Food Pairings 101
by Cathy Kiley
Most people eat to live but for those of us who live to eat, there are few things more divine than the pairing of an exquisite meal and a heavenly bottle of wine.
Although multi-course wine pairings are very much in vogue, the marriage of food and spirits has evolved over the last decade. While beer, burgers, and dogs are still a dietary staple at every ballgame, microbrewery pubs have popped up all over the Lehigh Valley with interesting menus to compliment their brews.
Whiskey pairings are popular at many upscale local restaurants giving us the opportunity to learn the finite characteristics of these liquors and how they accent the foods accompanying them.
All spirits take on the characteristics of the environment in which they are distilled so they may adopt oak, peat, mossy or other flavors. Distillers also infuse their products with citrus, vanilla or other interesting flavors. This is very prominent in vodka which, served icy cold, is incredible with caviar.
The clean, crisp flavor of Gin is perfect with Asian food or crudites and other snacks on a hot summer day by the pool. Scotch is perfect with gamey or brined meats as well as smoked duck. Whiskey is able to stand up to strong flavors. That is why bourbon and other spirits are widely used in many marinades for steak, lamb chops, and ribs and are very often added to the sauce for stews.
Whiskey goes well with swordfish or other dense seafood such as tuna, lobster or sea bass especially when accompanied by rich, zesty sauces. Rich, robust foods are best with whiskey. Irish Stew is delightful with an Irish Whiskey or aged single malt scotch.
Beer pairings are very popular in the Valley. There is nothing better with Mexican and Spanish food or German wursts, especially when beer is added to the kraut and let to steep for hours. Let’s not forget spicy Asian dishes which are always delicious with a beer. Beers are added to chili, baked goods and soups to add flavor and there is nothing better than a refreshing beer with any picnic food.
Local microbreweries are creating new and exciting brews to accent just about any dish albeit spicy, savory or sweet. Brewers have many ingredients to experiment with beginning with hops, yeast, and barley. Add wheat, fruit, nuts, pumpkin, spices or chocolate and the results are spectacular. It seems almost impossible to not find a beer that doesn’t pair well with any food you plan to serve. It’s a very exciting time for microbrewers – the possibilities are endless.
The era of thinking “red with meat and white for fish” is gone. A great steak or delicate serving of fresh seafood can very well be ruined if paired with the wrong wine. For this reason, many reputable wineries now offer special tastings to show, for example, how certain whites would not pair well with a strong cheese but that same cheese would only be enhanced by a Pinot Noir.
Northampton Country Club’s Executive Chefs Catherine Murphy and Ryan Lukow, as well as Food and Beverage Manager Bill Vidonya were happy to add their input to the following suggestions for pairing wine and foods to enhance your next dinner party.
Champagne and sparkling white wines possess sweet undertones and are a wonderful accent with saltier foods. That is why they taste delightful with most cheeses. However, heavier cheeses such as stilton, parmesan and cheddar stand up well to red wines. The cheese course is still served after the meal in many countries, in contrast to most dinner parties here, which explains the red wine or port served with them. Lighter cheeses such as Brie or Swiss pair better with white as would a fine Rose or Zinfandel. Peppered and herbed cheeses, as well as herbed sauces, are wonderful with Sauvignon Blanc. And absolutely nothing pairs better than a sweet Sauterne with fresh foie gras.
Serve a lighter or sweeter wine with a fresh white fish such as flounder but an oily fish such as bronzino or salmon demands a bolder chardonnay or red. Seafood dishes having spicy or heavy sauces pair well with red such as Pinot Noir which is a great wine and widely enjoyed with just about everything. It, as well as most Italian wines, pair beautifully with all pasta or pizza.
Most Italian wines are made to be enjoyed with food and are always far superior with a delicious meal rather than alone. Juicy red meats such a steak or lamb demand a Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec. They are wonderful with most vegetables so feel free to serve roasted potatoes, mushrooms, zucchini and asparagus alongside the meats. Heavy sauces with meat will only enhance these wines.
The favorite part of any meal is dessert and there are many dessert wines to accompany them. Ice wines or sparkling wines are terrific with creme brulée or fresh berries. Berries love a dash of Grand Marnier or Chambord before adding a dollop of freshly whipped cream. Serve a tawny port or glass of red wine leftover from dinner with richer desserts such as cheesecake or chocolate mousse cake. Keep in mind that depending on the characteristics of the scotch, it may be marvelous with dessert. Many vintage scotches are wonderful with rich chocolate, pumpkin pie or blue cheese.
And don’t forget about bourbon pecan pie! Nothing is better than peach or other fruit schnapps with a freshly baked pie; and to top off freshly brewed coffee, cappuccino or espresso, please do not forget after-dinner drinks such as amaretto, cognac or port as well as fortified Madiera Sercial or Malmsey wines.
The most important thing to remember when planning a pairing menu is to serve what you enjoy eating and plan your evening around those foods. If your culinary skills are sophisticated enough to even consider hosting a food and wine/spirit pairing dinner, you will be well aware of what tastes well together. That being the case, what pleases your palate will most likely please the palates of your guests.