New World Food, Old World Wine
It was Kathryn and David’s turn to host this installment of Dinner Gang, and they came up with what I think has been the most clever theme to date: New World food paired with Old World wine. Generally, I like to pair food with wines from the same place the food comes from, so we knew going in that this would be a great challenge and force us all into some unconventional thinking. Everyone stepped up like I knew they would.
COURSE 1: Tuna Stackers
Nothing is more New World than fusion cuisine. Jim and Neal assembled a great starter by combining seared yellowfin tuna and homemade Asian slaw and putting it between two salted, lightly sugared crispy wontons dusted with black sesame seed. They finished the plate with sriracha sauce for a spectacular zing. Despite generous portions of tuna, they were quite light. I had three of them without threatening my appetite for the rest of the meal.
They paired it with two wines. The first was 2008 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett. Crisp and clean with good acidity and tropical notes, it was the more elegant of the two wines, and one I could see drinking just on its own. The second was 2008 Eugen Wehrheim Niersteiner Ölberg Riesling Kabinett. This was a great pairing. More residual sweetness than the first and a slight effervescence, it created a perfect contrast with both the distinctness of the sesame flavors and the heat of the sriracha. A fantastic start.
COURSE 2: Maryland Crab Soup
Gretchyn and I grew up in Baltimore, and the food of the Chesapeake Bay still resonates with us. When we first mulled over the theme, we thought about lobster or turkey, but nothing really spoke to us as all that interesting. When she suggested crab soup, I knew we had a winner.
When it came to the pairing, I gave it some deep thought. We knew going in that Kathryn and David were pouring a sparkling rosé with their dish, so I didn’t want to dip into that well. The trouble with the pairing is that most of the Old World wines are far more restrained than their New World cousins and the crab soup would trample on restraint due to the Old Bay seasoning. I could have easily paired a Russian River Valley Pinot or Australian Shiraz with it, but those are both New World. I considered a nice, rustic French Syrah or maybe even Bandol. Then going back to the idea of pairing the wine with the region the food comes from, I wondered what Old World food crab soup was most like. Cioppino and bouillabaisse came to mind, but the heat of the dish drove me to Spain. Cava Rosado might have done the trick, but I wanted to stay away from duplicating what was coming in the next course. I wanted big and bold, so I went with 2004 Bodegas Muga Rioja Reserva Selección Especial. It had the great body and structure that I expected. The dark, heady fruit and tobacco notes went surprisingly well with the soup. The pairing was way outside the box, but worked.
Crab soup is not a difficult dish to make, but you have to allow time to let the flavors settle in (not to mention making the house smell great all day). This is Gretchyn’s own recipe. Some folks will put in cabbage, lima beans, or even peas. We like both the flavor and texture of green beans instead.
MARYLAND CRAB SOUP
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon ground mustard
3 tablespoons Old Bay
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups of water
28 ounces can diced tomatoes
3 carrots, sliced
1/2 pound fresh green beans
1 medium-large russet potato peeled and diced
1 medium onion, minced
4 stalks celery, chopped
1 cup frozen corn
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Pinch red pepper flakes
2 bay leaves
1/2 pound lump crabmeat
1/2 pound claw crab meat
She simply prepped all the vegetables and mixed them together with the liquid in the medium-sized Le Crueset Dutch Oven. She simmered on medium-low heat for about 3 hours, getting the vegetables to cook but still have texture to them. We tasted it along the way to make sure the spice profile was what we wanted (which is where the third tablespoon of Old Bay came in). Then, an hour before we left the house, she added the crab meat. When we got to Kathryn & David’s, we put it on the stove on low as we had the first course.
Instead of a second bottle of wine to go with the soup, we offered a palate cleanser. Knowing that our dish was spicy and the wine was bold, we wanted to create a clean slate for the main course. We brought along a bottle of Calvados, and when we arrived, we got six cordial glasses of their shelf, poured about an ounce-and-a-half shot into each, then put them in the fridge. They were just the right temperature—chilled without being icy—by the time we were clearing away the soup bowls.
MAIN COURSE: Shrimp and Grits with Bacon Crumbles
Kathryn & David confessed that they came up with the theme so that they could make this, one of their favorite dishes. David has worked on the recipe for many years to get it where they like it. He did his mise en place just after we arrived, telling us that everything would cook rather quickly. It did, as he started working just after the Calvados and was plating the dish in about 20 minutes. The bacon made a nice contrast with the shrimp, but thing that tipped this dish over the top for me was the inclusion of jalapeno. It provided exciting, expressive flavor and the right amount of heat, contrasting with the creamy goodness of the grits.
They paired it with 2008 Louis Roederer Champagne Rosé Brut. Slightly more yeasty than I expected from a rosé, making it quite pleasant on its own, its great minerality—with a kind of sea salt flavor it to—made a fine companion to the shrimp, while the bright red sweetness set off the spicy dish extremely well. This is another dish that I would have just snap-called a pairing of Russian River Valley Pinot, and I’m quite happy that that wasn’t a choice. Outstanding pairing, and evidence that you don’t need to save sparklers for special occasions. A meal with your friends is special enough.
DESSERT: Meyer Lemon Panna Cotta with Blackberry Compote
Flipping over the theme for dessert, Kathryn & David put together a brilliant Meyer Lemon Panna Cotta (I think in Italian it means “freaking delicious custard”) and paired it with 2011 Familia Zuccardi Torrontés Santa Julia Tardío from Argentina.
After all the super-charged spice and heat of the three previous courses, I couldn’t have asked for a better dessert choice to cool the fire. I’m normally ambivalent about lemon, but this was just right—rich without being too tart. It was the exclamation point on a well-crafted sentence.
I found it interesting with this iteration of Dinner Gang that all of us chose the common themes of seafood and heat—but we ended up with three distinctly different dishes. It’s a testament to what kind of communication the six of us have developed about these dinners. They just keep getting better and better.
As we wrapped up we let everyone know that we’d already picked a theme for next time, since it’ll be our turn to host. Our next meeting happens to fall on “Hug an Australian Day,” so the theme suggested itself. Everyone will pick an Australian wine and make a course (Australian or otherwise) to go with it—although I’ve already promised that under no circumstances will there be shrimp on the barbie.