When I was asked if I might be interested in attending an event showcasing Negra Modelo beer, along with food prepared by Chef Rick Bayless, I immediately wrote back: “You had me at Negra Modelo! I’ll sound like a fan-girl, but that’s because I am one: Negra Modelo has been my beer of choice with Mexican food for decades. And then you throw in Chef Rick Bayless? I was thrilled to eat at Frontera Grill in Chicago a couple years back.”
All true. When I was working on developing my love of beer, “craft beers” weren’t around. Exotic meant Heineken and Coors (the latter not available outside of the Western U.S. at the time). Then I moved to Texas and discovered Mexican restaurants — and Mexican beer. Since I didn’t drink anything heavier than a lager in those days, I don’t recall why I first tried a Negra Modelo, but I did and was immediately a fan. According to the brand: “Our brewmasters have employed the same distinctive techniques since they began brewing Negra Modelo back in 1925. This Munich Dunkel (dark) style is characterized by its liberal use of roasted or toasted malts. The slow roasting of the malts alone makes the brewing process last twice as long as other beers, producing its signature reddish color and hint of sweetness.” I simply call it a deliciously smooth dark beer that doesn’t taste too dark.
As for my visit to Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill several years back, well … I was thrilled to have a chance to eat there, true. But my tastebuds weren’t ready. The multiple-award-winning chef is known for specializing in traditional Mexican cuisine with creative modern interpretations. Me? My introduction to Mexican food was the Tex-Mex style, and through the years, I stayed in my comfort zone (aka rut?).
So when I heard something about “salmon” and “lamb” (mint jelly?) being mentioned, I was a teeny bit worried. This was coming from the stage, where Bayless was joined by Chef Michael Cairns, named “Best Chef” Critic’s Choice Award at the Vail Wine & Food Festival. The two started an entertaining and informative back-and-forth cooking demonstration of their respective dishes, both of which incorporated Negra Modelo beer to add a distinctive, caramelly sweetness. And the aromas! Oh my, I was getting less and less worried the more I smelled that food. Soon, thanks to Chef Cairns, I was able to taste some of the best salmon I’ve ever eaten. I order salmon often at restaurants, always requesting that it be cooked “dry.” That’s perhaps not always a good idea, but for me there’s nothing worse than watery fish. No worries with this salmon! Chef Cairns used an unusual method to produce “non-poached poached salmon” with the perfect consistency and just a touch of a sweet crust, served in a hominy broth. I don’t have the recipe. I really really want the recipe. (Who knows? Since Chef Cairns is based in Phoenix, maybe I can track him down and get it for posting on Cooks&Books&Recipes.)
Meanwhile, Chef Bayless was adding beer to his Slow Cooker Lamb Barbacoa (Barbacoa de Borrego) for soft tacos. Yes, lamb tacos. I ate two and would have eaten as many more as I could find. This isn’t your mom’s roast leg of lamb! Absolutely delicious. And you’re in luck: I have permission to share this recipe here.
The recipe is also in his new cookbook, More Mexican Everyday: Simple, Seasonal, Celebratory, where Bayless notes that he serves lamb barbacoa to “his more adventurous friends” and beef barbacoa to a mixed group. Hey, that’s me — adventurous! Of course I took steps out of my rut via recipes incorporating my longtime favorite Negra Modelo. Coincidence? I think not. Some comfort zones have no boundaries.
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