Sunday, May 27, 2012
How To Pair Food And Wine
Fast forward to today, and things are quite different. Cassoulet, that rustic, peasant dish from southwestern France was usually sided with the local, dark-as-night Cahors. Now, one can substitute a California Zinfandel or an Australian Shiraz. Similarly, Alsatians often enjoyed their rich, communal Choucroute Garni with Riesling or Pinot Gris. Currently, any crisp oak free, white from just about anywhere will suffice. And who would have thought that authentic Sashimi would ever be on the Sushi counter next to a Spanish Cava or similar sparkling wine?
Globalization, of course, is the key to those transformations, but I think the answer lies—at least partially—elsewhere. While many still regard food and drink as a “fuel stop” to satisfy the hunger and slake the thirst, there is now a sizeable group of food and wine enthusiasts who see it differently. They don’t simply eat, they dine. They don’t just swallow, they savor. Enjoying food and wine is a gastronomic experience that gratifies the intellect just as much as it satisfies the basic human need for nourishment. Let’s take a look at a couple ways one can approach and/or realize this near-spiritual state of mind.
One can adopt the method utilized by Sommeliers and other high priests of food and wine matrimony. In reaching their recommendation, they claim for the perfect union to occur there should be a synergistic coupling, (complementary or contrasting), of the parallel components (acidity, sweetness, bitterness) of both the food and the wine. This wedded bliss first takes into consideration the wine’s style and structural components and then, second, relates those details to the recipe’s style (casual or upscale) and mode of preparation (braising, grilling, etc.). After contemplating all those particulars, the perfect match is selected. While that elite group has the wine and culinary proficiency to solve that equation, the rest of us simply don’t. So, let’s look at another approach for pairing of food and wine.
A more user-friendly method involves what I call “the modern update” of an ancient maxim: “Red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat, fish and poultry.” Don’t chortle, because that old adage really is a good starting point. Red meat, with its rich, abundant texture and customary methods of preparation, virtually always points to red wine, while fish and poultry, with their delicate flesh and smaller scaled preparations, often can be enjoyed with many white wines. (Veal and pork, however, occupy an interesting middle ground.)
Food and wine enthusiasts have learned to modernize that time-worn maxim by looking beyond the primary ingredient (chicken, beef, etc) and focusing on the recipe’s most dominant or expressive flavors. In and of itself, the flavor/taste spectrum of a recipe’s main ingredient typically is rather narrow, and it normally requires the addition of flavor-enhancing ingredients to highlight its role in the recipe as well as to broaden its versatility. Beyond salt and pepper, those savory aspects emanate from, and are typically characterized by, an almost limitless range of aromatic and flavoring alternatives: herbs and spices, fresh and dried; sauces, salsas and gravies; rubs and marinades; fruits, vegetables and their juices; olive and other fruit and nut oils; wines and vinegars; and creams, yogurts and cheeses just to name a few! The pairing should focus on those particulars, not the primary ingredient.
Take chicken for example; or veal, pork or other “white-wine-only foods.” Depending on how each is cooked, spiced, sauced and finished, any number of red or white wines could be acceptable partners. If, say, sautéed in olive oil and finished with capers, green olives and artichokes, the dominant flavors, and palatal effect, point to something like Sauvignon Blanc, Spain’s Verdejo and similar oak-free white wines with a lively profile that will stand up to those components. However, if braised with onions, garlic, mushrooms, thyme, bacon bits and a splash of beef broth, this rich, earthy combination virtually begs for an inexpensive, full-bodied red like Côtes du Rhône, Rioja Crianza or Nebbiolo d’Alba. And how about if alternately sautéed with a splash of walnut oil, a tad of balsamic vinegar and a few tablespoons of minced apricots? Hmmm? What say you?
In closing, even though the Sommelier method is more precise and may arrive at a more perfect match, “the modern update” is less complicated and, thereby, offers the freedom to explore many cross cultural options. Both of those, however, must give way to personal preferences, no matter how narrow they may be. However, while one certainly should drink whatever one wants, there are many recipes and modes of cooking that beg for a particular style of wine, and that rather implies the willingness to pour something other than one’s favorite Chardonnay or White Zinfandel.