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The Food Has Been Drinking.

April 27, 2012

“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.” – Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr

Over the past few years I’ve occasionally toyed with the idea of giving up alcohol completely – I’ve gone through periods of several months without touching a drop and barely even noticed. There are various reasons for this – the main one being that I suffer from truly horrific hangovers – even a couple of glasses of wine leaves me suffering for most of the next day, and  doing something as unreasonable as attending a party can leave me virtually useless for the best part of a week. These symptoms seem to just get worse as I get older – by the time I’m fifty I swear that glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve will take out the whole of 2032. (Perhaps this is why people have to retire? I never considered this before…).

Also I get pissed really easily. And then I turn into an idiot. And this is never good. None of this knowledge prevents me from occasionally drinking far more than I should and spending the next day/week/month/lifetime regretting it. At least now I’m older that happens a few times a year, as opposed to my student days, when it happened a few times a week.

Also, I have a slight concern sometimes that the relentless pursuit of getting legless in society in general, is, y’know – probably not that great. Imagine all the amazing things we could do or think if we weren’t busy feeling like a bear shat in our heads.  I also wonder if the Straight-edgers aren’t on to something, and being teetotal might be one of the most anti establishment things you can do these days – having a clear head at all times sounds kind of revolutionary to me. I definetly think would encounter more bewilderment from people if I suddenly said “I don’t drink” than I do from not eating meat.

I do like drinking under certain circumstances. I love a single malt whisky now and then. I like good beer. I really like being in wooden beamed pubs that serve a selection of real ales with names like “Fursty Ferret” and “Pigswill” (which, I think, could double up as names of villages in East Anglia). I like to drink in places that would never so much as let a bottle of Smirnoff Ice darken their doors, and ideally have little brushes by said doors so you can clean the cow poo off your wellies as you enter. Whilst women the world over worry about turning into their mothers, here I am, slowly but surely becoming my grandfather.

I like whisky because it’s not so much a flavour as a sensation. I always think it’s a bit like slow burning wasabi or horseradish. It sends a warm tingle into your throat and nostrils and up through your head and then you feel it sitting and glowing in your stomach. You don’t need to get pissed on whisky to feel great, because just a few sips is enough to give you that glowing from the inside feeling.

Beer is another thing. I realised when I started drinking it that the old guys were right when they talked about character. Lager, in particular, just tastes like mildly flavoured fizzy water designed mainly to get people rat-arsed (Love the Hobgoblin slogan “What’s the matter lager boy. Afraid you might taste something?). Beer has all kinds of flavours, and what I’d almost call textures going on. Once you notice this it makes it all seem a lot more like trying out different foods and I figured that maybe drinking and I could get on just fine. As it happens, real ale, from a barrel seems to give me fewer hangover issues than anything else – though I still have to pretty much stick at two pints if I hope to achieve anything the next day. And I still occasionally end up drinking too much rubbish beer. It’s sort of difficult to avoid on an evening out, especially when the selection of soft drinks is even worse (I’m not entirely convinced that a glass of coke is any better for my head than the equivalent amount of Brains Bitter – it certainly loses in the taste stakes).

I still never really drink at home. I never have. I have a bottle of rum that I bought two years ago to use in baking (it’s still half full) and occasionally someone might get me some booze as a present – but I don’t have drink at home as a habit. It’s not something I pick up with my weekly grocery shop, or have in “just in case”. This has always been so actually, even when I was younger, and drank more often; I never really stockpiled booze at home.

So I always found it a bit weird when cookery books suggested splashing a glass of white wine into a risotto. Who’s going to spend a fiver on a bottle of wine just for the sake of flavouring dinner? People who are sophisticated enough to have dinner parties tell me this is not a problem: they always have wine in “the rack” or “the cellar” (I cannot imagine ever having enough wine to warrant a rack. Or having anywhere to put such a rack for that matter. Perhaps if I could also store CDs on it?)  If there isn’t already a bottle open in the fridge then they open one, slosh a bit in the food, and trust that the rest will be drunk by guests before it goes bad. This is very much not my life.

As a result, other than using the rum to flavour cakes (I’m a big fan of rum truffles, and if it works in them it works in everything else), I never really got into the whole cooking with booze thing. Spending money when you don’t need to is totally against the whole kitchen anarchist ethic. When a recipe asks me to add wine, I usually just use a bit of extra stock or water and everything is fine (I used out-of-date pomegranate juice I got on sale in a stew once, it was actually quite nice.)

I still don’t cook with wine (except maybe just after Christmas), but I did recently get curious about the concept of cooking with beer. Apart from anything else, beer is cheaper, and you can buy it in much smaller servings, so it’s less likely to go to waste. I noticed a while ago that Guinness Cake is getting very popular (my Mum made a lovely one a while back) – Google will furnish you with many excellent recipes if you’re curious about that I’m sure. But what really persuaded me to give it a go was seeing an episode of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s programme and seeing him make a kind of simple curry out of corner shop ingredients and then topping up the liquid content by just pouring a bottle of beer in. I have tried really hard to find a video clip online of this moment so I can give him full credit but I can’t locate it anywhere. If anyone else can help out, great – otherwise I’m just going to have to assume it was a dream.

Anyway, I loved the look of the curry – the beer seemed to instantly give it a nice dark, rich colour and thick gloopy texture that you don’t usually get from just stock or water unless you reduce for a long time. It looked really appetising so Id decided I’d give cooking with beer a go.

There’s a place on Whitchurch Road in Cardiff called “The Discount Supermarket” that looks from the outside like a standard convenience store, but is actually a brilliant source of a) Indian style cooking ingredients and b) unusual beers. I bought a bottle of Moroccan style spiced ale from there, which I thought would give a stew some interesting flavours. Obviously I couldn’t remember what HFW did to make his curry, and I wanted more of a rich stew really – so I made up my own recipe using the same basic principles and whatever in my fridge needed using up. I was impressed with the end result. Using the beer just adds that little extra oomph to an otherwise nice but bog-standard stew and transforms it into something that seems to have a more rounded taste. It also thickens a bit more so becomes more filling and comforting. Since then I’ve also made a lovely vegetarian sausage and bean casserole with cider (an idea I got from my boyfriend’s Mum), which was gorgeous, and infinite variations on the beer based stew. I’m going to give the stew recipe here, as it’s the most adaptable – you can pretty much put anything you want in it; it’s the basic principle that’s important here. I still like to use a rich, dark and spicy beer as I think it needs that kick, but you can use anything you fancy really – I’m guessing a can of Carlsberg is probably not going to be too amazing though.

Beer Stew


Cooking oil

Onion (chopped)

Other chopped vegetables: root vegetables are best: potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips – I have used pumpkin with good results.

Tin or two of chickpeas (if you’re using cider then try haricots or butter beans)

Spices and herbs of your choice (even a sauce like HP or tomato ketchup works)

A bottle of beer or cider

A bit of brown sugar

You probably don’t actually need instructions for this but just in case:

–          Get the biggest pan you can find, pour in some oil and fry the onions.

–          After a few minutes add a spoonful of brown sugar, stir around a bit and continue to fry the onions until they’re really brown – like almost burned brown.

–          Add your other vegetables, plus your spices and herbs, stir and keep on cooking for a few more minutes.

–          Pour in your chickpeas, complete with liquid, and stir in.

–          Now add the beer. Stir well, and then bring the whole thing briefly to the boil before you turn the heat down and stick a lid on. Let it simmer away for about half an hour to forty minute, giving it a bit of a stir now and then.

–          Serve on its own, with cous cous, rice, or bread.

Incidentally, for anyone who likes looking at beers with silly names, you may find this worth a look:

4 Comments leave one →
  1. The Bystander permalink
    May 8, 2012 12:12

    There’ll be some beer in my next veg. stew.

    A while ago I bought a small fryer specifically for making onion bhajis (I tried chips too but I just can’t get the timing or temperature right and it’s quicker to walk to the chippy anyway) but despite all sorts of spice combinations I just couldn’t get it right. Until I used a can of Guinness to mix the batter! Not a classic Indian recipe but it worked.

    You may enjoy a reading of “The Degradation of Drunkenness”:

  2. May 11, 2012 18:04

    That sounds pretty good actually – you often get beer-battered onion rings so I suppose Guiness onion bhajis are kind of logical. What did they taste like? (loved the reading btw!)

    • The Bystander permalink
      May 15, 2012 20:44

      Despite playing around with spice mixes and ratios I was never quite hitting the mark. The taste was just to thin and the spices weren’t blending. The Guinness, however, added a base that seemed to bring it all together in what I can best describe as a nicely rounded blend of mostly coriander and cumin with a little Sainsbury’s medium curry powder. The black stuff also improved the appearance of the finished bhajis. I think I was leaving them in the oil too long to colour them up before. The darker batter mix meant I was getting the cooking time right too.

      • The Bystander permalink
        May 15, 2012 20:47

        I hate it when I spot a spelling mistake immediately after I hit submit – I did, of course, mean to say that the taste was too thin.

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