Recently a friend asked me if I do food pairings. I didn’t quite know how to respond – I taste a fair amount of booze and I eat a fair amount of food, but it surprised me how rarely I do both simultaneously. So my honest first response was, “Yeah … I mean, sometimes. Why?”
He asked what I would pair with pitas and hummus and falafel. He probably asked me because I’m a vegetarian. White wine came to mind something light and fresh, and lighter reds like grenache, pinot noir or young tempranillo. Also beer. Beer pairs well with lots of food.
So I thought about it for a while, decided it would be a fun dinner. I cooked everything myself. With my fiancée’s help, of course.
I’m an amateur cook at best, it took us the better part of three hours to make this plate. There were mix-ups, too. I hadn’t ever realized how much the bottle of horseradish in my fridge looks like tahini. I’ll never be a professional chef – I’m usually full by the time the food is ready.
I made the hummus in the food processor; that’s olive oil pooled on it in the picture, and cumin sprinkled over the top. (There used to be a picture of this delicious food here somewhere. -ed ) I skipped the garlic in my usual hummus recipe, garlic can conflict with wine, and made up for it with extra lemon juice and olive oil. The couscous salad has lots of parsley, green onion, tomato, cucumber, and of course, olive oil. Olive oil!
The falafel was from a dried box premix, fried in olive oil. The dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and marinated olives were purchased from our local produce store. Also there is some shredded lettuce and cucumber and tomato on the plate to fill up some empty space and make it look more fancy. The store-bought pitas were a little dry.
The first pairing of the night was the 2008 Frenzy Sauvignon Blanc from Marlbourough, New Zealand. I first tasted this wine last month, and was impressed by its intensity and cut, especially for under ten bucks. It’s a very grassy and vegetal sauvignon blanc (think asparagus) that also has good grapefruit citrus and just a hint of sweetness on the finish. I’ve been really surprised at the great value of some sauvignon blanc from New Zealand I’ve tried recently. Perhaps because sweeter, lemon-lime citrusy sauvignon blanc is so popular right now, I’m finding lots of nervy, vegetal, and all around more inspiring sauvignon blanc at lower prices than ever.
The Frenzy worked really well with the hummus, the lively acidity cutting through the nutty, oily hummus nicely. The herbal qualities didn’t match with the parsley in the couscous salad perfectly, but it didn’t conflict too badly, either.
Next was the 2007 Tres Ojos Garnacha from Spain. This was featured as a Binny’s Wine of the Week Under $10 a few weeks ago, and for good cause – it’s a surprisingly large grenache for the price, with heavier and darker fruit than I expected, with some roasted and raisiny qualities. It was actually a little too deep for this food, bringing into focus the bitterness of the parsley and onion. I still think a grenache would work well with Mediterranean food, but it would have to be a much lighter bodied wine with lighter fruit and low tannins. Perhaps a better choice would have been this week’s Binny’s Wine of the Week Under $10, the 2008 Ateca Garnacha Fuego.
Next up? Sierra Nevada’s Kellerweis. Another Binny’s guy recommended this beer to me a few weeks ago, selling it as the best American wheat beer he had ever tasted. That’s a pretty lofty claim. I mean, it’s good, but it’s still a wheat beer. Sierra Nevada got the formula right with the Kellerweis, almost to the point that it seems to mimic the balance of wheat, spice and orange peel in a German Hefeweizen. As I tasted it with this dinner, it felt as though I were getting my ethnic cuisines crossed. It worked best with the fried falafel and with the marinated olives, but seemed out of place with everything else. Maybe the falafel and olives were the closest things to the bar food that I’m used to.
Finally, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. I had really high hopes for this one, thinking that the bitter hops would cut through the olive oil and be refreshing at the same time, like the sauvignon blanc. It’s a great beer, even if it goes a little against my tastes: I want my ultra-hopped beers to have malty support underneath all the hops, otherwise they seem a bit hollow, like a very tannic wine with little fruit (I know a few hop-heads around here who might disagree, but there you go). Unfortunately, the Two Hearted didn’t work well at all. The floral and piny hoppiness really conflicts with all the bitter herbal elements in the Mediterranean food, like the parsley. Plus it doesn’t have the cut to get through all the oil. I know there’s a place for this truly delicious beer, but this it ain’t.
I worry that beer is sometimes overlooked when it comes to food pairing, and I really hoped that beer would be excellent with this type of food. Maybe I picked the wrong beers. I think a simpler, more refreshing style a lager or pale would have worked better.
I guess the best pairing of the night was the Frenzy Sauvignon Blanc, but I’d almost like to do it again just to prove that a lighter grenache would work great, and so would the right beer. But next time, I’m just popping the seven bucks for the veggie combo plate at the Mediterranean place down the street.
Though it might not be the most romantic viewpoint, I think that pairing food with wine, beer and spirits starts with finding flavors that don’t conflict outright. I failed at that with a couple of these choices, but I know better now, and can move on and make more educated guesses with more experience. Throughout the dinner, my fiancée and I talked about pairing, about how the biggest step is to find beverages that work okay, without competing with the food, and to hone the flavors from there.
After all that food – all that oily, oily food - my fiancée surprised me with a birthday baklava, candle and all. Did I mention it was my birthday? I really wanted some coffee with the baklava. That would have been the perfect pairing, right then. But we don’t have any decaf, and it was getting late, and I needed to go to sleep. Sigh. There’s always next time.