Friday, November 20, 2009

Red wine with fish?

"Red wine with fish. I should have known." So said James Bond to the villain Red Grant in From Russia With Love. Not to contradict the man of all men in the Bond movie of all Bond movies, but perhaps he wasn't aware of salmon with Pinot Noir? Or, more properly in the case of Bond, salmon with red Burgundy? More recently, Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews essentially gave an updated iteration of Bond's position: "I was pleasantly surprised by the way the Rioja paired with sea scallops served with chorizo and polenta," he said of a red wine a restaurant paired with his fish course. Is that such a stretch? The spice of the chorizo, richness of the polenta. A red wine doesn't seem like a stretch or a surprise.

What the sentiment of Matthews suggests is that the old stereotypes about wine and food remain strong. Of course, certain traditional pairings of wine and food attain that status because they work so well. Have an excellent, well-aged Bordeaux with a roasted rack of lamb, and you'll be transported to an ethereal plane. Find a slightly funky, simple, cheap red Burgundy to pair with sottocenere, the delightful cow's milk cheese with black truffles, and you'll gain full understanding of what people mean when they talk about the mushroom characteristics of Pinot Noir.

Traditional pairings aren't bad. Nor are they, however, sacred cows. The wine world has been expanding exponentially over the past few decades. Experimentation has increased on numerous fronts. Winemakers have achieved greater understanding. Quality has increased. Value remains in many respects, as up-and-coming regions reach new levels. In the realm of wine and food, this spirit of experimentation that winemakers have embraced with such gusto needs to make greater inroads when it comes to food pairings. Old ways need to be rethought. Take, for example, the notion that wine goes with cheese. In some cases (see the sottocenere example above), this works out beautifully. Port or Sauternes and Stilton. Parmesan and an earthy Italian red. But for the most part, cheese and wine pair terribly if you eat them together, to try to mingle their flavors. Cheese sticks to your mouth and dominates most of the time. Eaten separately, they can be delightful, but not in the usual "pairing" sense.

A smart winemaker from Sonoma County, John Holdredge, imparts great wisdom in this arena. It applies to wine snobbery in general and the thicket of food and wine pairings in particular. Wine is like food, John says. No one has ever taught you to eat. You either like it, or you don't. If you like it, eat it. If you really like it, eat some more. If you don't like it, eat something else. Wine is just food: if you like it, drink it. If you really like it, drink some more. If you don't like it, drink something else. The same attitude should apply to wine pairings: eat what you like, drink what you like.

The simple truth is that most people don't actually drink wine with their food. They tend to eat with the occasional sip or, at least, don't drink the wine in a way to try to meld its flavors with those of the food. That only provides more reason to maximize your personal pleasure in choosing your food and wine. If you want something non-traditional, go for it. You shouldn't worry about the wine geeks, but if you do, score points for going for contrasting pairings. Have Pinot Noir with grilled steak because you want the acidity to cut the richness of the fat. Drink Syrah with halibut because it's cold outside, and you want to. It doesn't matter. Fight the rules. People tend to still be too uptight about wine. It's just another citizen of the dinner table, like the salt or pepper shaker. Don't let it rule you.

So in the spirit of doing what you feel, here are a few adventurous examples:

1. Roasted chicken with California Syrah
Syrah tends to be a bit fat, and the California incarnations often are big, brawny, and full of forward fruit. Chicken normally would thought to be too delicate, but it also takes on an earthy, herbal quality with common preparations, such as with herbs de provence. This can be really nice during cooler weather.

2. Popcorn with aged Cabernet Sauvignon
Popcorn has become pretty chic in pairing with things like Champagne and Chardonnay. But try it with a Cabernet that has some age on it. It's a tasty way to focus on the wine without tiring out your palate.

3. Filet Mignon with Rose Champagne
A simple filet mignon, pan-seared or broiled, has a delicate flavor but also the unavoidable richness of beef. The sturdier fruit of rose Champagne is enough to stand up to this more delicate steak, and the wine's crisp acidity will help cut the richness.

4. Indian food with Pinot Noir
Often you hear of pairing wines that work well with spicy food with Indian cuisine -- Gewurtraminer, Riesling, Champagne, Zinfandel, Malbec, and the like. But Pinot Noir works exceptionally well with many dishes, particularly if the wine emphasizes the Asian spice quality you can often find in Pinot. Russian River Valley does this quite well, pairing nicely with ginger, mace, saffron, anise, and other commonly found spices. You'll want to avoid very spicy (in terms of heat) dishes, though.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Amuse Bouche: The comforts of fall

The current string of weather in Houston conjures up the feel of California wine country in a cool vintage. Highs in the mid-70s. Lows down around 50. If grapes could carry out a full growing cycle in two weeks, there would be real hope for the wine industry in Texas. In the photo below, three of the great pleasures at this time of year:

First, coq au vin, always a warming and delicious fall dish. Second, wine, during the peak of harvest. This particular one? Holdredge Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Wren Hop Vineyard 2006, made by one of the most delightful and personable fellows in Sonoma County. Third, in the background, playoff baseball. Even if the Mets aren't playing, it's a terrific time of year. Life is good.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Simplicity: Cream cheese tart

Cheesecake is a comforting, if heavy, sort of dessert. But it's more versatile than that. With a little creative thinking, it can have sweet or savory possibilities with the addition of Grand Marnier and chocolate or chives and herbs de Provence. The difficult is that cheesecake also is very involved. It requires a special pan. And lots of cream cheese, butter, and eggs. It's a profound undertaking, which is no small thing. You might be tempted to actually eat the whole thing, facing potentially unlimited calorie intake until the entire delicious thing has gone the way of the dinosaurs.

But you don't have to resort to a full cheesecake in order to get that cheesecake flavor and feel. This is essentially a cream cheese pie. It's lighter and simpler than full-fledged cheesecake but every bit as versatile.

Cream Cheese Tart
1 8-ounce package cream cheese or Neufchatel
1 stick butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
Vanilla and almond extract to taste
Zest of one lemon (optional)

1 pie or tart crust, using your favorite recipe (but even a store-bought one works fine)

This is about as easy as you get. Beat together the cream cheese, butter, and sugar until combined well, about one or two minutes in a stand mixture. Add the egg, vanilla, and almond and mix together. You won't want to beat this mixture more than 30-45 seconds. Add to your crust and bake 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees. It'll puff slightly and get a few brown spots. This is a fluffy, delightful, and much easier substitute for cheesecake. And it makes a great, guilty-pleasure breakfast the next day.