Excellent and Inexpensive: Beer and Wine Pairings for Autumn Comfort Foods
By Jim Laughren
Shorter days, clouds muscling in on blue skies, temps backing off from those searing, suntan days of July. The turning of the seasons is our reassurance that the laws of natural order are still intact. Appreciate the meaning. Our planet, our universe, is… persistent, dependable, yet ever-changing and challenging, and ultimately: comforting. After all, it’s home.
So this time of year is also “our turn” to shift and repeat, recycle and reinvigorate, restore and revisit the familiar.
Comfort foods spring to mind. Warm, easy, and embracing; bursting with days gone by, with childhood memories and the well-being of seeing/smelling/eating this dish so many times before. A reaffirmation, if we listen, of the beneficence of who or whatever keeps it all going.
That being the case, let’s talk meatloaf. Not many cooks care to overheat their kitchens baking an inches-thick meat cake in the heat of summer. But come the cool, crisp days and eves of autumn, few dishes are as universally welcomed.
So many styles and variations. Doesn’t every cook have their own version? Yet there remains a commonality so remarkable that one family’s idiosyncratic recipe can still confer “comfort” to a diner who’s own memories of this classic are significantly different. Such is the power of food.
And with that meatloaf, few beers are tastier than a brown ale, a let’s-get-down-to-business brew readily available from either the U.K. or the U.S. For $10 or less you’ve got a wide choice of six-packs. Rich, malty, and meat-loving, with just enough hops to balance; a perfect choice.
Or, should you lean to the grape, an Australian shiraz from Victoria or McLaren Vale will definitely do you right. Barossa could be a little rich and heavy, but these other Aussies will play off the toppings and seasonings most of us look for in a good meatloaf. If you’re in the wine shop and you pick up anything on the high side of $15, put it back and ask your friendly clerk for some assistance.
Next up: beef stroganoff. What a saucy little number this can be. Easy and inexpensive, yet with a built-in decadence that makes it seem like you’re cheating on the budget. So much flavor from a pile of meat on a bed of noodles!
Though the beers and wines are lining up to be paired with this scrumptious plate of autumnal delight, the winners are clear. Starting with our vinous option, a terrific partner for the sour cream, mustard, and dill deliciousness of stroganoff is a young garnacha from Spain. Of which there are plenty, myself having recently enjoyed a gorgeous example for less than $10. Garnacha (aka grenache) is widely planted in Spain as it likes the hot, dry conditions found in much of the country. Its fresh, spicy, liveliness makes it the perfect partner for the rich, well-defined flavors of this dish.
The beer camp offers an equally delicious and distinctive candidate in a Belgian saison, or farmhouse ale. Whether of Belgian or craft brew origin, these bright, lively ales have hints of spice and an earthy quality to them. They typically have a citrus or sour character, and gladly wrap themselves around the mustard, sour cream savoriness of the stroganoff. Saisons often come in 22 to 25 oz. bottles, about the size of a standard wine bottle, and good ones go for no more than $9 or $10 apiece.
And now, on to chicken pot pie time. Chocked full of harvest vegetables, tender bird and creamy gravy, all inside a golden, flaky crust. Honestly, I’d eat this anytime of year.
But as the leaves turn and days get shorter, I’m reaching for a pumpkin ale to wash it down. Different brewers take different approaches to this seasonal favorite, but typically throw in some clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice to showcase the pumpkin—which in combination, do an even better job showcasing the chicken pot pie. And most will set you back less than $10 a six pack.
Wine lovers should reach for a pinot gris from Alsace. No insipid pinot grigio this, nor overly fruity, new world version either. Get ready to enjoy the fullest-bodied pinot gris around, a hallmark of Alsatian white wines. Spicy, stony, and complex but not so much as to compete with the food. Rather, this wine’s weight and flavors are a perfect balance with the pot pie. Look to shell out $16 or $17 for a real treat.
You didn’t think I’d forget the beef stew, did you? A dish so ubiquitous in chilly weather that its glories tend to be either overlooked or undersold. Here’s a food that combines tender, flavorful chunks of beef, slow cooked carrots, onions and potatoes, insanely rich gravy, and universal appeal. Almost an all-star lineup of the best of all the other comfort foods. And, it absolutely loves both beer and wine! In fact, throw a little of whatever you’ll be drinking into the stew while it’s cooking and your match will be that much better. This dish is always a winner…
And so ready to please when it comes to beverages that I can’t decide between a simple Bourgogne Rouge, an entry-level French pinot noir under $20 (remember, beef stew is known as boeuf bourguignon in France), a fruit- and spice-driven malbec from Argentina—$15 should do the trick, or a Dao or Douro Tinto from Portugal, an indigenous blend that’s likely to show dark plums, thyme, sage and white pepper, all of which I’d gladly toss in my stew. One could spend more, but let’s cap this option at $12.
Shifting to the beer world, a top-notch porter served with beef stew makes sense on so many levels that to exclude it would be a dereliction of duty, and with the best of them going for under $10 a six-pack, why would anyone want to? Of course, dark fruit, a meat-loving maltiness, a hint of caramel, and touch of nuttiness all point to a delicious imported or domestic bock beer, maybe $12 for a six, as another strong contender.
But since this marvelous stew is so accommodating, why not try all the options and see what you like best. After all, my palate is my palate, and what I love, you may not. Just keep an open mind and see what terrific pairings you discover that you never would have expected. The seasons turn; the old and the new. Remember, it’s our turn to recycle and reinvigorate the familiar, and here’s a great way to do it.
About the Author:
Jim Laughren, CWE, wine and beer aficionado, is the author of A Beer Drinker’s Guide To Knowing And Enjoying Fine Wine, available at amazon.com and better bookstores everywhere.