A few weeks ago, I listened to an interview that “The Splendid Table’s” Lynne Rosetto Kasper did with Kate Krader, restaurant editor of Food and Wine magazine. Krader had written an article wondering if the trend toward really big flavors in more and more foods — chiles, pork belly, bacon, pickles, fermented and funky ingredients, etc. — had made her reach for the hot sauce to put on foods she used to eat unadorned.
It came to a head one day when she ordered her go-to simple roast chicken at a favorite restaurant and found it less flavorful than she remembered. And she wasn’t alone. Even the chef was no longer happy with the results, and wondered how he could amp up the flavor and still keep it within the bounds of the type of cuisine he was trying to achieve.
Kasper asked Krader what she thought was responsible for the ginning up of spice and flavor. Krader responded that part of it is a natural evolution in our tastes as we try more and more foods from all over the world made by people with different culinary traditions.
But Krader also suggested that some of it is competition, both in cooking and eating. “Americans are … very competitive. I think if someone [has] a chile sauce that’s triple X … then someone else has to have the chile sauce that’s XXXX. I think that’s definitely part of our DNA as well.” And, frankly, it’s also a way to cover up less-than-perfectly prepared food. “If you have a really hot sauce and your rice isn’t perfectly cooked — if you’re doing some kind of a stir fry — you definitely won’t notice that the rice is a little mushy or that you put too much bacon in it or not enough bacon because the hot sauce is shouting louder than every other ingredient on the plate.”
I thought about it, and it rang true to me. With new restaurants opening here in DC every week, it seems that the one thing they have in common is that most of their dishes are highly flavored and highly seasoned. And when I read the reviews of these new places, I see plenty of words like “packs a punch.” While a few dishes are reviewed as over-seasoned, it’s rare that you see any praise of dishes for their subtlety.
As I listened to the interview and before I read Krader’s article, it struck me that perhaps the dreaded (by me, at least) small plate frenzy is part of this — if every single item has to be intensely flavored, then there’s no way these ingredients can be combined into single dish. So each one stands on its own, and since each dish comes out as it’s prepared, each has to make a big flavor impression since there’s no telling in what order the dishes will be eaten. And, in fact, Krader does mention the small-plate trend as telling: “When you have only one bite of something, it has to make a big impression.”
Naturally, all of this made me think about big flavors in wine. Preference in wine is highly personal, of course. I once had my taste buds stained and examined in an effort to see if my likes in wine could be explained anatomically. And, to a certain extent, they could — although some people were equally influenced by exposure. For example, one of the tasters had spent a particularly enjoyable time in Europe and drank a lot of wines while she was there. This carried over into a love of those wines even though her taste buds indicated that she’d prefer different ones.
There are plenty of reasons to love big, full-flavored wines even if they’re not what you normally drink. Years ago, Dare, who was pregnant at the time, and her husband Mark met Cy and me at a restaurant. Dare’s obstetrician had given her the go-ahead to have one glass of wine with dinner. After months of deprivation (and even turning to non-alcoholic wine in desperation), she said she wanted that glass to remind her what wine was supposed to taste like. So we ordered a bottle of the biggest red wine that was still in the two-digit price range. Dare savored every sip, even though it wasn’t her typical style of wine.
I have plenty of friends who, regardless of the weather or what they’re eating, want a big, bold wine if they’re going to drink wine. Nothing wrong with that. But my own unscientific survey of wine lists finds that there are fewer light- to medium-bodied red wines in restaurants these days, unless the wine list is a pretty long one. Part of this is economic, since you can find an increasing number of well-priced bigger wines. When I talk to fellow importers, they tell me that the holy grail is to find the big wine at the little price. And I’ve noticed that even the wines that you’d expect to be medium-bodied, like Pinot Noirs, are present in more robust versions than before.
But the article left me with some questions: (1) would eating more highly-flavored foods make people want more highly-flavored wines to pair with them as it appears is happening on wine lists; and (2) would drinking more and more full-bodied wines (regardless of the reason) make wine drinkers less likely to appreciate the charms of subtler wines?
And finally, if the wine world is following the food world with more flavor, is it a thing of the moment, or here to stay? Once Kate Krader started thinking more about what she was eating, she also started trying to wean herself off the condiments and getting back to appreciating the subtleties of foods that she didn’t want to write off as bland. The thing is, if she as a professional eater has to make an effort to achieve this, what chance will the rest of us have? I’d love to know what you think.
After all of this, I could hardly give a recipe for something with big, bold flavors, now could I?
I’m not sure if it was on the same episode of “The Splendid Table” or not, but Lynne took a call from someone who had something like 15 pounds of brie and didn’t know what to do with it. Lynne suggested putting the brie in custard, either savory or sweet. I thought that a savory brie custard would be a great accompaniment to a simple meal, like chicken or pork chops. And putting some sautéed apple on top would make it perfect for fall.
So here’s my version. Use a regular, firm, and creamy-colored brie — if you get one of the really ripe and gooey ones it won’t work as well, and will be a little too funky. I like a little bit of fresh thyme and you can either put some in the custard or sauté it with the apples. The custard gets baked in a water bath, which sounds like a lot of work. The easy way to do this is to have your hot tap water ready to go before you put the custards in the oven. Put the custard dishes in a baking pan that’s large enough to hold them, but not huge. Pull out the oven rack and place the pan on the rack. Pour the water around the custard dishes, filling to about halfway up the sides of the custard dishes. Gently slide the rack into the oven and bake.
You could serve the custard (and the chicken or pork) with a light-bodied red wine, like Cave la Romaine Rouge Tradition ($10), made from Grenache and Syrah. Or a medium-bodied white, like the Tuscanio Bianco from Società Agricola Bulichella ($18). It’s 100% Vermentino, made from organic grapes in the Maremma, in southwestern Tuscany, and has a lovely subtle pineapple flavor. It’s great on its own and with spicier foods, too. But at least this time, skip the spice and see how your palate responds. You’ll be surprised at how good subtlety can be.
Serves 4 as a side dish
2 cups milk
2 large eggs
A pinch of grated nutmeg
6 ounces brie, rind removed, cut into small pieces
1 medium apple, peeled, quartered, and cut into 1/4-inch pieces (preferably an apple that’s firm, sweet, and tart, like Crispin)
Set an oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter four custard cups or ramekins — they should hold between 3/4 and 1 cup each. Set the buttered cups in an 8-inch square baking pan.
Heat the milk with a big pinch of salt in a medium-sized saucepan until it’s very hot but not boiling. You should see little bubbles around the edge of the pan and maybe a little steam coming up. Remove the pan from the heat. Beat the eggs and nutmeg in a small bowl with a whisk. Keep whisking the eggs while you very slowly dribble about 1/2 cup of the hot milk into them. Then very slowly pour the egg mixture back into the pot of milk, again whisking the pot constantly. Whisk in the pieces of brie until they’re melted. Then divide the custard mixture among the four cups.
Fill a large measuring cup with very hot tap water. Open the oven door and, using a potholder, pull out the rack. Place the baking dish with the custards on the rack, and very carefully pour the hot water around the custards, making sure not to splash water in them. The water should come a little more than halfway up the sides of the cups. Gently push the rack into the oven without sloshing the water around, and close the door.
Bake the custards for 25 minutes and then check them. Look to see how jiggly they are — if there’s only about an inch in the center that jiggles, they’re done, because they’ll firm up a bit more out of the oven. If they look good, you can also test by sticking a sharp-pointed knife in half way between the center and the rim of one of the custards. If it comes out clean, then stick it in the center. It’s fine to have a little custard clinging at that site. If they’re not quite done, bake for another 5 minutes and try the jiggle test again. The custards shouldn’t take more than about 35 minutes.
Use tongs to lift the cups out the hot water and let them cool for at least 15 minutes on a rack. While the custards are cooling, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet. Add the diced apples and a pinch of salt and sauté for about 5 to 10 minutes total. The apple pieces should be soft but not mushy, it’s fine if they’re still firm at the center. Spoon the apples on top of the custards and serve slightly warm.