Wine may be the favorite beverage from Spain and Portugal through southern France, Italy, and the Balkans to Greece, but the ingredients that shape all the cuisines of southern Europe — olives and their oil, wheat (in bread and pasta), tomatoes, garlic, tangy cheeses often made from sheep’s or goat’s milk, and herbs like oregano, basil, and thyme — also combine very well with beer. Pizza and beer are no strangers in North America, but fewer beer drinkers may be aware of the popularity of beer and tapas in Madrid and other Spanish cities. And while it may seem heretical to the French, a good hoppy ale can be the perfect thing to accompany a Languedoc-style cassoulet.
Pantry Notes: Mediterranean Europe
• Olive oil: I use two types of olive oil on a regular basis, one relatively mild for cooking (usually a big-can brand like Star or Bertolli) and a more flavorful extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings, sauces, and other dishes where you will really taste the oil. There is an amazing variety of the latter on the market, and you don’t have to pay top dollar for a good one from Greece, Italy, or Spain, so shop around. Keep all olive oil in a cool place out of sunlight, and use it within a few months after opening.
• Garlic: Look for rock-hard heads of garlic without any soft or sprouting cloves; this can be a tall order some times of the year. If there is a green sprout in the middle of a clove, some cooks claim that cutting it out improves the flavor of the rest. It certainly can’t hurt.
• Grating cheeses: Authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano from Parma, Italy, sets the world standard, with the more regional Grana Padano close behind. Both beat the pants off any domestic “Parmesan,” although I do like the aged Asiago made by Stella of Wisconsin. Pecorino Romano is a sharp sheep’s-milk cheese with a similar texture. All these cheeses should be grated just before use, and the cut pieces keep well in the refrigerator. If they get too dry, wrap them in a slightly damp paper towel and then in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Recipes from Pizza and Beyond (Mediterranean Europe):
The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook
From The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook, Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.