Wine-and-food matching used to be pretty straightforward. If you were eating boeuf Bourgignon, you chose red Burgundy; when it was spaghetti, you went for Chianti. Menus were dominated by dishes from wine-producing countries, mainly in Europe, and wine lists carried those countries' traditional wines.
But today, menus are global in origin. A French restaurant might incorporate flavors from Vietnam or Algeria or Martinique. Want a different take on bouillabaisse? Try fish stews with accents from Thailand, Japan or Brazil. A classic Bordeaux might feel pretty out of place. Maybe that's why the traditional "restaurant" wines are disappearing from restaurant wine lists. And why new restaurants are adding creative cocktails and craft beers to their beverage offerings.
This mix-and-match approach has been gaining ground for some time, of course, but I realized just how much it has become the "new normal" at a recent event I helped organize that matched a broad range of dishes with an equally diverse group of beverages.
It was called "Cooking in Harmony," presented by the Park Slope Food Cooperative. The co-op, founded in 1973, has two basic rules: to shop in its grocery story, you must be a member of the co-op; to be a member, you must work a volunteer shift (two and three-quarters hours every four weeks). For the event, we recruited nine members to cook and matched their dishes with appropriate beverages. About 150 people attended, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.
At the beginning, I really had no idea who might be brave enough to cook for such a crowd, or what dishes they would present. As it turned out, their recipes showed influences from Peru, Morocco, Hungary, India, Korea and Jamaica. Three included meat, one featured fish and five were vegetarian (including a beautiful and tasty raw, vegan version of lasagna).
We asked each of the cooks if they had a preference for a matching beverage and then worked with them to find an appropriate pairing. In the end, the drinks were as diverse as the dishes. We chose five wines—from Italy, France, Chile and New York's Finger Lakes (the Gotham Project Riesling, which comes in a keg). There were two beers, an American pumpkin-based ale that weighed in at 9 percent alcohol, and a German Gose, flavored with coriander and salt. Two cooks requested non-alcoholic punches; one blended mint tea, a lemon-ginger herbal infusion and pomegranate juice, while the other married a cucumber-based juice with seltzer.
As you can imagine, it was a riot of flavor. Bangalore Beets, spiced with curry leaves, fenugreek and coriander, lit a fire that was beautifully cooled by the Gose beer. Chicken Paprikash, flavored with true Hungarian paprika, cozied up to the earthy flavors of a 2003 Fontanelle Siglianese, a blend of indigenous Tuscan grapes. A Peruvian stew of braised lamb with the country's "national spice," aji amarillo (a yellow hot pepper), and it paired unexpectedly well with the crisp fruit of a 2008 Elki Sauvignon Blanc from Chile's Elqui Valley.
At the end, the guests voted on their favorite dish of the night, and the narrow winner was Bibimbap Reinvented, prepared by Grace M. Cho. Her Korean mother "reinvented" her traditional dishes to suit the culinary culture of her American husband, and so Grace "deconstructed" this typical vegetarian stew as a collection of discrete elements on the plate. She matched it with the cucumber sparkler, and the result was a triumph of complex and harmonious flavors.
As you might imagine, I tend to favor wine with my meals, and I tend to choose meals, and restaurants, that are good traditional matches with wine. This event was a wake-up call to broaden my horizons. It's a big world of flavor out there. I'm not completely giving up on that old axiom of "red wine with meat, white with fish." But I'm not going to let it confine my choices.
What surprising matches have you enjoyed recently? Let's hear from the explorers out there.
Danapat Promphan — Cincinnati, OH — October 11, 2010 7:23pm ET
Danapat Promphan — Cincinnati, OH — October 11, 2010 8:40pm ET
Danapat Promphan — Cincinnati, OH — October 11, 2010 8:53pm ET
Lorenzo Erlic — victoria canada — October 11, 2010 9:59pm ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — October 12, 2010 5:02pm ET
Danapat Promphan — Cincinnati, OH — October 12, 2010 9:54pm ET
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