Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday Traditions

Family holiday traditions are curious things. They are simultaneously fluid and static. For many, the failure to follow a tradition makes the holiday feel incomplete.

In my family, we don't have too many food-based traditions. Christmas dinner might be turkey, ham, goose, or venison with mashed white potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, a vegetable, and a salad. Dessert is pumpkin pie with whipped cream (or Cool Whip if you can't do dairy). I'm not saying my family comes up short -- our biggest tradition is exchanging gifts in the light of the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve -- just that our traditions don't focus on food.

In my partner's family, there are a larger number of required foods for the holiday: boiled custard, cut-out cookies (like a sugar cookie, but smoother), turkey, and country ham. There is always country ham.

What food traditions do your families have around the winter holidays?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Wine and Food Pairing

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about going wine tasting. This week, I want to talk about pairing wines and food. After all, surrounded by so many great wines, how do I know what I should serve with a meal? I mean, white wine with white meat and red wine with red meat is so old-school. What do I serve with tuna? Does it matter if the tuna is sashimi (and therefore red) or grilled (and therefore white)? What if I'm not serving meat?

Let me start by saying, I'm not an expert. My use of wine terminology isn't necessarily what other people would use, but it's how I think about the wine and what its flavors are. It's also honest. I've come at pairing food and wine primarily from a cook's point of view -- the food is paramount. However, this isn't to say that I haven't built a meal around an interesting bottle of wine.

No matter how much you read about wines and pairing wines and food, there is no substitute for just getting out there and tasting the wines yourself. Everyone's palate is a little different; only you know what you like and why.

Pairing wine and food has two primary strategies: contrast and complement. In theory, these strategies are simple to apply. You either pair a wine and a food with contrasting qualities, such as pairing a sweet dessert wine with a bitter dark chocolate dessert, or with complementary qualities, such as pairing a Szechuan beef stir-fry with a spicy Barberi red wine. The reality of wine pairing is a little trickier.

In general, I tend to pair food and wine by which complements the flavor of the other. So, if I braise a chicken breast in a Chardonnay, I'm likely to serve a Chardonnay with it, sometimes from the same vintner, sometimes from another. For example, I brined two game hens in an oaked Chardonnay for Thanksgiving and served an unoaked Chardonnay with the meal. There was a risk that the Chardonnay in the brine would overwhelm what I served with dinner (due to the oakiness), but I expected the unoaked Chardonnay to help highlight the lightness and sweetness of the meat (which it did admirably).

However, you don't always cook with wine. Complementing the flavors of the wine and food is somewhat less obvious. I like to pair Merlot and Zinfandel wines with strongly spiced beef; I prefer Merlot when beef has heavier spicing (read: lots of spices, but not necessarily hot) and Zinfandel when I have a creamier/fattier sauce. However, when the food is spicy (read: hot), I really like to pair with a Syrah; the Syrah quenches the flames without washing away all the heat like a heavier red would. Sangiovese and Barberi are other varietals that are nice to pair with a spicy dish as the wine highlights the spicy flavor but controls the heat well.

Vegetarian dishes can pair well with red or white wines. In general, the preparation serves as a nice guide. Grilled or roasted vegetables tend to go better with Pinot Noir, Petit Syrah, or a Cabernet Franc, especially when spiced with basil or rosemary. When put in a tomato sauce, such as a ragout or a parmesian, I like Cabernet Sauvignon; the sharpness of the wine plays well with the tomato sauce. However, in cream sauces or cheese sauces, such as a broccoli rice casserole, whites generally work best. Which white works best depends on the effect I want. If the sauce is rich, I might pair it with a Chardonnay to highlight the voluptuousness of the sauce or pair it with a Pinot Gris to refresh the palate during the meal, allowing you to explore the intricacies of the cheese as you eat.

Cream sauces can be fun to pair with a meal. For a cream sauce built around mushrooms or beef, I like a nice red, usually a Pinot Noir or Petit Syrah. For a cream sauce with chicken, veal, or fish, Pinot Gris can be nice, unless the cream sauce is strongly flavored, such as a lemon beurre blanc. Then I would tend to go with a Chardonnay. Grilled chicken pairs wonderfully with a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc, but barbecued chicken is better with a Pinot Noir or a Petit Syrah.

Sushi is an interesting meal to pair a wine with. I tend to go with a white, not because sushi is fish, but because the flavors are a bit lighter overall (even unagi/eel). I like a Pinot Gris with sushi because it cleanses and refreshes the palate nicely. The lightness of the wine highlights the lightness and freshness of the fish.

Another interesting dish to pair a wine with is dessert. Most desserts are sweet, so pairing a sweet wine with it runs the risk of creating an cloyingly sweet end of a meal. I prefer to contrast my wine with dessert, serving a sweet Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or even an ice wine with a dark, bitter chocolate, for instance. Dry Rieslings work well with sweeter desserts. I'm still exploring dessert wines, mostly because I am not overly fond of sweet wines (unless I'm planning to mull it).

I haven't discussed blends here. The specific characteristics of a blend depends on which wines are used in the blend and the proportions of the wines. As a result, familiarity with a given vintner's blend is the best guide for pairing.

In the end, the best way to determine what wine to pair a food with is your own taste. You need to taste wines to learn their characters, both of the variety of wine and of the vintner. Like I said at the beginning, these are only my opinions at this time. As I explore new varietals, such as Lembergers and Vignoiers, I may change my opinions about best pairings.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Not quite the post I promised...

...but I want more time to work on the wine-food pairing entry. Besides, I got distracted by something else I found while wine tasting.

A company in the Tri-Cities area has a great little business going. They buy the grape seeds (separated by varietal) from wineries in the area. They then express the oil from the grape seeds. They leave some of the oil unflavored, but flavor some of the others. They then grind the expressed solids into a fine flour; I sampled the Merlot flour and it had a really nice nuttiness to it.

One of the flavors I bought was Chardonnay Fumé. It was created by fuming the Chardonnay grape seed oil with dried Chardonnay grape vines. The end result...Oh my!

Some of the different ways you can use these oils are:
  • Dipping oils for bread, crackers, etc.

  • Vinaigrette

  • Stir fry oils (I plan to use the five-spice for this)

  • Broiling

Chardonnay Fumé Broiled Lamb
2 8 oz. lamb chops
1-2 tsp Chardonnay Fumé grape seed oil
1 tsp coarse Kosher salt

Preheat broiler. I prefer to use a cast iron skillet rather than a broiler because I get a better sear. I also have an electric oven so a skillet is really easy to use.

Trim excess fat from lamb chops and sprinkle salt evenly on both sides. Let sit for a few minutes.

Lightly oil both chops with the grape seed oil. Let sit for a few minutes.

Once the broiler is heated, place lamb chops on broiler or skillet. Sear for 2 minutes, then turn over and sear for one minute for a rare to medium rare (depending on thickness) lamb chop.

Let rest before serving.

The lamb chops were amazingly tender and juicy. The Chardonnay grape enhanced the inherent sweetness of the lamb. The oil helped give the chops a really nice crusty sear and had a very mild smokiness to them.

The grape seed retains the flavor of the grape, so the lamb went really nicely with a locally-produced Chardonnay I had on hand.

I've never used grape seed oil before, but this will definitely be changing after the new year. I'm getting new ideas nearly every day, but haven't had the time try most of them.

Hopefully next week I'll have the wine pairing entry done.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Wine Tasting

I didn't get much cooking done this week. I went wine tasting the weekend after Thanksgiving and had a blast. Unfortunately I also came home with a raging allergic reaction to something -- soap, we think -- on my hands, arms, and legs (the arms and legs are just an overreaction to the soap). However, it's taking a pretty serious steroid cream to bring it to bay, so I've not done much with food.

That's not to say I don't have anything to talk about. Remember, I was on a wine tasting trip; so I've got lots to talk about. I tasted at least 100 wines at 16 wineries in the Tri-Cities region of Washington over the course of two days. Don't worry, I wasn't driving, and generally didn't have more than a sip or two of any wine.

Washington state wines are coming out of obscurity and being recognized as the great wines they are. Washington vintners produce big, buxom Chardonnays; crisp, clean Pinot Noirs; well-balanced, lush Merlots; and subtly complex Syrahs. Do you want me to gush more? I didn't think so.

I noticed some interesting trends in wine production. Viogniers and Lembergers are the two hot new varietals that vintners are producing; at least one third of the wineries were sampling one or the other of them. Historically, these wines have been used predominantly for blending; now they are being recognized as varietals in their own right.

A Viognier is a quiet white wine. Its delicate fruitiness plays well along the tongue with just enough acidity and a touch of spiciness to keep it interesting. A Viognier has more body than a Pinot Gris or a Riesling, but is lighter than a Sauvignon Blanc.

A Lemberger, on the other hand, is a red wine. Elements of cherries and berries combine with a bright acidity to wake up the tongue. Lembergers are great wines when you want a wine that is reminiscent of a Merlot without the ponderousness that a Merlot can have.

Another interesting trend is Rieslings. Most of the Rieslings that Washington wineries have been producing are sweet, dessert Rieslings. Recently, several wineries in the area have been experimenting with dry Rieslings -- to great effect. A dry, crisp Riesling is quite refreshing, well-prepared to complement a cheese casserole (but I get ahead of myself -- that's next week's post).

Speaking of next week's post, it's getting late and I'm getting itchy (again). So I'm going to let you go so I can put cream on my poor itching epidermis. But before I go, next week's post is going to talk about pairing wines and foods -- just in time for the holidays!