As I have said before, I do love a good simile. One of my favourite wine-related similes is this: Men are like a fine wine. They all start out like grapes, and it’s our job to stomp on them and keep them in the dark until they mature into something you’d like to have dinner with. Sexist? You bet. Amusing? Every time. In fact, if you look around, there are all sorts of relationship and wine similes.
- Husbands are like fine wine – they mature slowly.
- Marriage is like wine – it just gets better with age.
- Marriage is like wine – you don’t always know what its ageing potential will be: whether it will develop ripe round flavours or an acid astringency
- Marriage is like matching wine with food - you don’t know whether it will be any good until you try it.
It was this last one that I was pondering over the weekend. Pages and pages both on paper and on the internet have been filled with thoughts on food and wine pairing. “You must have white wine with chicken”, “You must have red wine with meat”… I’m sure you’ve all heard the highlights – and let me assure you that the rules are nowhere near as rigid as that. But it’s also true that all taste involves an element of chemistry and it is a fact that, although experiments with unexpected food and wine pairings might yield amazing results, some food and wine pairings simply work together – so why mess with them? And once you have tasted a truly successful pairing, you will understand to what an astonishing extent the wine brings enhances the taste of the food, and vice versa.
If you are new to food and wine pairing, I should probably point out that there are two ways to choose a wine to match a particular food: you are either looking for similarities in flavour (e.g. a buttery wooded Chardonnay with a rich buttery lobster thermidor sauce); or contrasts in flavour (the sweetness of a fortified wine and the saltiness of cheese). And although I am all for experimentation, you first need to know the rules before you can break the rules. So here is the Cooksister Ten Second Guide to food and wine combinations that are tried and tested and really do work:
- zesty, slightly acidic white wines like Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Grigios will match any food that you usually squeeze a lemon over (think most grilled fish, seafoods and salads)
- full-bodied, wooded whites like Chardonnays or Vouvrays will match fish or chicken (or even some pork) dishes in a creamy sauce
- with spicy foods like Thai curry, slightly sweet low-alcohol wines like dry German Rieslings work really well
- softer reds like Beaujolais or Pinot Noir work with full-flavoured fish like tuna or salmon; or simply grilled pork dishes
- spicy, fruity full-bodied reds like Zinfandel or Syrah will match meat dishes with spicy or sweetish sauces, like BBQ or Asian marinades and basting sauces
- big tannic reds like Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeax-style blends are robust enough to match heavy red meat dishes like roast lamb and beef, casseroles, and game
- sweet wines like Port or Sauternes are a good match for salty cheeses.
But the bottom line is that it is your palate, and what works for one person might not work for another. There is absolutely nothing stopping you drinking chardonnay with your steak, or a pinot noir with a fish dish, if they enhance each other’s flavours on your palate.
Last week I found myself in the lucky position of having to conduct a little food and wine matching experiment of my own when I was sent a bottle of 2010 Septima Malbec and a couple of steaks and asked to come up with a dish to match the wine. Septima winery (so named because it is the seventh vineyard opened by Grupo Codorniu) was established 1999 in the Mendoza region of Argentina. The vineyards cover 300 hectares in the cooler climate regions of Argelo and the Uco Valley, home to several of Argentina’s top producers. The Septima Malbec in paticular comes from vineyards at 3,600 feet above sea level and is hand-harvested in the early morning when temperatures are cool. The finished product is 100% Malbec and spends 6 months in American oak before release.
The big question was what dish I could create with my steaks that would be a little more interesting than plain grilled steak, but that would be an interesting match with the Malbec. Having seen that this particular bottle contained a whopping almost port-like 14% alcohol, and knowing that Malbecs are often full of rich, ripe berry flavours, I thought I would take a chance and pair it with the robust flavours of blue cheese and pecan nuts. Not, as you’d expect, in a salad, but in a risotto. Obviously, steak and Malbec are a classic combination, with the tannins in the wine standing up to the robust flavours of the meat – but would it work with the cheesy risotto? First, I tasted the wine without food: a deep red ruby colour and a nose full of ripe red berries with some vegetal rosemary notes. The palate was full-bodied and featured Ribena-like blackcurrant flavours, with vanilla notes on the long, long finish. The wine was still a little tannic and closed, and I did think to myself that I would have liked to lay it down for a couple of years. With the food, though, the wine lost all its tannic edges and became meek, mild and super-accessible: the rich cheese balanced the tannins and seemed to emphasise the juicy fruit flavours. A very happy marriage indeed.
Even if you aren’t lucky enough to have a bottle of Septima Malbec floating around, I can’t recommend this risotto highly enough. Nuts, spinach and blue cheese have long been a classic salad combination and they work as well if not better in a risotto – do try it out as a show-stopper next time your vegetarian friends come over for dinner – just remember to leave out the steak on top
DISCLOSURE: The bottle of Septima Malbec and steaks were provided to me as free samples.
STEAK ON BLUE CHEESE, SPINACH & PECAN RISOTTO (serves 2)
50g pecan nuts, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
2 tbsp olive oil
20g +20g butter
200g of risotto rice (I used Riso Gallo carnaroli, provided by our Plate to Page sponsors)
100ml medim sherry
600ml vegetable stock
100g fresh baby spinach leaves, washed
50g blue cheese, crumbled
salt and pepper to taste
FOR THE MEAT (can be omitted for a vegetarian risotto):
2 steaks (rump or sirloin)
a little olive oil for brushing
coarse salt (I use Maldon)
Place the crushed nuts in a non-stick pan over medium heat and toast until beginning to turn golden and fragrant – keep an eye on them as they burn easily. Set aside.
Read my tips on how to make a perfect risotto; then melt 20g of the butter together with the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and saute until the onion is translucent and soft but do not let it brown. Add the rice and cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly stir so that each grain is well-coated with oil/butter. Add the sherry and keep stirring until the liquid has been absorbed almost completely.
Add the hot stock a ladleful at a time (probably about 150-200 ml per ladle). Keep stirring until each ladleful has been completely absorbed, but do not let the rice dry out and stick to the pot. Once each ladleful is absorbed, add the next until the stock has all been added. The rice should be soft but each grain should retain some bite in the centre, perfectly al dente, which should take about 20 minutes.
If you can multi task, do the steak yourself while manning the risotto (here are my tips on how to cook a perfect steak). Alternatively, ask your dinner companion to tend the risotto while you do the steak! When you have used up about half the stock, heat a ridged griddle pan over high heat until it sizzles when you sprinkle a drop of water into it. Brush the steaks with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and lay flat in the pan. Cook until moisture droplets start to appear on the upper surface, then brush with oil, salt it and turn over. After 3-5 minutes (depending on the thickness of the steak) test for doneness by pressing on the meat with a close pair of tongs. For rare, the resistance should feel like pushing on the fleshy part of the base of your thumb; for medium, like pressing in the centre of your palm. Remove from the heat and allow to rest, keeping warm.
Once all the stock has been added to the risotto, stir in the spinach and crumbled blue cheese. Once the spinach is wilted, stir in the pecan nuts and remaining 20g of butter. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Divide the risotto between two plates, top each plate with a steak and garnish with toasted pecan nuts. I also drizzled some utterly gorgeous Rickety Bridge smoked balsamic drizzle on mine and that added a wonderful smoky dimension to the flavours. Get some if you can.
Did you miss our our super-successful Tuscany Plate to Page workshop last October? Well, registrations are open for Plate to Page Somerset due to be held in the UK in Spring 2012! Have a look at the programme, details about accommodation, and if it looks like something you’d like to attend,register here - but hurry: places are limited to 12. It would be great to see you there!