By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
CJ Mueller can’t stop raving about the vegetables.
“We have Brussels sprouts on our menu from Thompson Farms that are the best Brussels sprouts I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I don’t want to deny people that.”
While there’s never been much outcry about a lack of Brussels sprouts on a menu, Mueller’s excitement about the mini cabbages that have unfairly sat shunned on countless dinner plates for decades is representative of his approach to Culmination Brewing’s food as its new executive chef. Not only does produce get more than a supporting role in the kitchen; Mueller also uses his position to underscore the importance of farm-fresh ingredients that taste better and are cultivated with environmentally sustainable methods.
Fans of the barbecue and tacos that Culmination regularly once featured were in for a bit of a shock when Mueller took over the cooking duties about six months ago. It’s not that the focus on vegetables has meant that meat gets pushed aside. But his dishes are certainly a departure from traditional pub fare. Instead of burgers and chicken sandwiches, you’re more likely to find protein in the form of charcuterie or small game. Since the neighborhood brewpub is often seen as an extension of personal space, there’s always some resistance to anything different within those boundaries.
“And initially, people were like, ‘What’s happening with the menu?’” Mueller described. “Yeah, it took a little flak right off the bat, as you do when you change things.”
As customers become more acquainted with Mueller’s cuisine, he’s eager to get to know their palates and regularly seeks feedback about what he’s serving. But the one thing you can expect from this chef is constant change. His dishes are driven by a craving for creative freedom as well as what’s fresh given the time of year. Mueller estimates 80-90 percent of his produce comes from Thompson Farms in Damascus — the plot of land that’s turning out those impressive Brussels sprouts he talked up.
“I show my cooks the difference every day, in like — OK, these are store-bought vegetables and they’re good, but these are fresh from the farm. These are no insecticide, no change — this is the plant being grown the proper way, and it’s unbelievable,” Mueller explained. “We get great vegetables. My job at this point is not being a painter. It’s being a framer. The painting’s already been made.”
In another earth-friendly move, Mueller minimizes waste in the kitchen. Damaged greens that can’t be presented to customers find eager eaters on a local rabbit farm. Those animals will then likely have a place on the Culmination menu this spring.
“We’re kind of trying to create a closed-loop system here,” Mueller said. “When I started here, it was three demands: it was seasonal, local and vegetable-driven. Which is different for a brewpub or taproom.”
A hearty array of vegetables was recently on display in the form of a Chicory Salad. The plate of dark reds, oranges and greens allows you to experience just how flavorful the cell walls of plants can be when prepared well. And perhaps that’s why Mueller is so enthusiastic about produce. Like many kids who push peas around and pocket green beans for later disposal, Mueller admitted he was a very picky eater.
“And I think a lot of people don’t get to see vegetables cooked right,” Mueller explained. “That’s the thing — if you don’t know how to cook ‘em, they don’t turn out good.”
Mueller’s salad balances earthy, bitter radicchio with the sweetness brought out by caramelizing the endive and charring the carrot. A tangy chevre smooths out the bite of the preserved lemon and parsley vinaigrette, injecting notes of spring into the warm winter salad. Culmination’s Sour Flower Power Hour is bright with an initial soft hint of citrus building to a stronger lemon drop cocktail-like finish that complements the light dressing.
Another fruit flavor is highlighted in Peche, a Flanders-style blonde that was fermented with several hundred pounds of its fleshy namesake. The tang of the beer hits the palate first and when paired with the Cheese Plate, it cuts through the mild funkiness of the Fourme d’Ambert — one of France’s oldest cheeses. This creamy treat gets even richer when eaten with a slice of velvety house-smoked capicola that’s simultaneously savory and smoky-sweet. A nectarine jam ends up accentuating the beer’s tartness that just might remind you of those mouth-puckering peach Jolly Ranchers.
One of the most unique offerings coming out of the Culmination kitchen is the Cream of Cauliflower Soup. It’s as thick as it looks, but incredibly smooth with hints of earthiness giving way to a slightly sweet characteristic similar to a comforting potato puree. A sprinkling of Ras el Hanout down the middle of the bowl adds punches of cayenne pepper, coriander and cinnamon to each bite. Succulent cubes of bacon jam that come atop the soup are the meatier version of oyster crackers in a chowder. The recommended beer pairing is the brewery’s ever-popular 4 & 20 Imperial Black IPA. Rich, roasty flavors enhance similar notes in the dish and the beer’s hoppiness springs to life, serving as a palate cleanser for such a dense meal.
Since Mueller’s arrival, the menu has shifted three times and spring will usher in another round of changes. Winter vegetables will go into temporary retirement as Mueller prepares to get his hands on some new greens, fresh from the dirt. That’s why if he’s ever asked if he’ll create a signature dish, he’ll give this answer:
“I hope I never have one. That’s just me,” Mueller said. “And it’s good for fostering a positive atmosphere in my kitchen. Those guys know that what they might be cooking one week might be tweaked, changed or totally different the next week. Keeps them moving forward, too.”
Cream of Cauliflower Soup With Ras el Hanout and Bacon Jam
Paired with Culmination’s 4 & 20 Imperial Black IPA
By Executive Chef CJ Mueller
For Cream of Cauliflower Soup:
2 yellow onions
3 cloves roasted garlic
2 russet potatoes
4 heads of cauliflower
1/4 cup heavy cream
For Cream of Cauliflower Soup:
—Slice onions and cook down with garlic in a little bit of oil until translucent.
—While onions cook, core the cauliflower and separate the florets. Toss with a little oil and roast in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes until they develop a bit of color.
—Peel and chop potatoes and add to pot with onions and garlic.
—Once the cauliflower has roasted, add to pot and cover with water or vegetable stock (we use stock at the restaurant to add flavor).
—Simmer until cauliflower is tender, then add cream and puree in blender.
—Season with salt.
For Ras el Hanout:
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons coriander, toasted
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cumin
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons salt
For Ras el Hanout:
—Grind all whole spices and combine all ingredients.
For Bacon Jam:
2 cups bacon, diced small
1 red onion, diced small
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon chili flakes
For Bacon Jam:
—Render bacon in a little oil. Once it begins to crisp, add onions.
—Cook together for a few minutes, then add all other ingredients. Cook until desired consistency is reached, then adjust seasoning.
2117 NE Oregon St., Portland
Monthly recipes and pairings from your favorite brewpubs around Oregon.