Archive | June 2014

Opposites attract: Champagne and Potato chips

I will be spending the next two months in Paris. To celebrate my arrival, I’m opening a bottle of bubbly. Most people pair strawberries, oysters or caviar with champagne but I heard that in France the best pairing with champagne is salted potato chips so that’s what I will try.

The best champagne for simple snacks would be a bottle of NV (non-vintage). The simpler the food, the simpler the wine. As the champagne gets more complex (vintage, aged, etc), the accompanying food should also become complex.

I’m gonna go against common wisdom here and actually go with a 2002 Egly-Ouriet Brut Grand Cru.  I’ve heard so many amazing things about this champagne that I’m dying to try it out and it is special enough to celebrate my arrival.

This is not a cheap bottle so I would recommend saving it for a special occasion. But I’m saving so much money on my food pairing so I can justify the high cost of the bottle 🙂 .

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For a wine that is 12 years old, this is so surprisingly refreshing! The aromas are of fresh and light fruits like apples and peaches. It has a beautiful straw color.

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The acidity is very noticeable. In fact, brut champagne contains high levels of acidity and a small amount of sugar and this makes champagne a bit hard on the palate and stomach to drink on its own. Some of the classic food items that people serve with champagne are strawberries, oysters, and caviar.

I think the strawberries would add too much acidity to the palate as champagne is already a super acidic wine. So strawberries are out. My wine instructor last year said that the only time you want strawberries with your champagne is if you want to put one in your glass as a decoration – not as a food pairing! Generally, you want salty foods to go with Champagne. The saltiness works to balance out the acidity in the wine. Oysters are definitely salty enough to handle the acidity of the champagne. At the same time, the acidity of the champagne works great to complement and even enhance the saltiness of the food. However, given the high level of acidity in the champagne, you also want a bit of richness from fat in the food, which oysters do not have (I’d save the oysters for a nice bottle of Sancerre). The salt and fat work together to cut through the acidity of the champagne. At the same time, the acidity in the champagne does a great job of lightening up fatty, rich foods.

I think potato chips are the perfect combination of salt and fat. The first time potato chips and champagne were uttered in the same sentence was probably in the movie The Seven Year Itch. Marilyn Monroe’s character brings a bottle of champagne and a bag of chips to her neighbor’s apartment to celebrate her birthday. She even dunks the chips in the champagne! I will not go as far as dunking but I will definitely try this pairing.

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I decided to make my own potato chips. I will fry them in sunflower oil and salt them with fleur de sel immediately after they come out of the oil. I’ve never made potato chips before and just in case mine don’t come out right, I also have a store bought bag as backup. When I walked in to my neighborhood grocery store, I saw Cape Cod Sea Salt and Cider Vinegar in the snacks aisle and I just couldn’t resist. These are my favorite potato chips and they are impossible to find in Abu Dhabi!

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My homemade chips came out much better than I expected. I was a bit worried that hand-slicing the potatoes would lead to uneven cooking and textures (after spending so much money on the champagne, I cheaped out on buying a mandolin and just used a regular knife), but they came out crispy and delicious. Here’s what mine look like:

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So how did the chips work with the champagne? The bubbles in the champagne have a palate-cleansing effect and each sips helps to clear the palate of the flavors of fat and salt. After frying all of the potatoes in batches, and of course quality testing along the way, by the time I was finished cooking – who knows how many chips I had eaten by that point? – I was so overwhelmed by the richness that I was about to go in to a potato chip coma even before I opened the bottle of champagne. However, the champagne did wonders to bring me back to form. The acidity in the champagne, complemented by the effervescence of the bubbles, did wonders to clear my palate and lighten up the flavors in my mouth. I was ready to eat more chips!

What I like about chips over other foods with champagne is the lightness of flavors in the chips. Good champagne has delicate flavors and I don’t want to drown out these flavors by serving strong tasting foods. I want the champagne to be the star! The food should work to enhance the champagne rather than overshadow it.

Marilyn Monroe’s character is supposed to be a simple girl without much knowledge about the finer things in life and her choice of potato chips to pair with champagne is supposed to reflect that. However, she was so spot on! Next time you throw a party and save your money for good champagne rather than oysters and serve potato chips instead.

Overall this is an exceptional champagne!!! 2002 was a great year for champagne and this producer is especially excellent. I will definitely be buying a couple of more bottles to save for later. Yet, this champagne is also complex so I will probably opt for a more complex dish next time – perhaps chicken with creamy mushroom sauce….

A perfect meal: Rack of lamb and mushroom risotto paired with Barolo

Believe it or not, I’ve never had a bottle of Barolo! For my first time with this famous wine, I am going with a rather expensive bottle – a 2006 Borgogno Barolo. I am told by the salesperson that it is excellent. At $86 for this bottle, let’s hope she’s right!

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I am also trying a second bottle of Barolo brought by my dinner guest: a 2006 Prunotto.

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Barolos are infamous for needing a long time to ripen. Both bottles are already eight years old but apparently, they can still benefit from lots of aging. Since I don’t want to wait around for 10 years, I will decant this for a few hours before dinner is served.

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So now, what to serve for dinner?

Let’s first figure out the profile of these wines. The Barolo is made from the nebbiolo grape made in the north of Italy – the Piedmont region.

Color and robe: The Barolos have a distinct rust or garnet like color – it is very much on the orange spectrum. The wine is also incredibly light in texture and lacks opacity.

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Aroma (the nose): Barolos are known for having two very contrasting aromas and this wine fits that profile: rose and tar. The tar aroma is very strong and it is the first thing that hits my nose. This gives a very strong earthy quality to the wine. Roses, I don’t get so much from either bottle but there is a bit of richness to the aromas. Other aromas include dark fruits like cherries and plums.

Now for the taste: the flavors of the Barolo are very intense. Even after a few hours in the decanter, the flavors still pack a punch. The Barolo is also a highly tannic wine. I love robust red wines and especially tannic ones. I’m really gonna enjoy drinking this wine.

The food: The strong tannins necessitate a rich food pairing and the boldness of the flavors need equally strongly flavors in the food. So I’m definitely thinking red meat for the richness. For the strong flavors in the wine and the, I’m thinking gamey meat. Lamb would be perfect! Never made lamb before. I will be ambitious and make a rack of lamb, cooked medium rare! I will rub the rack with a mixture of rosemary, olive oil and garlic and then throw it in the oven.

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I want a side dish that’s equally rich and strong in its flavors. I will prepare a buttery and creamy risotto with mushrooms. To complement the earthiness of the wine, I will overload on the mushrooms and put four types in the risotto: shitake, oyster, portabella, and the powerful porcini. I will even add some truffle oil.

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The risotto came out super buttery and creamy. Yum!

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Since I’ve got the oven going, I will also throw in some baby carrots to roast. I absolutely love roasted veggies!

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I finally got my meal planned. So how did I do in pairing this meal with the Barolo?

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Strong gamey flavors are a perfect match with the Barolo. Due to very earthy aromas in the Barolo, any gamey meat – such as venison, bison, lamb – would be a great accompaniment to this wine. Since venison or lamb are not available to me in Abu Dhabi, the lamb was the easy choice. The lamb also worked really well with this wine. The strength of the lamb’s flavors is strong enough to handle the punch of the Barolo and lamb is gamey enough to complement the earthiness of the wine.

Tannins love rich foods. The lamb becomes a better choice than the bison or venison when we take into consideration the tannin content of this wine. Tannic reds go perfectly with rich meats and lamb is a lot fattier than venison or bison. I think the fat content of the lamb makes it work much better with the wine, whereas the venison and the bison may have fallen a little short in this respect. The lamb worked really well to smooth out the tannins and the tannins did a great job of balancing the richness of the dish and cleansing the palate.

Barolo loves ‘shrooms! The Barolo is an earthy wine and that makes earthy mushrooms are great food choice. Again, because Barolo’s flavors are strong, I’m including strong mushroom flavors like porcini and truffle. The buttery rich risotto is rich enough to match the tannins of the wine. At the same time, the mushroom flavors were strong enough to hold up to the intensity of the wine.

I loved this meal with this wine! Everything worked really well. The rack of lamb is fatty and the risotto is also a rich dish, both of which worked really well to soften the tannins of the Barolo. Both the food and the wine had intense flavors so neither overpowered the other.

I will have to plan a trip to Italy soon and stock up on Barolo! What a lovely wine!

Incidentally, since the Barolo is made from the nebbiolo grapes, we also wanted to see how the Nebbiolo wine fares with this dish. The Nebbiolo is a great alternative wine to this dish and Nebbiolos tends to be a lot cheaper than Barolos (I will write about pairing Nebbiolo with a rich and earthy tajarin pasta dish in the near future so stay tuned 🙂 ).

Dining and wining highlights from Sri Lanka: Fish Curry

One of the most common dishes we came across on Sri Lanka is fish curry. Sri Lankans eat this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I don’t blame them. It is so delicious! Sri Lankan curry is similar to the type of curry found in Southern India. However in terms of spiciness, I find the Sri Lankan version to be much milder. Rice and curry dishes in Sri Lanka are always accompanied by a variety of relishes and garnishes – or sambols – of varying spiciness. Some of them can get pretty hot!

I ate fish curry almost daily and it is the dish that I will miss the most. You can have it chili based sambols to enhance the spiciness:

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Or with coconut and sweet onion sambols to keep it on the mild side:

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Curries are generally very difficult to pair with wines because of their intensity of flavors and spiciness. The relative mildness of Sri Lankan fish curry (especially if you keep to the mild sambols) makes things a bit easier.

I paired two bottles of wine with the fish curry: a Soave from Italy and a dry Alsace Riesling from France. Both of these wines are dry and aromatic. The dryness in the wine works well to lighten up the creaminess in the dish and the strong aromas allow the wine to keep up with the fragrant dish (rather than being drowned out by it). For spicier curries, it would be better to go with an off-dry aromatic white.

The first wine is the Gini Soave Classico from Northeastern Italy. The vintage is 2012. Soave is a dry and crisp white wine. This bottle has very strong floral aromas as well as aromas of peach and golden apple. There is also a pronounced minerality and a hint of spice and oakiness to this wine.

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Mild curries with the Soave go really well together. The Soave is a medium-bodied wine, which holds up nicely to the medium and meaty texture of the fish used in the curry. In addition, the mineral tones make this a very refreshing wine. The minerality, combined with the acidity of the wine, create a perfect freshness to balance the richness from the coconut milk. Each sip of wine helps to cleanse the palate after each bite.

When it comes to the aromatics, both of the wine and the curry pack an equal punch. The Soave is a very aromatic wine and the fish curry is itself a very aromatic dish with scents of soft spices and herbs. The aromas in both the wine and food are equally powerful, with neither overpowering the other, creating a good and complementary match.

The Riesling also worked really well with the fish curry. The particular bottle I chose is Domaine Weinbach Riesling Cuvée Sainte Catherine from Alsace, France. The vintage is 2010.

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The Riesling is off-dry wine, from the same region as the Gewurztraminer I had with the spicy prawns. Domaine Weinbach makes a variety of Rieslings. The Cuvée Sainte Catherine uses grapes, which are picked later. As this allows the grapes to mature more, it creates a wine that is richer, more flavorful, and also sweeter than the typical dry Riesling. The richer the wine, the richer the food needs to be for a good pairing. I could use the same bottle of wine for a number of dishes, depending on the wine’s age. The older the wine, the richer its flavors become. For instance, a light and young red would go well with a simply grilled steak. Age the wine for a few years, I might pair it with roasted beef. Age it some more, and I might add gravy to the beef dish.

So while other dry Rieslings might go with well with lighter dishes, I think the Cuvée Sainte Catherine works great for this fish dish in a curry sauce. The richness of the sauce is a great match to the rich flavors and texture of this wine.

Especially when I add the spicy condiments – or the sambols – to the curry, the Riesling is a fantastic pairing to the fish curry. The Soave doesn’t work so well with the spiciness. The sweetness of the Riesling wonderfully offsets the spiciness of the dish and simultaneously, the heat from the dish cuts the sweetness of the wine.

Overall, either the Soave or the Riesling would work for the non-spicy curry. For me, the Soave works better by lightening up the dish with its crisp and refreshing qualities at the same time being able to keep up with the firmness of the fish. The Riesling works differently by complementing the richness of the flavors of the dish. So I think in the end, whether you prefer the Soave or the Riesling with the non-spicy fish curry is subjective and is based on personal preferences. However, when the spicy sambols are added to the dish, the off-dry Riesling is a much better choice hands down!

Sri Lankan food is so amazing that I also wanted to share photos of the other foods that we ate in Sri Lanka.

Egg hoppers for breakfast with coconut sambol:

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Dhal (lentil) curry with roti and kiribath (coconut rice):

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The amazing tropical fruit:

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I can’t wait to go back and eat more food! We were definitely three well-fed and happy gals in Sri Lanka!

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