Pairings: Surly CynicAle and Moroccan Chicken

Fellow Twin Citizens are probably familiar with Surly’s CynicAle, a saison/farmhouse style ale available year-round from Surly. Cynic will always occupy a special place in my heart: it was the first Surly beer I ever tried, one adventurous afternoon at Common Roots when I was taken in by its name’s affinity for my natural disposition. Cynic is the most approachable of Surly’s regular offerings, not having the bitter roastiness of Bender or Furious’s hop bludgeoning. This is also one of Martha’s favorite beers, and she is far more discerning than I.

For those of you not so lucky as to live within Surly’s distribution range, Cynic is a very full-flavored ale; as the beer hits the tongue it fills one’s mouth with bananas and cloves and maybe a hint of vanilla. As the initial banana blast dies down, a solid malty backbone makes itself known and and other spices appear, most notably cinnamon, which burns slightly. As the beer finishes, it snaps with some hop dryness, but this is by no means a hoppy beer. Compared to other saisons, Cynic is – like many of Surly’s beers – much bigger; the banana and spice flavors are prominent on the tongue and easy to identify, and the malt and hops are distinct and recognizable.

In the past when I have done pairings on this blog I generally planned them pretty carefully: starting from Garrett Oliver’s masterful Brewmaster’s Table I would pick a beer I could  find locally and plan to make whatever food Oliver suggested to go with it. Tonight’s pairing, however, was pure serendipity. On a recent trip to The Four Firkins, Martha insisted that we pick up a four-pack of Cynic. I was already planning on making Moroccan Chicken, a culturally inauthentic but nevertheless tasty recipe from Cook’s Illustrated. As I got to thinking about the richly spiced chicken in fragrant broth and the four cans of spicy, fragrant Cynic sitting in my fridge something clicked and a pairing was born.

Moroccan chicken – an adaptation of traditional Moroccan tagines for American kitchens – is made by cutting a whole chicken into eight pieces (a task I achieved effortlessly with my new boning knife – my latest kitchen obsession) and browning them in olive oil. Next, onions are sautéed with a few pieces of lemon peel, then garlic, paprika, cumin, cayenne, coriander and cinnamon go in the pot. Broth and honey are added to deglaze and form a braising liquid, then the chicken thighs and legs are added in, followed by large discs of carrot and the chicken breasts. The whole thing simmers away for 15 minutes, at which point the chicken is removed and olives are added. After five minutes of boiling to thicken the sauce, the chicken returns  to the pot accompanied by cilantro, lemon juice, and a paste of lemon zest and garlic. The result is a dish of strong spice and garlic, with notes of citrus and sweetness from carrots and honey balanced by bitter olives. Served over cous cous it is very satisfying, warming fare that takes little time to prepare. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Doesn’t get much better, that is, unless you happen to have a can of Cynic on hand. At this point I had built the pairing up so much in my mind that there wasn’t much chance I wouldn’t say it worked, but honestly – honestly! – this was a great combination. At the most basic level, any food that is spicy (spicy-hot) is great with beer as the beer’s carbonation helps lift the burn from your tongue, readying your palate for more food. But the specific spice flavors in Cynic – especially the cinnamon – were matched by those in the stew in such a way that they blended together beautifully, a seamless union of drink and food. The citrus in the dish, which is subtle and muted, was nicely picked up by the citrusy hops present at the end of a drink of Cynic; as the hops hit, they provided an invitation to explore the citrus in the stew more fully. So too the hops’ bitterness countered the sweetness of honey and carrots in the stew.

When pairing food and beer, selecting similar flavor profiles can be risky since the flavors in one might overpower or distort the same flavors in the other. But in the case of Surly Cynic and Moroccan Chicken, the flavors were in near perfect proportion to each other; each bite of this stew made me want another drink of Cynic, each drink of Cynic another bite of stew.

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