Summer comes early to Florida, so we think about having refreshing drinks in the evening a month or two before everyone else does. When it comes to refreshing wine, rosé does nice work. In this instantiation of Dinner Gang, Jim & Neal challenged us to take rosé to the next level: featuring it for the entire meal.
Because we hosted last time, it was our turn to bring the appetizer. As we always do, our discussion of the next Dinner Gang took place while having a hot tub and drinking one of the wines we might want to pour. It just so happened that an allocation of 2013 Martinelli Winery Rosé of Pinot Noir had arrived. This is a new effort from them (which started with the 20120) and our first foray into it. Our rosé of choice up to this point has been the excellent Ode de Lulu from Bedrock Wine Company. We won’t stop, but the Martinelli jumped right over it. First of all, they’re different, since the Bedrock is made from Mourvedre. What we like about the Martinelli is the remarkable color and classic Pinot character, especially the expressive fruit, is evident in the wine. This of course led us right to salmon since the two are a true heavenly match.
FIRST COURSE: Smoked Salmon Two Ways (Stackers and Rolls)
We brainstormed a number of versions of both. We wanted the stacker to be a basic platform of cracker, spread, salmon, topping. We wanted the roll to have something creamy inside the salmon’s smoky flavor. All the while, we wanted to pick up the fresh summer character of the rosé.
We made a puree of butternut squash, maple syrup, and fresh nutmeg, then blended it with crème fraiche until we had a consistency that would both have a great mouth feel and not simply squirt out the end of the roll. We took the most regular pieces of salmon, spread on some of the puree, put on two slices of fresh chive, then rolled them, securing with cocktail forks.
The stackers involved a fair amount of prep. First, Gretchyn pickled some thinly-sliced red onions in apple cider vinegar and a little sugar. We let that sit for about a day. Right before assembly, she diced a ripe avocado and mixed it with just a little bit of diced red onion (not the pickled stuff). While she was doing that, I made some horseradish crème fraiche. I played with the mixture a little and ended up with well more horseradish than I had suspected would be necessary. The final blend ended up being about 2.5 parts crème fraiche to 1 part fresh horseradish. Right after we arrived at Jim & Neal’s, we assembled them: a rosemary crisp (from 34 Degrees, which we got at Whole Foods), 1/2-3/4 teaspoon of avocado, half an ounce of salmon, a dollop of the horseradish crème, and finished with a little of the pickled onion.
The rolls were a nice baseline (I think maybe a little more sweetness would have made a great contrast), but the stackers were a triumph. They had everything: smokiness from the salmon, creamy, ripe unctuousness from the avocado, crunchy texture top and bottom, and just enough acid from the pickled onion to set off the whole thing. Despite all the elements, it was still sufficiently light to serve as a perfect starter.
WINE: 2009 Graham Beck Brut Rosé Vintage and 2013 Martinelli Pinot Noir Rosé.
Speaking of perfect starters, we kicked off the evening with a recent find, vintage sparkler from Graham Beck. We buy their non-vintage rosé sparkler by the case because it’s inexpensive and delicious. Gretchyn came across a random bottle of the vintage version, so we gave it a whirl. It’s deeper, darker, and less sweet than the NV, which is right up my alley. At $19/bottle, the alley is now a fully-paved road. We had hoped to do a side-by-side comparison of the sparkler with the still wine, but the sparkler somehow disappeared while we were still assembling the stackers.
SECOND COURSE: Cream of Asparagus Soup
Unfortunately for both Kathryn and the rest of us, she was off on a business trip. She had insisted that we still meet and that David fly solo. Fly he did. The soup, topped with a little crème fraiche (sensing a theme?) and sprouts, was both rich and light at the same time. I’m not much on soup in the summer, but this course hit the center of the mark. It made the perfect intermezzo between the appetizer and main.
WINE: Tenuta Guado al Tasso Bolgheri Scalabrone
David’s wine choice was exciting and stumped all of us. Guado al Tasso is a Tuscan winery, so we figured that this would be rosé made from Sangiovese—but it had no Sangiovese character to it. We were confused until someone looked up the blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, all grapes not native to Italy. Then we realized that Guado al Tasso is owned by Antinori, the people who brought you the Super Tuscan (and invented blending Tuscan and non-Italian grapes). More orange than pink, probably reflecting a little extra time in oak barrels, it was slightly sweeter and a bit more aromatic than the Martinelli. A fine, fine drink.
MAIN COURSE: Moroccan Chicken with Preserved Lemons & Kalamatas and Apricot-Mint Couscous
Jim said that the dish was an amalgam of recipes. What I said was that it was delicious and dove in for seconds. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender without becoming mushy. The juices made for an excellent topping for the already-excellent couscous. Homemade lavash and flatbread completed the authentic North African dish. Certainly a major shift from the first two courses, it reminded us that there’s more than one way to have warm-weather food (since there are some places that are warm all the time). The heavily-cumin based spices in the dish created more than just flavor for the chicken, but an atmosphere for the whole meal. It sculpted a setting, creating the tone by which the evening moved along. It was meta-cooking at the next level.
WINE: 2012 Chateau de Pibranon Bandol
Neal said they wanted to make the south of France/north of Africa connection with the wine and food. The Bandol did exactly what they wanted it to. The sweetest of the non-dessert wines (although still not sweet by any measure), the sweetness made a great contrast with the heady spices of the chicken while complimenting the apricots in the couscous. A little piece of pairing genius.
DESSERT: Lemon Custard
Neal said this was his mom’s recipe and that he wanted to capture both the mood of Mother’s Day and once again make the France/Africa connection with custard and lemons. The late harvest Vouvray, which evolved quickly in the glass, picked up the lemon quite nicely. Another clever pairing. Although it wasn’t strictly on-theme, we were more than willing to call it close enough, since it’s from the Loire Valley where they make some rosé. And it was tasty.
WINE: 2008 Domaine de la Poultiere Vouvray Moelleux Les Perruches
We once again triumphed over a fun and challenging theme and had a great night with some of the people who most matter to us. As they always do, the evening ended too quickly. The consolation at ending Dinner Gang 15 is that number 16 is not that far away.