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Flights of Fancy, and Fallen Dreams

December 8, 2009

Let’s just go ahead and get it out of the way, shall we? I’m an inconsistent cook. Inconsistent, meaning the things I make are often delicious but unfortunately, just as often, they can be practically unpalatable. Sometimes it’s a poor recipe, sometimes my enthusiastic improvisations don’t work out, sometimes I just don’t pencil in enough time. My first beer cooking dish was one such fiasco.  Everything seemed to be going so well….until I added the beer.  That’s when it started to taste a little off. But I pushed through, adding a little more stock, a little more milk, mustard powder, paprika, a quick blend of the vegetables with my immersion blender and the final blessing of cheese.

It seemed like I couldn’t go wrong. I carefully selected the cheese: a white English cheddar from Venissimo, assertive but not overbearing. For the beer, I did a little research and chose a Chimay Premiere Red– an accessible Belgian Trappist Ale with a nice balance of fruit and hops. Perhaps I shouldn’t have mixed countries.  In the end, the soup had a wonderful texture and consistency but the strong, bitter elements of the beer combined with the cheese just didn’t work together at all. We ate most of it, but topped with lots of chives and helped along by a healthy hunk of bread.

Though it may not have turned out how I would have hoped, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to look back, reflect, and know how you will do things differently the next time.  I will try not to go so big, opting for a nice sharp commercial cheddar and maybe a Bass Ale, as the original recipe suggested.  I might even bulk out the base with some russet or red potatoes to help cut through the richness and give the beer a little cushion. Will I make this soup again? Absolutely. Maybe not anytime soon, but I’ll give it another shot. Live and learn in the kitchen.  And you know what? In the end, we opened a bottle of Mission Brewery’s Amber Ale and still counted ourselves extremely lucky.

(Note: photo was taken just before a lamp fell on the soup and beer.  So, sadly, this poor shot is the only one in existence.)

Cheddar Beer Soup
Adapted from Gourmet (with my suggestions in parentheses)
1 medium leek (white and pale green parts only), cut into 1/4-inch dice (1 cup)
1 medium carrot, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1 cup)
1 celery rib, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1 cup)
1 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1 Turkish or 1/2 California bay leaf
1/4 stick (2 tbsp.) unsalted butter
4 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
1 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (more if you like a thinner soup or if your beer’s too heavy)
1 (12-oz) bottle ale (I’d skip heavy Belgians in favor of Bass or Harp or even a Sam Adams)
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. paprika or cayenne pepper
8 oz extra-sharp Cheddar (milder if your beer is quite strong), grated (1- 1/2 cups)
–Some crusty bread for dipping and eating, chive or green onion to top.

Rinse leeks in a colander or bowl of water to dislodge any dirt between the layers.

Melt the butter in a deep saucepan or cast iron pot. Cook leeks, carrots, celery, garlic, and bay leaf in butter over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to soften, but don’t brown, around15 minutes. Season with a little salt and fresh pepper. Reducing the heat to moderately low, sprinkle flour over vegetables, then cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes, to help cook off some of the raw flour taste. Add milk, then broth, and finally beer, whisking continuously. Simmer, whisking occasionally, for an additional 5 minutes until soup begins to thicken. Stir in paprika, dry mustard, salt, and pepper. Discard bay leaf and carefully puree soup in batches in an upright blender or with an emersion blender.

Return soup to saucepan and add grated cheese a handful at a time, stirring constantly. Cook until cheese is melted, 3 to 4 minutes, being very careful not to boil the mixture.

Serve sprinkled with chives or croutons, or bacon. (Because everything is better with bacon—Samantha’s addition.)

Pairing notes: Though I made the soup with a Chimay, and we drank it with Mission Brewery’s Amber Ale, I would recommend pairing with the same ale you choose to cook.

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