthusiasm for eating and drinking.
What I learned from my family is that the point of gathering is not just about where, it’s also about how we do it and what we designate as the star of the show. For my grandparents, it was smoked salmon and everything bagels. Recently, for me, it’s beer. You read that right: I’ve been elevating dinner parties by thinking beyond what’s on the plate.
I’m a product of my generation, in that I’d rather spend my paycheck on an experience than a material good. I’ll take a trip instead of invest in a new car, and, on a smaller scale, maybe even pass up some new shoes to attend a local food truck festival.
I also love to frequent craft breweries, a trend that’s seemingly here to stay. As interest in specialty microbrews grows, I’ve noticed another trend within it: Open a bottle, or order a pint, and pass it around among friends. It’s an informal take on beer flights. Translated to entertaining, my friends and I like to buy a bottle, open it at home, and share sips alongside appetizers. This is a way for hop-lovers, no matter particular preferences, to expand their brew knowledge and their palates.
Here’s how to throw your own bottle-share soiree. First, instead of planning your menu and then selecting drinks to serve alongside courses, reverse the formula and begin with the booze. While you’ll want to choose the beers to complement the weather (no one craves a coffee milk stout in July), don’t get too boxed in. You won’t want only light ales in the summer or only dark styles in the winter. (You would still drink a smooth, light pinot noir with a filet in the spring, right?)
Begin by learning a bit about the many beer varieties. Chose several familiar faces, like West Coast IPAs and porters, as well as novelties like a Berliner weisse or farmhouse ale to delight and unite novices and beer nerds alike. As the host, it’s your job to provide and pop a few bottles, but invite your guests to bring one or a few for sharing, too.
When it comes to pairing the cuisine, once again do your research – and I don’t just mean turn to Google. Start up a conversation with the bartender at a local bottle shop or brewery. They’ll likely let you taste-test, within reason, beer profiles you didn’t even know existed. Ask these experts what they would serve as a complement, and go from there. To get you on the right track, here is what I know: Spicy dishes require crisp, clean sips; dark flavors are balanced by sweet, caramelized, and charred; and spice marries well with smoke.
As is always a good rule of thumb, make sure your menu covers a wide spectrum of flavors that spark the taste buds in different spots. If you can achieve this, everyone is practically guaranteed to find a dish that elevates or uncovers complex characteristics of the brew they brought.
Throw another log on the bonfire, because now is the time to break out winter warmer ales erupting with holiday aromas like clove. To kick things off for my chilly weather cele-beer-ation, I start off with one of my favorite, practically effortless appetizers for a group: cheese and charcuterie. An elegant platter is an expert way to have a variety of pairings in one single dish. Take it up a notch by adding homemade brown-sugar-ginger-pumpkin jam.
Did a friend bring a bold, full-bodied stout? Its residual sugar will magically match a buttery blue cheese’s salt. I recommend Stilton. For citrusy IPAs, their fruity bitterness will parallel the floral pungency of a stronger, slightly funky, washed-rind cheese.
Next up, I like to serve another crowd-pleaser: chicken wings. I bathe these handhelds in an unexpected blend of coconut milk, fresh chilies, and lime juice, bake until almost done, and then toss them onto the grill. No grill? Clear an indirect spot on your fire and finish them in a tinfoil package over the flames to achieve the same smoky essence. These fiery flavors need something fresh and citrusy to cool them down, and this is where your lighter styles come in handy.
A cloudy Belgian-style witbier or a refreshing Pilsner will help to tame the heat. For a real treat, keep an eye out for gose, a salty, tart wheat beer usually spiced with coriander, especially one featuring Asian notes like ginger and lemongrass.
Since it is the holidays, you might as well end with an indulgence and go beef or go home. I slow-braise thick slabs of short ribs in sticky molasses spiked with a stout, and then caramelize them on the grill for the win. The slightly bitter, robust flavor of a Baltic porter brings out the roasted malty flavor of the beer-infused meat.
A few hours later, for dessert, replace traditional marshmallows in-between Nutella-slathered graham crackers for an oozy soft cheese like brie. Add sweet dates for a meaty chew, and wash it all down with a robust, toffee-scented barley wine.
When the last sticky short rib has been cleaned and the final hop drops have disappeared, pat yourself on the back for thinking outside the basic dinner party box and pulling off a lively evening that brought people together. And of course, don’t forget a moment of gratitude for the ingredient that inspired it all. Here’s to the beer!
BEER SHARE MENU
Cheese and charcuterie board with brown-sugar-ginger-pumpkin jam
Pairs well with: spiced winter ale for the smoked meats and cheeses, creamy stout for a mild blue cheese such as Stilton, hazy American-style IPA with creamy Camembert-style cheeses, and witbier with fresh cheeses like goat
Coconut, chili, and lime grilled chicken wings
Pairs well with: cloudy, citrusy Belgian- style witbier, crisp pilsner, and fruity gose
Sticky stout and molasses braised short ribs
Pairs well with: Baltic porter
Date, brie, and Nutella s’mores
Pairs well with: bold barley wine
Cheese and charcuterie board with brown-sugar-ginger-pumpkin jam
For the board:
4 ounces fresh cheese, such as a local goat’s milk chevre
4 ounces sharp, aged cheese, such as manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano, sliced into shards
4 ounces soft-ripened or semi-soft cheese, such as Camembert
4 ounces salty, pungent cheese, such as Stilton or Gorgonzola
4 ounces smoked cheese, such as Gouda or cheddar
4 ounces cured, hard sausage, such as sopressata, sliced
2 ounces whole-muscle cut meat, such as prosciutto, shaved
crostini rounds, toasted
crackers, for serving
chunks of honeycomb (or a ramekin of honey)
For the jam:
1 ½ pounds baking pumpkins
(or 1 15-ounce can pumpkin)
juice and peel of 1 orange
½ fresh vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out
1 teaspoon ginger, freshly grated
¼ teaspoon cinnamon, ground
½ cup light brown sugar
salt, to taste
Assemble meats and cheeses: On a large platter, arrange the cheeses and meats and decorate with crostini rounds, crackers, honeycomb, and olives. Serve the pumpkin jam, recipe follows, in a small ramekin with a serving spoon.
Make the brown-sugar-ginger-pumpkin jam: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice off the pumpkins’ stems, cut them in half, and scoop out the seeds. Place them cut-side down on a baking sheet and bake until very soft, 45 to 60 minutes. When they’re cool enough to handle, scrape out the flesh.
Place the pumpkin flesh into a food processor and pulse until smooth. Transfer the purée to a medium saucepan over low heat, and add the juice and peel of the orange, the vanilla bean seeds, ginger, cinnamon, brown sugar, and salt. If mixture is too thick, thin with ¼ cup water. Bring to a simmer and cook until visibly thick, about 10 minutes. Remove the orange rind and serve the jam chilled or at room temperature. Yields 2-3 cups.
Total recipe serves 12 – 14
Melted Brie, date, and nutella s’mores
24 graham cracker squares
1 cup hazelnut spread
12 thin slices of brie cheese
½ cup pitted medjool dates, sliced thinly long-way
1 cup orange marmalade
Preheat a grill to medium heat (or your oven to 350 degrees).
Lay out half of the graham cracker squares. Top each one with a smear of hazelnut spread, a slice of brie, and a few date slices. Spread the other graham cracker with orange marmalade and then place it jam-side down on the s’more.
Wrap each s’more individually in a foil package and then place them on the grill (or in the oven). Cook until the brie is melted, about 2 to 3 minutes. Serve warm.
Serves 10 – 12
Red curry coconut, fresh chili, and lime grilled chicken wings
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon lemongrass, minced or grated
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
2 Thai red hot chilies, deseeded and cut into slivers
2 tablespoons red curry paste
1 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon fish sauce
zest and juice of 1 lime
12 whole chicken wings, split into wings and drumettes (24 pieces total)
salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
Cilantro leaves, for garnish
Lime wedges, for garnish
In a large skillet, heat the sesame oil over medium heat. Add the lemongrass, ginger, garlic, chilies, and red curry paste and cook until very fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the coconut milk, honey, fish sauce, and lime zest and juice, and whisk to combine. Simmer the sauce for 3 to 5 minutes, and then season with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Divide the sauce into two batches and cool to room temperature. Generously season the wings with salt and pepper and then toss them in half of the sauce. Marinate in the fridge for at least several hours, or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325. Remove the wings from the marinade and arrange them in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake until almost cooked through and lightly browned, about 25 to 30 minutes.
Preheat a grill or grill pan to medium high heat and slowly reheat the second half of the coconut sauce.
Continuously basting with the warmed-up sauce, grill the wings until they have generous char marks, about 2 to 4 minutes per side. Arrange the wings on a platter and garnish with the lime wedges, cilantro, and remaining red chili slivers. Serves 10 – 12 as an appetizer
Stout and molasses braised short ribs with grilled baby leeks and charred oranges
2 teaspoons neutral oil, such as vegetable or sunflower
10 thick-cut beef short ribs
salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
1 small red onion, sliced
4 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped
¼ cup orange marmalade
½ cup molasses
2 cups stout beer
2 cups beef broth
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 small bunch baby leeks, rinsed and roots trimmed
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
1 seedless navel orange, halved
Preheat the oven to 325.
In a large cast iron skillet or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Pat the short ribs dry and then season them generously with salt and pepper. Sear the ribs on all sides until golden brown, remove them from the pan, and turn the heat to low. Add the red onion, garlic, and orange marmalade and season with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Add the molasses, stout, and broth and scrape up any brown bits from the bottom. Bring to a boil, whisk in the paprika and cumin and add the bay leaf to the liquid. Transfer the browned ribs back to the pan meat-side down, cover, and place into the oven. Braise the ribs until very tender and cooked through, about 2 ½ hours.
Preheat a grill or grill pan to medium-high heat.
Using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove the ribs from the braising liquid and transfer them to a plate. Skim off any fat that you can from the liquid, and then boil it down until it has reduced by about half and is thick and sticky. Brushing with the thickened sauce, grill the ribs for 2 to 3 minutes per side.
Meanwhile, toss the baby leeks with the olive oil and season them with salt and pepper. Grill until lightly charred and then split in half lengthwise. Drizzle the oranges with the honey and grill, flesh-side down, until golden brown and caramelized. Arrange the leeks on a platter and then top with the short ribs, grilled oranges, and the remaining sauce. Serves 10