Our monthly meet-ups with friends Kathryn & David and Neal & Jim have become one of the evenings we look forward to the most. Great food, great friends, and great wines equal a great time, and this month, the seventh installment, was no different.
We’ve settled on a regular SOP: the host couple chooses the theme and makes the main course and dessert; the other two couples are either assigned specific courses (like we did with the Three Faces of Syrah evening) or work out between them who’s bringing the appetizer and who the salad or soup course. We each pair a wine or wines with dishes we cook.
When David emailed us the “Enchantment Under the Sea” theme, two things sprung to mind. A Michael J. Fox costume (which didn’t materialize) and a shrimp pasta dish that we had made for Day of Thrones 3. The only real change we made to the dish was substituting in leeks for the asparagus. We changed the proportions since we weren’t feeding hungry gamers, we were providing the second course of a large meal, settling on roughly two-thirds of what we had previously serving. Here are the proportions; you can check out the Day of Thrones link to get the process. Note that we added a little mayo to the mix to add some texture. In the end, I might have added even a little more.
1 lb ditalini
3 medium leeks, sliced thin
2 medium fennel bulbs, diced
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp celery seed
Salt and pepper to taste
1.25 lbs fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tbl Old Bay
1 tbl mayo
Kathryn & David had laid out a nice cheese for when we arrived, Bellavitano, a balsamic-crusted hard cheese much like parmigniano reggiano (say it with me: “The undisputed King of All Cheeses”). They paired with it dark, heavy-grain and fruit bread, thinly sliced. It was nice to snack on while I was opening wine bottles.
FIRST COURSE: The Spreads
Neal & Jim put together a marvelous first course of two spreads and a terrine. The terrine was made up of scallops and cod, firm in texture, deep in flavor, with a whisper of piquant on the finish. They topped it with creamy dill mayo, adding a green roundness to it all. The two spreads were salmon and trout, both relatively simple and both quite delicious. Gretchyn & I both preferred the trout because it was densely layered with the flavors that Jim had woven into it.
They went with the classic pairing of a sparkler with it, choosing one of their favorites, NV J Schram, from Schramsberg Vineyards, in my estimation the finest of America’s sparkling wine purveyors. The sparkler went best with the terrine, but it was the right choice for the plate as a whole. If I were picking individual wines to go with each of the three, I would have still gone with a champagne with the terrine, a rustic Oregon Pinot Noir with the salmon, and a mineral-laced Alsation Riesling with the trout. Kathryn had opened a Viognier to go with the cheese, and that would have been just fine with the trout as well.
SECOND COURSE: Fennel-Leek Ditalini with Roasted Shrimp
We often spent quite some time figuring out what we’re going to bring to Dinner Gang, then spend more time on getting it right before putting it in front of our friends. This time, we went straight for the pasta dish as soon as we heard the theme.
We spent far more time trying to figure out what wine would be the best pairing. We agreed that minerality would be important (which is probably what got the Alsace on my mind). We started out sure that White Burgundy was the direction we would go because of the light amount of seasoning on the shrimp—about a quarter of what I’d use if I were truly spicing it (in which case the choice would be, Australian Shiraz, California Zinfandel, or a nice dry Riesling, all of which have sufficient residual sweetness to them). We didn’t have any White Burgundy in the cellar, so we went to the wine shop. We engaged in a discussion—no kidding a half hour long—on whether or not said Burgundy was the right call. We tried to go outside the box some. Sauvignon Blanc came up, but we quickly agreed it’d have to be California or Sancerre; southern hemisphere stuff would be far too citric. We asked ourselves which reds we might consider, but quickly abandoned that because we thought that anything red would dominate the dish. In the end, we went back to our first instinct, ending up with a bottle of 2008 Rene Lequin-Colin Chassagne-Montrachet Clos Devant.
The dish isn’t difficult or time-consuming to make, but it turned out perfectly. The balance of the herbal flavors of the fennel and leek blended extremely well with the light seasoning on the shrimp. All of it made harmony with the aromas and flavors in the wine—bananas, apples, and stone fruits. I’m ready to write down apple as a primary flavor to go with fennel. I’ve liked the way they’ve worked every time we’ve put them together.
THIRD COURSE: Crab-Topped Plank-Fired Corvina with Grilled Corn, Heirloom Tomatoes, Roasted Red Pepper, and Saffron Risotto Cake
Man, was this a beautiful dish. The great smoke flavor of red oak infused into the perfectly-cooked corvina blended with roasted elements of the corn, heirloom tomatoes, and red pepper, and contrasted exceptionally with the texture of the risotto cake.
Their pairing was 2009 Soléna Pinot Noir Hyland Vineyard, absolutely the right direction to compliment the plate. It would have been easy to head toward a buttery Chard here, but I think the slightly outside-the-box choice of Oregon Pinot would have been the way I went as well. First of all, the light tannins meant the wine wouldn’t fight with the fish. Second, Oregon Pinot often has a nice smoke character to it, and the Soléna delivered. Wood fire and lavender on the nose and black cherry and raspberry across the nicely curvaceous palate was absolute aces.
DESSERT: TRES LECHES CON CARAMEL
If you’re a regular reader you know that sweets tend to be my least favorite part of a meal, and I know the pastry chef in this house works overtime to make sure that our desserts stay in my wheelhouse, so I always go into desserts that other people make with a little trepidation, not out of worry about their skill, but my tastes. I’m happy to report that this Tres Leches was the right exclamation point to this meal. Just creamy enough, just sweet enough, just perfect enough. The N.V. Mailly Grand Cru Champagne Demi-Sec that they served with it struck exactly the chord it needed to, a great pairing with a wonderful dessert. There are certainly worse ways of going through a meal than starting and ending the courses with bubbly.
The meal as always featured great conversation (film and TV were the popular subjects this time), and before we knew it, five and a half hours had passed. We wrapped up another successful Dinner Gang and laid our plans for the next one. Here’s counting the days.