Nothing can enhance a culinary experience both on the palate and in the spirit like a well-made wine. I’ve had an interest in wine pairing ever since my wines course at the ol’ Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, circa 1996.
We learned the fundamental techniques of pairing food and wine including putting together complimenting flavors and contrasting flavors—but bridging flavors is my personal favorite. In addition to my classroom book learnin’ time, I spent 3-plus years working, living and especially eating great food and drinking amazing wine in the Napa Valley. When I wasn’t working, I spent much of my time galivanting through the valley attending countless tours, tastings, afternoon wine bar sessions, multi-coursed wine dinners and everything in between.
As part of opening Tuli Bistro in 2007, I created and maintained a unique and eclectic wine list and hosted a breadth of wine dinners over the years. All of this adds up to me feeling pretty confident entering this challenge.
We began the team challenge with the presentation and description of the Alamos Malbec. After that, the wine hit our lips. Malbecs are often found reinforcing Bordeaux blends with their big rich structure and sturdy tannins, and the Alamos representative from Argentina—where stand-alone Malbecs have become ubiquitous—is no imposter. It hit me in the mouth with its rigid tannins but quickly rolled into rich fruit: reminiscent of deep, dark plum and ending with a bright, cleansing acidity. Great food wine, but it’s big and it’s serious! If I think back to my wine instructor’s helpful tool, “The Tower of Power,” we find ourselves with this wine pretty much at the top of the pairing tower. At the top, fatty, gamey meats and big bold aromatics are paired with full-flavored and rich wines like this Malbec.Next is the big reveal of our mentor’s chosen “secret” ingredients. What could be better? Five hand-chosen ingredients meant to pair perfectly with this goliath of a wine, and . . . Malarkey pulls a David Akers and biffs the 36 yard chip shot. Right off the goalpost. I’m thinking he’s going to go with ribeye or better yet lamb—or even goat—mushrooms, a nice aged cheese. I don’t’ know how else to say it, but we needed something with balls to stand up to this wine. But alas we end up with this list:
Malarkey’s Secret Ingredients
Sea salt, which by its nature doesn’t pair with anything (sure, nice to have but there’s already some in the pantry).
Almonds. Really? I hope he’s getting a check from the almond board on this one. Unless we’re pairing with a big oaky Chardonnay or perhaps a nice, malty amber ale, they’re useless. And again, I think we’re already packing some in the pantry.
Bone marrow. Not one of my favorite ingredients, but at least we’re getting on the right track. Chefs have made bone marrow über popular of late, but to me its place is more in a stock pot or my dog’s mouth. But they do provide a level of fat that this Malbec is craving (and Khristianne is taking some), so I’m in on the Bone Marrow.
Figs? Okay, I’m feelin you, Malarkey. They’re not quite a centerpiece but they should provide the rich earthy fruit I’m looking for. Now for the main event: Oh yeah, right . . .
Beef filet. Come on, Malarkey! We’re pairing with a Malbec and you pick the wet blanket of red meats? When filet went to school it had its lunch money taken by ribeyes and New York strips. If filet was a movie, it would be The Notebook. Don’t get me wrong, filet mignon has its place, it just isn’t with Malbec.
I can feel Bourdain pointing and laughing from behind his enormous pile of animal parts. Oh look, a huge hunk of ribeye. How’d you come up with that brilliant pairing, Tony? Maybe in Argentina? Possibly while drinking Malbec fireside with Gauchos who likely split a steer that very day? Even nigella picked liver and two forms of lamb! Meanwhile Ludo’s holding his own episode of Chopped, giving his team Eel, Bonito and, wait, is that charcoal? Ok, maybe we don’t have it so bad.I still have a predicament with my main event so I run straight to the fridge to see what random goodies they have left for us. Boom, squab! One of my favorite birds to both cook and eat, squab is a baby pigeon with red flesh and a light gamey flavor that is best served medium rare. I dive right in and immediately break the birds down, taking the ample breasts off and exposing the bony cages that go straight into a 500 degree oven for a little Maillard session (if you’re not familiar with Maillard, it’s one of the most important reactions in cooking—google it!).
I season the breasts and set them aside, the salt starting to extract moisture from the fatty avian skin and drying it out ever so slightly, which will result in a crispier, more flavorful result. Meanwhile I prepare some aromatics for my squab stock as the bones are almost ready. At the same time I brown a couple pieces of bone marrow, blast them with a healthy splash of Malbec and forget about them for a while.
My squab stock, the base for my sauce, is simmering away, the bone marrow is braising, the figs are roasting, and now it’s time to cook my birds. I pull out a big plancha, or cast iron griddle, and get it pretty hot. The birds go down, skin side, and I top them with a weight to flatten them and ensure ideal contact between their flesh and the iron. I have added some Malbec to my squab stock in an effort to “bridge” the food and wine, the pairing technique I like which I mentioned earlier.
A complex wine and meat-based reduction sauce such as this is usually a 24 plus hour affair, certainly no less than 6, but I’m attempting to pull it off in an hour. This requires a little culinary trickery, so I get 2 large sauté pan and crank ‘em as high The Taste’s cute little set kitchen will allow. I strain my tasty but languid stock right into screaming-hot sauté pan number one with an intense explosion of sputtering liquid as what dreams of being a sauce when it grows up instantly boils harder than it ever thought it could. What was a quart is now 2 cups. That goes into ripping hot sauté pan number two. The reaction repeats and voila: we have about one cup of rich, flavorful sauce.
My birds are crispy on the outside with a moist ruby center, the figs are caramelized, and my sauce finally has the lacquer sheen I’ve been toiling for. I’m still missing something. Although my marrow is tender and scented with Malbec and aromatics, it’s still just lumpy fat. I think about incorporating some into my sauce but the idea just sends me into flashbacks of the Deepwater Horizon debacle and I refrain (something went bad there with oil and water, maybe it rings a bell). So Malarkey says, “what about some blue cheese?” Not a bad idea, with these variables in play: I feel like I’m missing something, the pairing mostly appeals to my culinary sensibilities and, at the end of the day, I want to do right by my mentor. If he feels included in the finished product, the better chance he’ll have of picking the dish. Ok, let’s go for it.
Now for him to make a selection. I knew this was going to be a problem before we even got in the kitchen since our team is made up of full on alphas. We all want immunity and we all cook great food. I didn’t go on a cooking competition show to say, “Nah, your food is better, let’s go with that.” No, I cooked my ass off and produced the best wine pairing I could with the time and resources I was allotted, and both my teammates picked filet! Choosing mine was a no-brainer to me. Hence: “Chef, make the call . . . make the call chef . . . the call, chef make . . . (time is ticking away) . . . CHEF, MAKE THE CALL! And he did and it felt good. Even though Mack and Kinch (the guest experts) didn’t quite get it, it was an honor to have them taste my food. Although I still wonder how my dish would have gone sans blue cheese.We headed into the elimination challenge with a choice of 4 wines, most of which I didn’t care for and since mine was going to be one of the first spoons the judges tasted, I kept it light and went with the Chard. The wine was not the super-huge buttery oak bomb that a lot of Napa Chardonnays have become, but a more subtle representation with a rich body but nice clean acidity. Immediately seafood comes to mind. Wanting to go with what I know, I choose to make a bouillabaisse.
The bouillabaisse base is a non-issue: I’ve made it a million times and it always goes over big. Plus my mom loves it. Some garlic, leek, fennel, a little tomato, some of the Chardonnay of course . . . that’s right, you got it: bridging. The big trick is cooking all the seafood properly so most of my effort went there. With my base rolling and coming together I set out to prepare my mussels, halibut, Dungeness and scallops which all in all came out to my liking. My saffron aioli, again using a little Chardonnay, was one of the best I’d ever made in my opinion.
One of my favorite parts of bouillabaisse is a nice piece of garlicky grilled bread but this is where the spoon factor becomes a problem. How does one fit 4 varieties of seafood in a chunky broth on a spoon with an aioli and somehow get bread on there? I let it go. Why did I let it go? Even though I got to hear Tony say “I love the dish,” I will hear “[I need] a crust of bread to mop around in there.” Dammit! A fine consolation was the words of my mentor, “I could eat a whole bowl of that.” Then there’s Nigella’s reaction . . . hmm, I shouldn’t say how I really feel so let’s just leave that alone. Suffice it to say I disagree with her assessment.
So here we are. The season is half over with only four shows to go and two eliminations behind me, but the competition is getting pretty serious. Thanks for all the support! Keep it up and come see us in the Sterling Ballroom on Tuesday for Dinner and a show—this week’s “Art of Sandwich” won’t disappoint! Tickets are available at: http://thetaste5.eventbrite.com
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