Sunday, August 21, 2011

Less is...more!

Less is more. We’ve heard our parents and their parents say it for years. But it was on my recent family trip to France where I really started to understand the meaning of this statement. In addition to the smaller cars (which two adults and 2 kids got around fine in for 2 weeks), and the smaller (yet stinkier!) portions of cheese, I discovered that no matter where we went to eat, the wine glasses were very, very… small. How could a country born and raised on making great wine, for many centuries not want to swirl and twirl, observe and flaunt their wine in giant, polished goblets like our Californian friends to the south?

Enjoying a first glass of Burgundy in Paris

At first, I thought it was just the roadside cafés who wanted to spare the risk of having larger, top-heavy glasses balancing on their small, wobbly tables. But restaurant after restaurant, bistro after bistro, I was schooled in the way of enjoying “French” wine. The point, in my humble observation is that wine (for the most part) in France is really not meant as a course on its own, but rather to enhance a meal. Here in North America, though we’re so used to placing our drink order before we even peruse the menu, we’ve already gulped down a glass of wine before we even try our food. Wine has almost become a meal replacement in some way. Perhaps this is why more and more new world wines (North American, South American, Australian…) tend to be more fruit-forward, full-bodied, stand-on-their-own kind of wines. The earthier, more acidic and tannic wines associated with old world wine makers are more focused on what they do to the food they are trying to compliment, versus what they do to your senses on their own.

While I still love my new world wine, I’ve been making more of an effort to search for those that strike a balance between the right amount of fruit and body to hold its own as an appetizer, while having the modesty to take second stage to the main meal. A couple of my recent finds include:

Anne Amie, Cuvée Pinot Noir, 2008 from Oregon a beautiful example of new world Pinot Noir, done by the PN masters in Oregon and $27 at the LCBO.

Vina Mayor, Toro, 2007 from Spain - (ok, Spain isn’t really “new world” but…) 100% Tinta de Toro grapes, perfect for a barbecue and reasonably priced at $20 at the LCBO.

But while I’m learning to hone my new found appreciation for the “subtler” side of wine, I feel I need to come clean: I still LOVE my giant, polished wine goblets. I love the swirling, and twirling, and sniffing, and observing – and while I don’t always openly do this in public (for lack of being completely ridiculed at my local family restaurant), this is *my* experience with wine. So perhaps I’ll just have to taken one less piece of cheese, forego the hor d’oeuvres or take a smaller cut of cake, in lieu of a larger drop of wine.

Posing in front of the Domaine du Mauperthuis vines (left), and pouring myself a taste at the Vignoble Jaumouille, both in the Loire Valley

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Battle of the Sexes

Appetizers, Hors d’Oeuvres, Tapas, Small Plates… all of these expressions describe experiences of multiple flavours, textures and sensations, in bite-size portions. Regardless of who you are, we all love the possibility of trying new flavour combinations without having to commit to the full-meal deal. This is probably why this “mix ‘n mingle” type of finger food has been viewed by so many as an aphrodisiac for both men and women, and the perfect cocktail party pleaser. 

I recently completed my Food & Wine Pairing course, and the final culminating task was to find the best wine pairing with a food of my choice – to be judged by a panel of chefs and sommeliers. My choice in food? An appetizer. But not just any old appetizer… the “perfect aphrodisiac” appetizer, aimed to please both men and women. A daunting task… maybe. Fortunately, one of my friends took the course with me and helped shape this final task.

Pre-Battle Considerations
Many men will say that that if they had to choose an aphrodisiac food, they would pick the more savory and meaty dishes as their first choice, while historically sweeter foods, such as chocolate have been deemed the love-boosting choice for women. Other natural aphrodisiac choices for both men and women have included avocados, figs, cranberries, oysters, basil, pistachios, bacon, and red wine (of course!).

On a mission to find the coveted aphrodisiac appetizer, and to pair it with the best matched wine, (and in an effort to satisfy both sexes!), we wanted to test a number of appetizers and wines that highlighted the very best of both the savoury and sweet characteristics in our menu items.

Unsure as to which dish would work best, we decided to host a party with our meat & potato-lovin’ husbands where we experimented with a number of appetizers. We then chose three wines based on some of what we had learned with food and wine pairing (let me inject the 2 golden rules of wine pairing here: 1) always ensure that your wine is sweeter than your food, and 2) choose wines that compliment the strongest flavour on the plate).

See what we served!

The Line-up
We prepared five appetizer dishes:

 Gorgonzola & Pear Foccacia
 Mozzarella with Italian Picadillo
 Caramelized Onion & Gruyère Crostini
 Cranberry & Brie Kobe Beef Sliders
 Gorgonzola Stuffed Figs
 Chocolate Covered Bacon

And uncorked three wines to try with each:
• Prosecco (La Spinee, sparkling white Italian, Veneto, Italy)
• Late Autumn Riesling (Inniskillin, Niagara, Canada)
• Late Bottled Vintage Port (Taylor-Fladgate, Douro, Portugal)

The Battle
In a true battle of the sexes, who better to experiment with these wines and dishes than our husbands? With much food and wine on the menu, we needed little convincing to gather our men for this task. The bigger job, however was getting their agreement to eat slowly, savour eat bite, sip their wine, and take notes on what the wine did to the food and what the food did to the wine. Again, alcohol was involved, so we were able to get past that hurdle fairly quickly.

The Final Verdict
At the end of the evening, both men and women voted the Chocolate Covered Bacon and the Late Autumn Riesling as the winning pair. Truthfully, I was kind of surprised that I actually liked the odd combination of chocolate and bacon, and I was even more surprised that we all chose the sweeter white wine (instead of a sweet red wine) to go with these “muddy pigs” - yes, that's what folks in the south refer to this menu item. When we first discovered this recipe and began telling friends and family about our endeavour, we received such strong reactions to the bacon and chocolate concoction. In essence, this menu item started to become the conversation piece of the evening – even before the party got started. Now that’s some serious party planning!

I guess my key learning out of this course was that certain food and wine pairings – and even the opposite sex – can still surprise me from time to time.

Try it for yourself!
Recipe for Chocolate Dipped Bacon

1 16 -ounce package of bacon, thick sliced, cut crosswise into thirds
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
4 ounces dark chocolate (72%) or more, chopped
¼ cup finely chopped pistachio nuts

1. Preheat oven to 375ºF. Line two baking pans with parchment paper. Arrange bacon pieces in a single layer in the prepared pans. Sprinkle lightly with brown sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until crisp. Transfer bacon to wire racks; cool (up to 2 hours).

2. Line a large baking sheet with waxed paper; set aside. In a small double boiler, cook and stir chocolate over low heat until melted. Dip bacon pieces halfway into the chocolate, letting excess drip off. Place on the prepared baking sheet. While still warm, sprinkle with the pistachio nuts.

3. Chill until chocolate is set. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.