Matching Red and White with Greens
Way back, when the whole restaurant world followed the French menu plan, the salad -- plain, green and, to be honest, a major yawn -- showed up after the main course and just kind of kept your mouth busy until dessert. Nobody drank wine with salad -- that wasn't in the plan. Word had it, in fact, that salad was actually an enemy of wine and that you should never, ever serve the two together.
But that was then. This is now. And now means a whole new way of eating. In these health-conscious times, even in the toniest of today's trendy eateries, we nibble and graze our way through a fun, casual meal that might not even have a discernible entree. More often than not, some kind of salad is a big part of the picture. And unlike those passe little piles of rabbit food we dutifully gulped down in the name of "getting our greens," the salads of the nineties are vibrant, colorful, complex works of edible art that are anything but boring. They're real food -- and they deserve a real glass of good wine.
Forget the post-entree afterthought. Today, a salad might be the starter. Seared scallops on baby spinach with a lemony pepper-bacon dressing. Beef tartare on potato crisps with mustard cress and wasabi-ginger puree. Classic Caesar topped with toasted pine nuts and strips of mesquite-grilled chicken. Or salad might even take center stage as the main event at dinner as well as at lunch. How about cold roast lamb with grilled marinated eggplant, multicolored peppers and new potatoes. Or spice-rubbed smoked turkey breast wrapped around chilled tangerine-cranberry wild rice, or warm berry-pepper-glazed grilled duck breast on stir-fried Swiss chard.
So what's the problem with serving these scrumptious creations with wine?
It's certainly not the meat, the poultry or the seafood. It's not even the lettuces they're arranged on. The main culprit in a salad is the vinegar. Chemically, the acetic acid most dressings contain is very closely related to ethyl alcohol in wine (which is how you can easily turn wine into vinegar -- by letting the acetic acid take over.)
Think about this: when you take a sip of wine with a bite of something seasoned with vinegar, an alarm goes off in your brain warning that the wine has gone sour. There most likely isn't anything wrong with the wine, though. It's just your mind and palate playing tricks on you.
What to do? The safest strategy is to cut down on the vinegar in your salad, or to cut it out completely. That's easy. But you do need balance in your dressing -- something tangy to give the oil a lift.
Fruit juices work great -- especially tart ones such as lemon and grapefruit. Start with the same proportions that you'd use with vinegar, then taste and adjust if you need to. Or boot the vinegar and use some wine itself, either straight from the bottle (best to use high-acid wines such as bubbly and sauvignon blanc) or simmered to one-third its volume. (This concentrates the acids and evaporates off much of the alcohol.)
You can also use a fruit vinegar -- pear, cherry, raspberry, for example -- as a starting point. Try matching their flavors with the natural flavors of wine you'd be serving with your finished salad -- in this case chardonnay, merlot, zinfandel, respectively -- that you'll be serving. Fruit vinegars also often have lower acid levels than wine vinegars to start with, and you can always make them even more wine-friendly by blending in some juice or wine. Ditto with rice vinegar, a key ingredient in Asian and East-West combos.
Let's move on to balsamic vinegar, a very rich, dark and full-flavored "magic ingredient" from Italy, which traditionally seasons everything from salads to steaks to strawberries. This culinary wonder gets its layers of flavor from the series of barrels, made from different woods, in which it's aged and can deepen the flavors of any food you combine it with. And if you actually cook it, much of its acetic acid burns off. This makes balsamic vinegar even more wine-friendly. Plus, it's so concentrated that a little goes a really long way. Try brushing mushrooms with it before grilling, for instance; or deglazing the pan with it after sautéing strips of beef; or whisking it with good olive oil, dipping in some halved red onions, then roasting 'em 'til they're tender.
All of these vinegars would make great additions to nineties-style "composed" salads. And even if the creation you're building starts with a plain heap of greens as its foundation, you can liven up your lettuces with any ingredients that already go with wine.
Let's check back to some of the contemporary salad ideas we looked at earlier. Seafood, poultry, meats; herbs and spices; fruits, nuts, vegetables (green and otherwise) -- all of these not only can pair naturally with wine, but they often change those simple greens into serious showstoppers.
Take the seared scallops, for example. If you were going to poach or sauté them, you'd probably go with the old "white wine with fish" rule. And even though you might punch up the dish through searing and adding pepper and bacon, you can still get away with a big, oak-aged sauvignon blanc or chardonnay, if you don't mind the wine fading into the background a bit.
But here's a great chance to bend the "rules" with a red wine -- a pinot noir, say, that has peppery, bacony flavors of its own. And whichever way you go, the lemon juice in the dressing won't get in the way -- its citric acid tastes very much like the tartaric acid that's already in the wine.
The steak tartare, as well as the Caesar salad, would be great with sparkling wine, though that's far from your only option. Both of these dishes contain salty ingredients that bring out the wine's bubbles (the way peanuts do with beer, or pretzels with Coke). The carbonation traps the flavors from both the food and the beverage (wine, beer, whatever, as long as it's carbonated) and makes them explode in your mouth. With the full flavors of either the beef or the smoky grilled chicken, serve a bubbly blanc de noirs or a halfway-to-red sparkling rose. This will keep red-wine lovers happy.
Compared to a standard meat-and-potatoes-type entree, salads offer two main differences: tart dressing and, in general, cooler temperature. Don't let these differences limit your options when choosing your wine. Rather, think of the expansion opportunities.
Try lightening up the wine a notch. If you serve lamb and vegetables hot, for instance, a cabernet works just fine. But chill the dish down and you'll probably prefer a low-tannin merlot.
Although that citrusy turkey would be perfect with a dry rose', the standard roast bird, drenched in dark gravy, really comes into its own with a light-to-medium red such as gamay or pinot noir. And the duck breast, sliced thin and fanned out on greens, rather than served in a solid chunk, would open up its subtle raspberry and pepper flavors with a light-bodied zin or grenache, instead of a big full-tilt zin or syrah.
If serving wine with salad means tweaking the "rules," then so be it. That's how trends start. Pop a few corks, experiment with summer salads and see what you come up with. And while you're at it, consider doing what many winemakers do with their warm-weather reds: put a slight chill on them -- even pop in an ice cube or two, and keep it cool.