Beer dinner in the Texas Hill Country

William M. Dowd photos

Lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort & Spa.

SAN ANTONIO, TX -- After 20 years of moving from one hotel kitchen to another, chef Jeff Foresman thought he'd seen it all.

Foresman trained in the respected Johnson & Wales University culinary program in Providence, R.I., then moved among eight Hyatt Hotels from Florida to Hawaii to California to San Francisco to Washington. D.C.

Things changed when he met Jaime Jurado (seen here), director of brewing operations for The Gambrinus Co. Jurado holds master's and doctoral degrees in engineering but worked his way through college in breweries in Maryland and Florida. When it became clear his career preference didn't involve a drafting table, he went off to study brewing in Munich, Germany.

Beer guru Jaime Jurado

Each man went on to establish credentials as among the best in their field. Both wound up here in San Antonio -- Jurado some years back, Foresman eight months ago -- but their paths didn't cross until a major wine competition in January at the posh Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort & Spa here.

A wine event might seem an odd place for beer to be spotlighted, but those involved in judging large competitions are known to prefer anything but wines after a day swirling, sipping and spitting sometimes hundreds of them.

Thus, the 7th annual San Antonio Express-News Wine Competition that drew an international field was ready for a beer dinner for judges and staff.

Jurado is an erudite and voluble beer advocate who, rather than merely having each course paired with a particular beer, wanted brews used as an essential ingredient in every dish.

"Beer, like wine, has enough different properties to enhance food in the preparation stages, not just in accompanying what you're eating,'' Jurado said.

"For example, you might use an IPA (India Pale Ale), which is hoppier and more bitter than other beers, in an oiler course using a vinaigrette. Or, you can take into account beer's chemical properties and how they'll affect other food ingredients in the cooking process.''

Foresman was a bit gunshy at first, despite Jurado's international credentials as one of the stars of the elite Master Brewers Association of the Americas.

"It took a while to experiment with precisely how to use the beer,'' Foresman said. "For example, for the jumbo prawns hors d'oeuvres, it wasn't difficult to figure out how to use the beer in the basic preparation, but we wanted to stretch what we did and how to go about it.''

Jurado and Foresman collaborated on scripting a five-course dinner that incoporated a line of Shiner brand beers brewed by The Gambrinus Co.

The Texas-based firm also brews Pete's Wicked Ale in Utica, N.Y., Bridgeport Ales in Portland, Ore., and Trumer Pils in Berkeley, Calif., as well as Tappeto Volante of Italy and Moosehead of New Brunswick, Canada, and is the importer for Groupo Modelo's Corona beer for the eastern U.S.

The aforementioned prawns canape was one of two butler-passed hors d'oeuvres.

"We boiled the prawns with their shells in a court boullion of water, Shiner Light Beer, pickling spices, peppercorns and parsley stems, then chilled it overnight in the broth,'' Foresman said. "Then we spread a mixture of cream cheese, whipped at high speed with lemon, salt, pepper and light beer, on toasted bread rounds, put the shrimp atop them and brushed a bit of a beer reduction on top.''

The trick in this dish, Foresman said, was to use only a dot of the reduction "because in the reducing process it became bitter -- almost unpalatable as far as drinking it would be concerned, but just enough body to sink into the shrimp when brushed on.'' A mango chow-chow was the final topping.

The second canape was strips of portabella mushroom, brushed with olive oil, herbs and garlic, seared on a flat-top grill, skewered then drizzled with the light beer as the strips became soft. They were served with a grilled red bell pepper dipping sauce.

The four courses of the plated dinner were nicely balanced among simple and rich offerings. A superb shellfish chowder, presented en croute, relied on Shiner Bock, the company's flagship brew. Bits of Texas lump blue crab, scallops and shrimp were added to a thickened broth of shrimp/lobster stock and beer, topped with a leek and aged cheddar crust.

A simple salad of hydroponically-grown local lettuces served with fried brie croutons and a Shiner Blonde/lemon vinaigrette set up the next course, a hickory grilled ribeye steak.

A thick, succulent piece of aged Texas beef, cooked medium-rare, was served with a compound butter utilizing herbs and Shiner Hefeweizen (German for "yeast wheat beer''). The same beer was used to steam the vegetable accompaniments as well as to help caramelize garlic which was then pureed and added to mashed potatoes.

The dessert course was one Foresman balked at, at first.

"Jaime wanted me to use a seasonal Shiner Dunkelweizen in the batter for a warm flourless chocolate torte,'' the chef said. "I didn't think it would work, but he asked me to indulge him. So, I tried one with beer and one without. The beer version poofed up nicely and became lighter. We're thinking of using it regularly.''

The cake had a liquid chocolate ganache center plus a drizzle of pistachio creme Anglaise, all of which went superbly with the rich, dark wheat beer and its inherent caramel notes created by strong hops mostly from the Mt. Hood, Ore., hop fields.

Foresman's summation: "This was quite an experience, and we all learned a lot. It was our first beer dinner, but it certainly won't be our last.''

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Drop in for a short one

At the risk of making the maddening Disney song echo for hours in your head, it's a small world after all.

Last summer I wrote an item about a 64-square-foot former railroad signal box structure in Cleethorpes, England, that had earned the title of the world's smallest pub.

The other day I received an envelope containing a note, a letter and some photos. The note, from Frances Hynds of Delmar, NY, informed me she and her husband, Given, had met a couple from Cleethorpes while on a cruise and had struck up a continuing correspondence. "I sent your article, and I have enclosed their reply," she wrote.

The reply, from Mary Keeble, said in part: "I couldn't believe it when I read about the small bar in Cleethorpes. We went to look for it and found it. I thought I would take some photographs ... . The pub is a small signal box on the light railway that runs near our promenade. It is very good."

By the way, the Greenwich Meridian passes through Cleethorpes. A signpost in the town shows various distances in miles. Among them: the North Pole 2,517, the South Pole 9,919, London 143, and New York 3,481.

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Omni gets an oil change

Omni Hotels is skimming the fat.

We speak here not of hotel spas. Rather, the chain announced today that all of its hotels will transition to a zero grams trans fat cooking oil by March 1.

The new oil, a combination of cotton seed oil and canola oil, will replace the partially hydrogenated oil now being used.

The change will impact menus in restaurants, in-room dining and banquet service. As always, the biggest hurdle was making good French fries, something fast-food chains have struggled with for years as they moved to non-trans fat oils.

Fernando Salazar, Omni vice president of food and beverage, agreed. "The ultimate test was the French fries. We weren't willing to make a change until we found a replacement that looks and tastes as good -- or better -- than our guests expect.

"We sought a solution for our valued guests that balances their dietary considerations with the high culinary standards they expect from a luxury hotel. We have been testing alternative oils since fall 2006 and are confident we have found the right replacement to meet consumer health needs and taste demands."

Omni Hotels encompasses 40 hotels and resorts in North America and the Caribbean. (The Montreal Omni is shown above.)

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