Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Does Food and Wine Pairing Have to be Intimidating?

In which the author definitively says yes, and no

By Peter Bell, Winemaker

During the year or so that we were having regular tapas evenings here at Fox Run, it was the task of the winemaking crew to taste each tiny dish a day ahead of the event and deliver a verdict on which single wine would best pair with it. The cuisine was madly eclectic, invoking a fusion-on-steroids ethos that generally left us mute with baffled enthusiasm.

Among the many things we learned from this exercise was that when it comes to making food and wine taste good together, one is often in territory uncharted in the existing oeuvre on the subject. With the startlingly creative food our chef came up with, reaching a decision on wine pairings thus had to be 100% empirically based.

With that in mind, we learned to systematically taste small portions of a given tapa, try to break it down into its key flavors and textures, and then taste it again with a succession of wines, all the while furrowing our brows in an attempt to look erudite and contemplative and rakish.

Our favorite combos seemed to effortlessly achieve the synergy trick that is the hallmark of a successful food and wine match: the wine emboldened the food’s flavors, and the food returned the favor, simple as that. Some memorable ones:

  • Mole chicken wonton drizzled with salted caramel goat cheese sauce, served with Merlot
  • House made beef and watermelon carpaccio with mint, lime and chili oil, served with Gewürztraminer

Other times we achieved a sort of lukewarm success, sort of like the vibe you’d get asking a girl to play with her younger boy cousin for the weekend. In these cases, it was just a matter of tasting a few more wines before we found something much more compatible.

And then there were the abject failures. Here’s where the value of a pre-event screening was really apparent. To wit:

  • Crab cakes with fresh corn paired with Chardonnay should have been, well, a cakewalk. We’d had great success pouring our Reserve Chardonnay with corn chowder in the past, and thought that shredded crab would only heighten the pleasure. But -- and to this day we don’t know why-- the crab cake managed to magnify the delicate, deep-background oak flavors in the wine to the point where there were no fruit flavors at all, just an almost comical planky taste. Final wine choice: Reserve Riesling.
  • Tasted by itself, a Thai jumbo shrimp with chilies, mint, basil, ginger, melon-tomato chutney and finished with a tiny drizzle of truffle oil was dazzling. We loved the earthy complexity of this little bite, along with its soft-plus-crunchy textures. We took tiny tastes and started through a lineup of wines that we thought might be a good match. The first candidate was our Gewurztraminer, normally a cinch to put with most finger foods, especially those with a hit of fresh ginger.  Let me be forthright: this delicious wine very nearly elicited the gag reflex when it met the truffle oil. Final wine choice: Riesling.

Paying this kind of exquisite attention is all very well in a setting where people come and pay money to be wowed. That said, I tend to spend very little time at home trying to divine which wine is the right wine to pour with whatever I’ve prepared. Absent the pressure to achieve an exalted food/wine apotheosis, and one is free to tap straight into the easy pleasure-giving qualities that are inherent in good food and good wine.

(It might be a good idea  to expand on what I mean here: to me good food is that made from the best ingredients, whether fresh or not, local or not; and prepared in a way that allows for all their scrumptiousness to be expressed. Good wine is wine that has sufficient acidity to refresh the palate, and no excess of alcohol: cool climate wine.)

With these simple precepts in mind, I put together a quick-from-scratch weeknight meal a few nights ago that was so good I felt compelled to do it all over again a day later, then summon up the vanity to write about it here. The ingredients:

  • A bag of mixed late-season greens from Italy Hill Produce called Misticanza, chopped, blanched and then sautéed in olive oil with garlic and red pepper flakes. 
  • German-style rye bread from Dimpflmeier Bakery, toasted and buttered. 
  • Range fed eggs, fried sunny side up with very runny yolks. 
  • Gruyere cheese, grated. 
  • Sudsy’s Fearless hot sauce. 

Winter Greens Sautéing
They had previously been par-cooked in boiling salted water, then well drained.
Greens On Rye
The slightly bitter, al dente greens make a terrific landing
for the eggs that are frying in the cleaned-out skillet.
Fried Eggs
Dark yolks tend to mean rich flavor.
A pair of stately pleasure-domes that took a few seconds to
decree, about 15 minutes to construct, and 20 minutes to demolish.

The question as I finished plating this meal up was not a burning one. Which wine?

Well, I happened to have a bottle of our Drink New York Merlot on the go, and also some of our 2007 Dry Riesling. Conventional wisdom, meaning the stuff we were all taught in the 1970s when wine was really a new thing, maintains that eggs and wine are simply a bad idea. Red wines especially. Or is it white wines especially? (I’ll have to dig out my old books from that era and find out; and while I’m at it, I’ll bone up on the vitally important practice of letting wine ‘breathe’ by pulling the cork a few hours before pouring it.)

There were so many components to even a simple dish such as this – protein, fat, bitter elements, sweet grains, nutty cheese – that I found that both wines made a delicious accompaniment. Some element in the wine found some element in the food to make it taste good. No villains; just heroes. Thus liberated from having to parse the whole thing any further, I could proceed straight to the ‘gusto’ part of the meal.'

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1 comment:

  1. Hello!
    Thoroughly enjoyed reading your post here. I wondered if you had seen our food and wine pairing site which addresses many of the ideas you brought up and explored -
    Sounds like we're reading from the same hymnbook!