In a tip of the hat to the original "bachelor cook" concept upon which this blog was founded, I'd like to take a look at what has been an essential ingredient to my own cooking since the mid-90s: BEER! As I've discussed on numerous occasions in these "pages", beer has come into its own in recent years as more than just fuel for frat parties and football watching, with brewpubs like Mill Street who make their own beer and cook with it, and beer-themed restaurants like Brothers Beer Bistro that treat beer with the same respect as other "high end" restos treat wine.
With the current resurgence of craft brewing in Canada, the ubiquitous so-called Pilsners (Blue, Canadian, etc.) are no longer the norm and there's all manner of different beers out there with unique flavour profiles. As a result, I like to try cooking with some of these more uncommonly flavoured beers.
|The all-important liquid ingredients in today's feast.|
Smoked "Hot Duck" with "Route des épices" Beer Gravy
- 1-1 1/2 pound duck breast
- Trim the skin and fat off the duck breast and set aside in a ziploc in the fridge before brining. If I wasn't using the skin and fat for the gravy, I'd keep them on the duck to help retain moisture while smoking, but in this case the gravy is as much a centrepiece of the dish as the meat itself.
- 6 cups water
- 2 cups apple juice
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 2-3 bay leaves
- 1-2 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- Whisk all ingredients together in a non-reactive container, ensuring salt and sugar are completely dissolved. Submerge duck breast into brine and ensure it stays submerged by covering with a small plate or other weight. Brine for around 12 hours.
- Once you remove the duck breast from the brine, rinse well in cold water and pat dry.
|Brining does discolour the meat a little, but it'll look fine once smoked. The little pink area here is a spot where air got trapped under the plate, so that small patch didn't soak in the brine.|
Smoking the Duck
Duck doesn't need a whole lot of smoking time, about 3-4 hours at 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit. I'd read quite a few posts complaining about how the exterior of the meat dries out too quickly when smoking, but I found that was not a problem after I wrapped the meat in foil for the final hour of smoking.
Keep the duck breast warm by wrapping in foil and keeping in a 200 degree F oven while making/finishing the gravy.
- Skin and fat from duck breast (see above)
- 1 tsp unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup sliced button or cremini mushrooms
- 2 tbsp minced onion
- 1 tsp minced garlic
- 1 cup "Route des épices" beer
- pinch each of salt, pepper, rosemary, oregano and smoked paprika
- 1 tsp corn starch
- 2 tbsp water
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 1 tbsp molasses
- In a saucepan, melt butter and sauté mushrooms, garlic and onions for 10 minutes at medium-high heat.
- In another saucepan, render duck fat and skin on medium heat.
- Once fat has rendered, transfer mushrooms, garlic and onions into the duck fat. Before doing this, you might want to remove the cooked bits of skin. They get kind of chewy and don't really add anything to the gravy. I didn't do this and it didn't bother me, so it's up to you.
- Add beer and seasonings and cook down at medium heat for about 10-15 minutes.
- Combine corn starch and water to make a roux (thickener).
- Whisk in roux, stirring constantly and cook for another 10 minutes.
- Add maple syrup and molasses and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
|Bubblin' its way to tasty.|
It was after adding the roux that I made an important discovery about cooking with strong, hops-forward beer: that stuff can be really bitter! My gravy, which I'd expected to be rich and delicious, was almost unpalatably bitter. So, what to do? Well, sweet is usually a counter to bitter, so to the Sweetener-mobile! I decided on the spot to add a good whack of maple syrup, which countered the bitterness well, but the gravy needed an extra push over the cliff, so I threw in molasses as well. This resulted in a sweeter-than-expected gravy, but how would it taste once I put it all together? We'll see!
Peas and Toast
- In the last 10 minutes of making gravy, toast two slices of dark rye/pumpernickel bread to desired toastiness.
- Steam 1 cup frozen peas in 1/2 cup boiling water for 4-5 minutes and drain.
Putting It All Together!
|Ready for a gravy bath!|
So, how was it? Well, kinda delicious! The duck was succulent and tender and is really freakin' good smoked! The gravy was a little more bitter than I'd have liked, but that was balanced by the maple and molasses to make all the flavours combine well, with a nice earthy undertone from the mushrooms. The peas added a fun crunch and burst of something resembling nutrition.
In the end, the addition of sweetness in the gravy actually made it better! As with most smoked meats, like ribs, a sweet sauce is a good counterbalance to the smoky/salty meat flavour. However, the beer choice was a bit of a dud. Next time, I'll use a much less hoppy beer. Maybe a mild stout?
Sweet Potato Fries with Irish Cheddar/Night-Märzen Dip
- 2-3 large sweet potatoes, cut into fries
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit
- Rinse the potatoes in water and dry well. The Internet suggested I try coating them in corn starch to help make them crispy, but really, that was an unnecessary step.
- Spread sweet potatoes on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, turning halfway through.
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup grated Irish cheddar (or extra-old cheddar)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup Night-Märzen beer, or other flavourful Oktoberfest-style lager
- Mix all ingredients together and bake in oven-proof dish at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 8-10 minutes or until top is golden and bubbly.
|Note to self, corn starch doth not crispier fries make...|
And there you have it, my experiment in cooking with more interesting beers. The end result wasn't quite what I was expecting, but it taught me some culinary adaptation skills and a lesson in ingredient selection. In this case, just because you love to drink a certain beer, doesn't mean it'll be the best for cooking.
Til next time, stay tasty San Diego!