Wine with Food: Pairing Notes and Recipes from the New York Times
“Their approach to wine and food is utterly relaxed and unfussy. The message of the book should put the most novice wine drinker among us at ease: There are no firm rules in wine pairing. Drink what you like, and don’t let others tell you otherwise.”
There comes a time in every wine loving cook’s life when the inevitable moment of self-doubt that washes over you as your guests sit down to dinner is less about the food you are about to serve than the wine you are about to pour. “Did I choose the right wine?” you wonder as a wave of panic wells up inside you. This is the moment when you realize you have successfully jettisoned your fear of culinary failure only to have it land with a thud in the illusive lap of wine pairing.
Yet fear not. Wine pairing is as teachable as cooking—all you need is a good teacher. Enter Eric Asimov and Florence Fabricant. Mr. Asimov writes a weekly wine column for the New York Times accompanied by his tasting sidekick Fabricant who sits on his wine panel and offers a weekly recipe to accompany the wine selection. Wine with Food, the natural followup to their weekly columns, is a highly accessible book that expertly guides the everyday home cook and wine drinker through pairing notes and recipes.
Their approach to wine and food is utterly relaxed and unfussy. The message of the book should put the most novice wine drinker among us at ease: There are no firm rules in wine pairing. Drink what you like, and don’t let others tell you otherwise.
In her introduction, Ms. Fabricant writes, “. . . [R]arely, if ever, is there a single dish that can flatter a wine to the exclusion of all others.” Moreover, “The consequences of [wine pairing] choices are never life threatening.” (Now doesn’t that let a lot of air out of the anxiety balloon? Nothing bad is going to happen.)
Still, as in cooking, practice in selecting wines makes you if not perfect, at least more confident. “The accumulation of practical experience,” writes Asimov, “along with a modest effort to record your reactions to the wines is the surest way to develop a sense of ease and comfort in this ever-expanding world [of wine].”
Wine with Food is a guide, not a foolproof manual on wine pairing. It demands an effort on the part of the user if (s)he wants to learn.
As the title suggests, this is about wine with food. First you choose the wine, then you decide on the food. For a cook this may seem like the tail wagging the dog, but once you are open to this notion you will find yourself in unexpectedly delightful territory.
The book is laid out according to the type of wine just as you might experience it in a proper wine tasting environment starting with sparklers followed by rosés, whites, reds, and then finally fortified and sweet wines with subcategories for different regions or countries with a comprehensive selection of both New and Old World wines.
Just as there is no wrong way to choose a wine, there is no wrong way to use this book. You can work your way through from start to finish or choose a wine to explore based on what sounds good on any given day. Maybe you will want to start with wines you are already familiar with in order to understand them better with food. Or maybe you will be compelled to try something new because you were intrigued by Asimov’s descriptions.
Whichever way you choose to use the book you will learn something new if you pay attention and jot down some notes as you go—and don’t be afraid to jot them down right in the book. If you’re a serious cook, you already do it in your favorite cookbooks, so why not make some notes about the wine in the book as well? (Too bad Rizzoli didn’t think to insert a page for notes after each wine description.)
Four wines and their accompanying recipe were tried. The wines—all of which were outside my customary choices—were a delightful surprise and each of the pairings was a home run in terms of marrying the wine and food so that each was enhanced by the other. But the recipes themselves were only so-so. It wasn’t that they were bad per se, but there was no wow factor in any of them.
Fabricant has a light touch when it comes to flavoring (which of course can be modified to your taste). But she uses a democratic mix of luxury and everyday ingredients to fit everyone’s budget, so don’t be put off when you come across Pasta with Duck Confit or Fettuccine with Foie Gras and Truffles.
Still, if you are an experienced cook and you liked the overall wine and food pairing, it is enough to help you understand other recipes in your repertoire that may work well with the wine.
For example, a Vouvray was accompanied by Thai-Style Scallops and Broccoli. First, about the wine: Vouvray is made from chenin blanc in the Loire Valley. Asimov has been touting chenin blanc in his Times column for a while so it seemed like a good place to start, especially since it is a very affordable wine. Because Vouvray is a little sweet (but can still have a dry finish) Fabricant suggests it is a good match for spicy Asian cuisine. She is right. Move over rieslings. This was a perfect example of how wine is changed by food.
The Scallops and Broccoli, however, was disappointing. The flavors were not intense enough, and the overall texture and look of the dish was—to borrow from wine terminology—limpid. That said, the pairing was spot on and the introduction (or reintroduction) to Vouvray with the right food pairing was very rewarding. Once you find a bottle you like, it will probably become a staple in your wine inventory. But don’t limit yourself to pairing it with just Asian cuisine. It could easily be paired with any spicy dish. The more heat in the dish the better the pairing.
The same goes for Soave. Asimov made a compelling case for trying Soave again since the wine had undergone a transformation from what had been offered years ago. Hello, Soave. Welcome back. At an affordable price, it will make a wonderful wine to see you through the summer grilling season and it made a delicious partner with the Buttered Tagliatelle with Clams and Peas. But again, the flavors were on the timid side, and the dish benefited greatly by the addition of a little garlic sautéed in a couple teaspoons of butter along with the breadcrumbs.
Turning to red wines, Fabricant expands the recipe options to more than just the traditional meat pairings. Several recipes include fish like Grand Cru Salmon with Lentils in Red Wine paired with a Left Bank Bordeaux or Artic Char with Prosciutto paired with a Valpolicella. She even goes very rustic with her Hearty Split Pea Soup paired with (of all things) Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas. (You have to have a big bank account to be willing to splurge on a Châteauneuf-du-Pape with something as humble as split pea soup.)
But the price of the wine notwithstanding, the former was a good example of how this book might lead you to focus in on specific characteristics of a wine that you thought you already knew. A less pricey—although still not inexpensive—Gigondas was chosen to drink with the soup, which really brought forward the smokiness of the wine. It was suddenly clear why a Southern Rhone wine works so well with a beef daube made with good smoky bacon.
There are undoubtedly many hidden treasures in Wine with Food, but among them is certainly Etna Rossa (of Mount Etna) paired with Bucatini with Tuna. It may not be easy to find, but it is worth the hunt. Asimov describes it as a wine with “elegance”—you decide. But it is, as he suggested, refreshing, light, energetic, and full of red fruit flavors that pair beautifully with the Bucatini with Tuna. It seemed more rustic than elegant, which is not a bad thing. The dish itself is quite rustic making it a perfect companion to this wine.
Again, though, Fabricant’s light touch may cause you to tweak the recipe to your liking. More mint and capers may be needed. And now is the time to splurge on really good Italian tuna packed in olive oil. This is a pantry-ready dish (especially if you grow your own herbs), and the luxury Italian tuna really renders it company-worthy. It is a perfect wine and food combination for an uncomplicated meal al fresco with good friends.
While barely scratching the surface, it is easy to see that Wine with Food is a must-have book for cooks who want to learn more about wine without getting so far into the weeds to become overwhelmed. It is loads of fun to use and like all good cookbooks, it will take you in new directions and lead you to a deeper understanding of wine as well as food. This is what we wine loving cooks live for.