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Chicago Celebrates Belgian Beer And Gastronomy
By Lucy Saunders

While the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia rolled out its barrel of good news about American craft-beer sales, a smaller convocation of Chicagoans gathered for a Belgian Beer Celebration. Held at Kendall College’s gorgeous downtown campus, the festival drew more than 300 avid fans of imported Belgian brews over two days.

On Friday, April 15, members of the trade rubbed shoulders with members of the Chicago Beer Society who attended the seminar sessions to hear author Jeff Sparrow and importer Don Feinberg discuss popular Belgian beer styles. It was the most engaging of seminars. Next, Herwig van Hove, the hefty host of “1000 Seconden,” a popular Belgian cooking show that offers recipes that may be prepared in about 17 minutes, lectured on the proper pairing of Belgian beer and cuisine.

However, van Hove practically rapped my knuckles when I asked about the Belgian tradition of cuisine a la bière. “No, you should not put the beer in the food, but pair the beer with the food,” he glowered. Yikes, should we mention that to the chef cooking tonight’s festival dinner? I wondered silently. I wended my way back to one of the 20 other tasting tables.

Stella Artois and other InBev USA (Interbrew) brands flowed freely at the festival, as did the Merchant du Vin portfolio of Trappists Orval and Westmalle and lambics such as Lindemans, as well as DeuS, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Oud Beersel, McChouffe, Cantillon and many other classic Belgian imports. La Brasserie du Bocq and Les Artisans Brasseurs were featured newcomers to the U.S. market. The Belgian Beer Celebration gave Chicago’s bar owners and denizens of drink the chance to taste Belgium’s top brews without a passport.

I sampled the Satan Red, a beer that was new to me, and chatted with its brewery owner, Johan Merckx of the DeBlock Brewery from Merchtem, about the outrageous graphics that strong Belgian ales often parade on labels and packaging. The Satan line of brews depicts a devilish drinker, and as it turns out, is very popular in Europe around Halloween. Halloween?? Yes, France and Belgium have embraced Halloween parties and trick or treats, replete with scary labels on brews.

A similar version of the Belgian Beer Celebration travels to John’s Grocery in Iowa City, Iowa, in May. Doug Alberhasky, manager and beer connoisseur, is devoting two days to Belgian beer promotions, with a beer dinner and guided tastings for consumers. “It’s a great opportunity for Iowans to sample a wide range of Belgian styles, because the state has stringent legislation about strong brews,” said Alberhasky. (Iowa classifies brews above 6.25% abv as “liquor,” so Alberhasky has to petition the state for permission to bring in strong Belgian beer.) John’s Grocery now stocks close to 140 Belgian imports among its roster of 1,900 brews.

"Van Hove practically rapped my knuckles when I asked about the Belgian tradition of cuisine a la bière."

Cream City Suds, Wine & Spirits guru Jeff Platt gave a wide-smiled welcome to many of his Chicago buddies, such as Steve Hamburg, Randy Mosher and Laura Blasingame of the Map Room. “I’ve wanted to be part of an event like this for 10 years,” Platt said. “It’s great to see it happen with so much support.” Other sponsors and donors included Beer2005 (the Web site for beer tourism in Belgium), Achouffe, Belgianstyle, Beerparadise, Beeradvocate, Bosteels Brewery, Brasserie-Dupont, Desobry SA, InBev USA (Interbrew), Kendall College, Merchant du Vin, Orval, Paterno Wines, St-Feuillien, Shelton Brothers, Swissôtel and Xeikon. European Imports brought a selection of Belgian cheeses, including the beer-washed rind Chimay cheeses, which were sampled widely.

The dining room of Kendall College overlooks Goose Island and the west Loop skyline, a dramatic backdrop to the seven-course Belgian beer dinner created by Chef Chris Quirk and a team of culinary students. The Belgian beer dinner started with an aperitif of the champagne yeast–fermented ale DeuS, paired with tender cornmeal blini, sweet crème fraiche and fat orange salmon roe. I liked the crisp Deus with the cornmeal blini, but the ale also enhanced the taste of the salmon roe from “fish” to “fishy.” I thought the blini would have been delicious topped with chopped grilled shrimp, too.

An appetizer of mussels cooked with julienned Belgian endive, herbs, lemon juice, butter and Hoegaarden Witbier paired naturally with more Hoegaarden. Following the mussels came another seafood dish. Thin medallions of codfish were rolled around a center of brown duxelle mushrooms, roasted with leeks and served with a carrot brunoise, featuring a tasty sabayon sauce made with Chimay white. It was served with Chimay Double.

McChouffe brown ale–braised beef short ribs, Brussels sprouts with bacon and brown butter, and buttery, garlicky mashed potatoes followed with more McChouffe. I poured a bit of the Satan Gold that I had brought to the table with me to taste on the side, and found I preferred the contrast of the golden ale with the caramelly roasted taste of the braised beef.

A salad of field greens, toasted pecans and dried cherries was plated with a round mousseline of Roquefort cheese and cream, with a Cantillon Rose vinaigrette. Served with imported Cantillon, it made a refreshing palate-cleanser to prepare us for the dessert of raspberry cheesecake with lambic-soaked raspberries. The dinner was a tremendous success for the hosts, the Belgian American Club of Chicago, Flanders Export Promotion Agency and Wallonia Trade Office.

Since Chef Quirk was not prepared to share his recipes, I decided to create some beer blini topped with grilled shrimp in a Belgian ale marinade. Here’s to savoring the flavor of Belgian cuisine at home, with your own Belgian brew of choice.

[RECIPE] Ginger Grilled Shrimp with Beer Blini

Ginger Grilled Shrimp
12 ounces golden Belgian ale
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 tablespoons hot pepper sesame oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons peeled and grated fresh ginger root
1/4 cup minced scallions
12 ounces large sweet shrimp, peeled

Mix ale, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger and scallions in blender until emulsified. Remove 1/4 cup mixture; cover and refrigerate. Place shrimp and remaining marinade in gallon-sized resealable plastic bag and chill overnight. Remove shrimp from marinade and grill until pink, about 2 to 3 minutes, turning once. Remove from grill and chop into bite-sized pieces. Place in bowl and mix in reserved marinade. Prepare blini and top each one with 1 tablespoon crème fraiche and 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped grilled shrimp.

Beer Blini
1/2 cup fine-ground yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup pastry flour
1/4 cup buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 egg
4 ounces pilsner or mild Helles lager
3 ounces heavy cream
1 cup crème fraiche (topping)

Sift cornmeal, flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, pepper and sugar into a medium bowl. In a small bowl, whisk melted butter, egg, lager and cream until smooth. Combine the wet and dry ingredients in the larger bowl until just mixed, scraping sides and bottom of bowl. Batter should be thick and creamy. If it is too stiff, add a bit more cream or beer. Drop batter by heaping tablespoons onto heated, greased skillet placed over medium heat, about 2 inches apart. Cook about 1 minute or until edges are barely browned. Lower heat and flip blini to cook another minute, or until golden. Reheat skillet and repeat until all batter is used. Keep blini warm until topped with crème fraiche and shrimp, and serve immediately. Yields 20–24 blini.

Lucy Saunders edits beercook.com and writes often about beer and food.


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