Jennifer Ward Barber
Because painting clovers on my cheeks got old when I was about 25, tonight I'll honor the patron saint of Ireland the way throngs of revelers will: by raising a Guinness or two. But this year, ever more gripped by foodie-ism and privy to genius inventions like Guinness floats, I decided I wanted to drink my Guinness and eat it, too.
The more I thought about it, the more an edible Guinness-fest seemed the only way to honor the blip in the week that would be my St. Patrick's Day. The 1920s posters proclaiming the black stuff as "good for you" rang in my mind. Sure, the phrase was eventually banned, but there had to be some truth in it. Beer baked beans, cheddar-beer soup, and fish in an ale-spiked breading had already succeeded—why not invite Guinness to dinner?
As all good cooks do, I settled on dessert first—an easy choice, given that I'd had a chocolate stout bundt cake recipe bookmarked since last year. There were a lot of chocolate stout cakes to choose from, but having recently visited Great Barrington, MA, I went with one adapted from the Barrington Brewery. Chocolate seemed like a no-brainer for rich, thick stout.
Jennifer Ward Barber
Then came the tough part: dinner itself. I began my search, which, in the age of food blogs and recipe sites, quickly made my brilliant idea to cook with Guinness seem like last year's fad. The recipes themselves were rather uninspiring: setting aside one for potted herring, beef was hands down the most common stout-friendly ingredient. Dozens of hits for Irish beef stews and steak-and-kidney pies rolled in. It made sense, given stout's big flavor, but I'm not much of a red meat eater, so I kept at it. What else could stand up to Guinness, if the beer's flavor even survived the cooking process?
Another idea hit me, inspired, perhaps, by St. Patrick himself: why not substitute Guinness for the typical splash of wine used in risotto? I consulted Google, and was met with much narrower results this time: my browser was quickly populated with more than 20 repetitions of the same oyster-and-watercress Guinness risotto. I felt vindicated by this slightly more creative "invention."
Since risotto has become somewhat of an old reliable in my kitchen, I felt confident with my choice. This Italian comfort food is forgiving of limited supplies, and I always have arborio rice on hand. Despite being a little worried by the addition of raw oysters at the end, which I later learned are a classic companion to Guinness, I forged ahead.
Then came the hurdles. In my far-flung neighborhood, miles from Whole Foods and fancy fish markets, fresh raw oysters are hard to come by. After visits to Giant and Safeway, I learned that apparently so was watercress. Before surrendering to beef stew, I brainstormed about what else could go with Guinness. Attempting to be more Alice Waters-esque and let my local provisions guide me, I tried one last store.
At the end of my road there's a tiny Hispanic grocer known simply as, well, just that, "The Store." I headed in for Guinness Extra Stout (figuring the "extra" would heap on that toasted-barley flavor I was looking for), and couldn't believe it when I found both shrimp—a cheap alternative to oysters—and the elusive watercress among the queso fresco and tamales. With a new bounce in my step, I headed home to create my tribute to Ireland.
First, I tasted the beer (for quality, of course). It was smooth and molassess-y as always. Then I set to work, sautéing the shrimp in garlic and chili flakes, then simmering them gently in half a cup of Guinness. I drained them, saving the precious cooking juices, and set them aside for later.
Risotto takes commitment and almost constant stirring, but it's a great communal meal for chatting and sipping wine (or, in this case, Guinness), and it's simpler than it sounds. Sauté onions and garlic in some kind of fat, and add vegetables if you want (in this case, mushrooms seemed the best compliment to stout). When those are nice and soft, add the arborio rice. A good risotto results from the slow absorption of liquid into the rice: first, the fat and vegetable juices, which I followed up with the Guinness and the shrimp's cooking liquid.
After a few minutes of stirring, the rice began to pull away from the bottom of the pan—signaling the start of 20-plus minutes of adding warm stock to the gently expanding rice. I wasn't sure what kind to use, and, perhaps under the influence of all those recipes I'd skimmed, I chose beef. It imparted a rich brown color that I'm not sure the beer would've added on its own. (I'm interested to see how chicken stock affects the Guinness flavor—something I'll maybe get around to next March.)
Risotto is done when the rice grains are al dente to soft, depending on how you like it. Then comes the best part: stirring in all the goodies. In went the shrimp, the flecks of chopped watercress, fresh lemon juice and zest, a pat of butter, and Parmesan cheese. These are the things that make risotto a cook's canvas, and a truly decadent one.
The risotto turned out smooth and creamy, its colorful contents playing brightly off the stout-colored rice. The Guinness flavor was alive and kicking, but not overwhelming. I was glad I had used the Extra Stout, and I declared the dish one of my most successful risottos ever (second to only my balsamic-roasted Brussels sprouts and blue cheese creation). I will definitely be keeping beer next to my arborio from now on.
The cake too was delicious—again with the just-barely-there flavor of beer that probably would've been lost had I chosen any beer but stout. I realized how good it would've been with stout ice cream from my neighborhood shop, Island Style Ice Cream, but it was too late to buy any.
Even without the ice cream, the meal was festive enough to make me want to dance a jig—but not to paint my face, or ice my cake, green. This year, I'll stick with Guinness.