ENGAGING THE SENSES

For the past two weeks, we’ve been looking at some of the basics that show how wine and food go together by digging in to the wine pairings featured at the interactive dinner at the “Spring Edition” of VeritageMiami.

The third course of the night was a very complex dish created by chefs Brad Kilgore of the restaurant Alter and Alex Chang of The Vagabond. I had to laugh when they told me they wanted to make this dish: somehow two chefs managed to come up with a dish in four parts. We ended up with a heavily seasoned and cured pork belly that was then braised, and then pan-seared and then glazed with salty Japanese umeboshi plums. This chunk of tart, slightly salty protein was then placed on a bed of turnips puréed with an umami-laden Japanese cooking stock called dashi plus the Spanish garlic and almond soup called ajo blanco. And as if that were not complicated enough, the dish was topped with some pickled vegetables.

Umeboshi-glazed Pork Belly with Dashi-poached Turnip and Ajo Blanco Purée and Pickled Vegetables (Photo: VeritageMiami)

As complicated as this dish is to describe, the final result was a surprisingly harmonious dish in which all the elements balanced out, and it provided an interesting experiment in wine and food pairing because the dish included all five of the principal tastes that affect wine: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. And what does this tell us about a wine choice?

I think the key thing to note at first is that salt plays a significant part in the dish. The pork belly is cured in salt before a long, slow braise in chicken stock. This reduces the saltiness of the pork, but then, when it is cooked, the pork is glazed with salty umeboshi plum, brown sugar and vinegar, bumping the saltiness and the sourness back up. Salt in food moderates tannin and bitterness in wine, so this preparation is a license to pull out a tannic red wine. Acidity in food, which we get here from the umeboshi glaze as well, tends to make wines softer (you can test this for yourself by tasting a red wine at dinner, then lick a lemon and taste the wine again – it will seem sweeter and softer).

Umami is that elusive “fifth taste” that is often described as “deliciousness” or “savoriness” because there is no word for word translation of umami from Japanese to English. It may be elusive to describe but it has an impact on wine – umami, which we find in mushrooms, soft cheeses and smoked meats among other items, makes wine taste less sweet, and less dense, and it increases our perception of bitterness and acidity in wine. We had a moderate amount of umami in this dish from the seaweed-rich dashi that was part of the turnip purée, and from the curing of the pork belly.

1865 Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Photo: Viña San Pedro)

So, we have salt and sour in our dish to decrease our perception of bitterness and increase our sense of sweetness in the wine, and then umami that pretty much does the opposite. However, the umami was very moderate, so I felt the salt and acidity in the food still played a big part, and in practice we were able to match the dish with two moderately tannic, full-bodied red wines from Chile’s Viña San Pedro: a single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon from the 1865 Winery and a beautiful red blend called Sideral. I thought the blend of cabernet sauvignon, carménère, syrah, petit verdot and cabernet franc was particularly successful because the tannins were moderate (easily softened by the salt in our pork belly) and the texture was rich enough that the softening effect of the umami still left us with a wine that was wonderfully elegant.

Sideral (Photo: Viña San Pedro)

In your day to day dining, you likely won’t come up against the riotous combination of flavors we had in Brad and Alex’s pork belly with dashi and ajo blanco-poached turnips. I suspect you will however find plenty of opportunities to recall a basic rule of food and wine: food without salt wants wine without oak (or tannin). Think un-oaked (and so free of tannin) wine with sushi – a riesling is a much better choice than the oaky Rombauer chardonnay you may crave on occasion. And when it comes to a bold young red on your table, put plenty of seasoning on your steak – the salt and the fat both offset the tannins and you’ll have very happy diners indeed.

If you want to take a stab at the VeritageMiami pork belly, here’s the complete recipe – it’s complicated and takes three days to make but it’s great fun to tackle with some food-loving friends.

Last week I wrote about the Spring Edition Interactive Dinner VeritageMiami staged on March 11. The focus of last week’s post was pairing wine with a complex first course that featured sweet and sour flavors, lots of umami (fish sauce) and varied textures.

This week, let’s look at the much more straightforward pairing of wine with the second course at the interactive dinner. That dish was a freshly made short pasta called gemelli. As with every pasta dish, the wine is paired not with the pasta but with the sauce, and this sauce was intriguing because it pulled together an earthy mushroom with a tangy, pickled shallot and slightly spicy scallions (View the full recipe as we prepared it at VeritageMiami).

Hon Shimeji (Photo: Kuha455405 - Own work (本人撮影), CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hon Shimeji is the commercial name of very seasonal mushroom, so our guest chefs, Justin Flit of Proof Pizza and Pasta and Brian Nasajon of Beaker & Gray, used the more readily available buna-shimeji, a close relative also known as the brown beech mushroom. Either mushroom works well in the dish – they are rather bitter raw, but have a soft earthy flavor when they are cooked. Adding butter infused with sea urchin roe, the subtle flavor of the dish is increased, as is the apparent richness. To offset that, our chefs added pickled shallots that helped offset the buttery richness and also increased the acidity of the dish.

Gemelli with hon shimeji mushrooms (Photo: VeritageMiami)

For this dish there is one wine that stands out as a great match, a wine with enough acidity to balance the pickled shallots and cut through the richness, a wine with earthy tones of its own to marry beautifully with the mushrooms: pinot noir. I had planned to use a pinot noir from Viña San Pedro’s Leyda winery in Chile but there was a last minute glitch and we had to substitute another of the company’s wines. We opted for the single-vineyard carmenère from 1865 winery in Chile’s Maipo Valley, a wine with less acidity than the pinot noir, but a very pleasing softness and well-balanced fruit. When making this at home, I’ll still go with a pinot noir to stress the earthiness and balance of the dish. The key is to balance acidity – acid food needs an acid wine. A wine with little acidity will just seem flat and flabby, but with the sort of vibrancy one finds in a New Zealand or Oregon pinot noir, this dish is glorious. And it worked nicely with the carmenère as well.

1865 Single Vineyard Carmenère (Photo: Viña San Pedro)

Next week, I’ll share some pairing ideas for the third dish on the dinner menu, a pan-seared pork belly glazed with salty umeboshi plums. Now, there is a challenge!