One of my favorite means of underlining just how out of touch I am with popular culture is to read the end-of-year “What’s hot and what’s not” predictions. Looking back on what was supposed to have been hot in the year just ending and realizing I have no idea what most of them are (or were) would be a humbling experience if I decided to take it seriously. (Honey Boo-Who?)
I guess they’re fun to write, and unlike political pundits — whose 2012 election predictions were parsed immediately on Wednesday, November 7 — I doubt anyone gets called out if the predictions didn’t hold up. Or, for that matter, if anyone’s checking to see if the things/people supposedly reaching their sunset of popularity on December 31 were in fact predicted to be the in things on January 1. My guess is that since virtually none of these is a life or death issue, being wrong doesn’t disqualify you from making predictions next year (after all, it’s not like political pundits go away after being wrong either.)
Wine writers are not immune to the lure of making predictions. Since it’s a subject I follow, I feel a little better qualified to evaluate predictions in the wine world than deciding if Eva Longoria has indeed eclipsed George Clooney as the new politically-aware celebrity for 2013. (Please, girls. You’re both pretty. Now can’t we all just get along?) Some prognostication is easy. If wine made from Varietal X has been getting more and more press through 2012, it’s not a stretch to imagine it will become popular in 2013 as more people try it. Predictions can be aspirational too. If a wine writer has been beating the drum for a winery/grape/region, it’s only natural that he or she will hope that all that effort will come to something. Luckily, though, they’re usually self-aware enough to couch their predictions in question form: “Will Varietal X finally get the recognition it deserves in 2013?” This leaves the writer free to say “apparently not” with no egg on the face later.
The best part of these reading-the-grape-leaves columns is finding predictions that make me say, “I’ll drink to that.” My favorite for 2013 comes from Brooklynguy, a wine and food blogger. One of his what’s over for 2013 is “the idea that there is a ‘perfect’ wine and food pairing.” Please join me in giving this a hearty, Homer Simpson-style “Woohoo!”
Don’t get me wrong — I think that a great pairing of wine and food is a wonderful thing. When each brings out the very best in the other, creating a whole greater than the two separately, it’s amazing. The trouble is, like simultaneous orgasm or a tenor who looks and sounds good, it’s infrequent at best. But it’s so hyped and set up to be one of the holy grails of experiences that it’s rarely going to meet expectations, for two reasons:
- Everyone perceives flavor differently, and things don’t necessarily taste the same each time. So the beautifully photographed food and wine spread in that glossy magazine or the reverent recommendation of a restaurant sommelier may not taste as transcendent to you as it did to them. I may be out of touch with this, but I rarely find that these pairing recommendations are inexpensive, so you can end up spending a lot of money for something good, but not the experience you’d hoped for, compounding disappointment. And because we all perceive flavors differently depending on circumstances, even those august wine and food gurus may not find that particular pairing so enchanting each and every time.
- Many of our best experiences are situation-dependent and can’t be duplicated, at least not exactly. I took Cy out for a birthday dinner when we had been dating barely a month. We walked hand in hand in the snow into a cozy restaurant, feeling the glow of, as an old comedian once said, a roaring fire with no fireplace.** We ordered outstanding food and a bottle of wine that made everything even better. Thirteen years later I remember almost everything about that meal. While I could make the food and buy the same wine and they’d be good — even mighty good — we can’t duplicate everything about that evening. I’d be delighted if lightning struck again, but I’m equally grateful for the memory of a wonderful experience.
Once you’ve gotten over the idea that the wine and food have to pair perfectly, it’s easy to get about 80 percent of the way there with two easy rules of thumb. Hey, who doesn’t want to get a B- with no work? It really is that simple:
1) The wine shouldn’t overpower the food, and vice-versa, and
2) Neither should make the other taste bad.
What these mean is you’re looking first for a matched intensity of flavor. The reason that red wine is rarely paired with fish isn’t necessarily because of the way each one tastes, but because fish generally has a delicate flavor and red wine usually doesn’t. Chicken can go either way depending on how it’s cooked, as can pork. Getting the intensity right gets you most of the way there. After that it’s a matter of thinking about the major characteristics of the food. For example, salads are usually acidic — that’s what makes them so refreshing. If your wine isn’t acidic enough, you’ll only taste the vinegar in the salad and the wine will taste bland or sweet. It’s easy enough to avoid pitfalls like these, and your server can also help you steer clear.
Beyond the B- you can get extra credit with a few corollaries:
a) Think about the signature flavors in the food and wine. If you’re having roast duck with a non-sweet cherry sauce and can find a wine with dark cherry or currant flavors, why not try them together?
b) You can also think about flavors that aren’t there. One of the reasons Southern Rhône reds go with so many foods is that they have earthy flavors that aren’t necessarily in your food (think pepperoni pizza, for example), but that go well together (like putting mushrooms on that same pizza).
c) It’s important to remember that if you’re having wildly different foods at a meal (more likely in a restaurant) you may not find a wine that works well with everything. But if you get this far with a single meal and like the wine but the pairing isn’t great, consider finishing your meal and then having the wine, particularly if you like having cheese after your meal. Or, if you’re in a restaurant and have followed the advice of your server, don’t be afraid to say that the pairing isn’t working out for you. I’ve done this — rarely, but it has happened — and got to pick another wine.
Above all, don’t get too invested in the idea that it has to be magnificent every time. That way those really wonderful experiences will shine through as the rarities they are — and perhaps are meant to be.
A tenor rarity, looking and sounding great, Jonas Kaufmann sings Lehar’s “Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz.”
This week’s recipe is my version of that wonderful meal for that long-ago birthday dinner. It’s a fillet mignon covered with what is essentially a Lyonnaise potato gratin: browned thinly sliced potatoes topped with caramelized onions and a little Gruyere cheese, everything put under the broiler to get it nice and melted. You can caramelize the onions ahead and put them in the fridge — if you do that, you can have this dish ready in about a half hour. Start the steaks on the stovetop in a pan that can also go in the oven to finish cooking and then brown the top — something like a cast-iron skillet is ideal, or a heavy skillet that’s not non-stick (the oven temperature will be too hot).
The wine we had with it was a MacRostie Pinot Noir from Carneros, just south of Napa. California Pinots are often a little more full-bodied than their more famous Oregon cousins, and it was a wonderful pairing with the beef, potatoes, onions, and cheese. These days, though, I’m just as likely to want one of our fuller-bodied First Vine “beef” wines with it, like Domaine de Montvac Cuvée Vincila ($24) or Château de Rocquebrune Lalande de Pomerol ($25). The Montvac is made from Grenache and Syrah, aged in oak, with lush ripe fruit and wonderful hints of leather and tobacco. The Rocquebrune is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, also aged in oak, with more fruit and spice and hints of pepper. Truly, you can’t go wrong with either one — and if it’s just the right occasion you might find a memorable pairing of your own.
Happy New Year and Bon Appetit!
** This is from a Shelley Berman comedy record from the 1950s that my father has at home. Some of Berman’s material is a little dated, but he’s still funny, as you can hear here, if you’ve ever called a business and tried to get directed to the right person.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium or 1 large onion, peeled, cut in half through the poles, and thinly sliced crosswise
2 6-ounce fillet mignons, at room temperature
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
1 medium to large russet potato
1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese
Adjust the oven rack to about 6 inches below the broiler and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Start with the caramelized onions: melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large non-stick skillet. Add the onions and a little salt and pepper. Stir well, then put the cover on and cook over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes. Take the lid off, raise the heat to medium, and continue to cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they’re a deep golden brown. You should end up with at least a quarter cup of caramelized onions. Put the onions in a bowl and set aside.
Salt and pepper the steaks. Put 1-1/2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil in an ovenproof skillet (like a medium cast-iron skillet). Heat on high until the oil shimmers and then you just start to see a little wisp of smoke. Gently lay the steaks in the skillet, lower the heat to medium, and cook for 5 minutes. Turn the steaks over and cook for another 5 minutes, then put the skillet in the oven for 5 – 10 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer reads 125 degrees F. Take the skillet from the oven and transfer the steaks to a plate. Turn on the broiler. Let the steaks rest on the plate for 15 minutes, uncovered.
While you’re cooking the steaks, start the potato. Peel it, then slice it using the 2 mm disk of a food processor, a mandoline, or slice the potato very thinly by hand. Pat the slices dry with a towel. Using the skillet you browned the onions in, melt the last tablespoon of butter and add the last half tablespoon of oil. Crank the heat up and layer the potatoes in the skillet, fitting in as many slices as you can. Cook them until they’re brown on the bottom, then turn them and brown the other side. This shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.
When the steaks have rested, return them to the skillet you cooked them in. Shingle the browned potatoes on top of the steaks. (Don’t worry if you have too many slices, just put on as many as you need and eat the rest yourself or use to garnish the plate.) Gently spread about 2 tablespoons of the caramelized onions on top, completely covering the potatoes. Then sprinkle on all the cheese. Put the skillet in the oven under the broiler and broil until the cheese melts and barely starts to brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the skillet from the oven, and serve the steaks immediately.