In my younger days, it wasn’t unusual for me to have the occasional lunch or supper of a hunk of cheese, some bread and a good bottle (or two) of beer. In fact, it was my meal of choice for fall or winter days spent watching college football or hockey games on the television, curled up on the sofa in a bulky sweater nibbling and sipping, enjoying the interplay of sharp cheese and bitter ale on my tongue.
I have yet to catch up with my Wolverines or Wings this year, but the cooler weather we’ve had lately got me craving that combination of beer and cheese; specifically, beer and cheese in a slightly more refined form – soup. There are many versions of beer and cheese soup out there, some of them rich with cream, others with a base of potatoes as a thickener. My version falls somewhere in the middle, with pureed aromatic vegetables and a light roux providing body without making it too heavy. I also like to use a heavier hand with seasonings than most recipes do, as I find that the flavors of dry mustard and Worcestershire really bring out the best in both the cheddar and brown ale in the dish.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2-3 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup unbleached flour
2 teaspoons Colman’s mustard powder
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
1 cup whole milk
1 bottle brown ale (I used Sam Adams)
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 lb. good sharp cheddar cheese, grated (I used one of my favorites – Bobolink’s cave-aged cheddar)
Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add shallots, celery and carrot, season with salt and allow to cook until shallots are translucent. Sprinkle flour over the vegetables and stir to coat. Slowly add the milk, stirring well, until you have a creamy roux. Cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick and golden. Reduce the heat to low and add the mustard, Worcestershire and paprika, stirring to incorporate. Slowly add the stock and ale. (Note: The ale seems to foam up less if it is at room temperature when you add it. You will still want to watch carefully so it doesn’t boil over the side of the pot.) Allow the mixture to simmer until the vegetables are tender, then turn off the heat and puree it using a stick blender, regular blender or food processor. Return the pan to the stove and whisk in the cheese a little bit at a time over low heat. When the cheese is fully incorporated, taste and adjust the seasonings if necessary, then serve with a sprinkling of chopped chives or scallions on top. A natural beverage pairing would be a cold glass of the same ale or beer you used in the soup.