With the weather cooling, I give myself permission to indulge in the salty, fatty, deep-fried goodness of comfort foods. And thanks to a culinary scene that celebrates American cooking, I can enjoy an adult spin on mac 'n' cheese and wash it down with a balanced Pinot Blanc.
Why not a cold brew? Beer is great with comfort foods, but wine can be revelatory. Paired to cut richness, match mouth-feel and strengthen spice, wines with the right mix of fruit and acidity enliven dishes from fondue to fried chicken.
Serious sommeliers are indulging, too. Take Mike Pierce, wine director of San Francisco's Maverick. He gets giddy talking about the pairing of his lifetime: L. Mawby Brut Rose with chef Scott Youkilis' buffalo wings. (Instead of chicken, they use frog legs.)
"The spicy peppers in the hot sauce are astringent amino acids that cause bitterness and throw off wine," he says. "It's one of the hardest things to pair."
He first tried what he calls his Riesling crutch -- the white German wine works with many foods because of its palate-cleansing ability -- but he needed something more to cut the sauce's texture and spice. The tank-fermented Michigan sparkling, with its tart cranberry fruit, did the trick.
Pierce, who teaches monthly wine seminars at the Mission District restaurant, is a bit of a pairing geek. And proudly so. He tells me the buffalo wings story while chomping on Cool Ranch Doritos, and testing compatible wines.
"So far, this Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is doing the job," he says. Crunch.
Throw out a comfort food and he'll play wine association.
Chicken soup? Loire Valley Vouvray.
Fried chicken? German Riesling.
Macaroni and cheese? Oregon Pinot Blanc.
Comfort foods are fatty, and fat loves wines with low alcohol and high acidity, Pierce says. He's packing his list with low-production versions of these food-friendly wines, a trend at many small restaurants.
"There's a big backlash against the dark, extracted, oaky high-alcohol wines," Pierce says. "Those things compete with food. They create heat and tend to bring out sweetness. They won't marry with the food. They just sort of wash the food away."
But braised meat, or a slab of beef slathered in Cincinnati-style barbecue sauce? It's practically screaming for a big black old vine Zinfandel to match the sweetness and texture of the dish.
"That (pairing) is God's gift," says Gaylen Richardson, wine director of Market in St. Helena. Mouth-feel is the first thing he looks for in pairing comfort foods.
"Acid is important," he says. "But that comfort thing boils down to mouth-feel. Who doesn't like that silky, elegant feeling in their mouth?"
From Market's menu, I plucked the ultimate comfort lineup -- Fried Green Zebra Tomatoes, Crispy Skin Chicken Breast and A Very Adult Macaroni & Cheese -- and put the pressure on Richardson.
For the tomatoes, dressed with Spicy Tomato-Almond Romesco Sauce, he recommends a California Blanc De Noirs. As with most comfort foods, which begin as a naked starch or neutral meat, the pairing becomes more about the sauce.
"The structure and weight of a Domaine Chandon plus the fruit is an excellent balance for the salad, which has a little mustard and Panko bread crumbs," he says, adding that it marries well with the tang in the tomatoes and cuts the sweet texture they gain from the sauce.
You can do whatever you want with chicken, and here chef Eduardo Martinez sears the breast and slaps it with a garlic-tarragon jus. "I like Merry Edwards Pinot Noir with this," Richardson says. "The tarragon gives it that anise and earthy flavor, a signature of Pinot."
With its Fiscalini Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Hobbs Bacon, Market's mac and cheese is the richest Richardson's ever tasted, he tells me. That decadence calls for a balanced, Sonoma Coast Chardonnay.
"Something like Failla (a St. Helena winery, pronounced FAY-la) -- round but with plenty of acid and fruit, will cleanse the palate," Richardson says.
Cheese is a staple of comfort foods, be it Whiz or fondue. In "Perfect Pairings," author and master sommelier Evan Goldstein recommends floral, fruit-forward Gewurztraminer for Swiss-style cheese fondue.
New World versions, such as Mendocino County's Navarro and Claiborne & Churchill from San Luis Obispo, have the texture and bright flavors to work with cheeses from gruyere to raclette.
"The best wines that tend to go with fondue are white and aromatic," Goldstein says. "It's a fairly hearty, rib-sticking dish, so the wine should be big as well."
If you want a less "in-your-face" choice, Goldstein also recommends Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier.
However, if you make fondue with fontina and white truffles, which add earthiness to the dish, you should go with a European bottling that has some age on it, and developed terroir.
Fondue's a good example of cooking with the wine you're drinking, an easy and quite comforting guarantee for a decent partnership.
Think of the wine-loaded sauces in red-meat dishes. Is there anything more comforting than filet mignon and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon?
There might be, says Marian Jansen op de Haar, national wine director for Fleming's, the steakhouse and wine bar in Walnut Creek. Pairing red meat comes down to two things: a wine's style, and marbling -- the comforting word for fat.
"More marbling equals more flavor, so something like a New York strip can stand a bigger wine, like a Napa Cab," she says. "With a rib-eye, you could go even bigger."
With a leaner cut, such as filet mignon, Jansen op de Haar favors a lighter red, such as Pinot Noir. For a steak dressed in peppercorn sauce, she recommends a peppery Syrah.
And erase any uncomfortable thoughts regarding white wine and red meat. Jansen op de Haar loves an oaky Chardonnay, such as Rombauer's, with grilled steak. Her ultimate go-to for many tomato-based comfort foods (think pasta with marinara sauce)? A dry rose, such as Sonoma County's SoloRosa.
"It (rose) is probably one of the most versatile wines," she says.
The ultimate, of course, is bubbly. I've slapped Champagne against fish and chips and washed down crab cakes with a California sparkling. It is in those marriages of salt, fat, yeast and fizz that I truly find my comfort zone.
Reach Jessica Yadegaran at 925-943-8155 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at cctextra.com/blogs/corkheads. Read her column every other Wednesday in Food & Wine.
2004 Qupe Syrah Santa Maria Valley, Bien Nacido Vineyard: This Syrah is the picture of balance. It has every element to match with the meatballs and the sauce: good acidity to cut through the fat; slight tannins to match the meatballs' texture; smoky, earthy fruit to handle the spice and sweetness of the sauce; and heavier weight to match the richness of the dish.
-- Maverick wine director Mike Pierce
SoloRosa 2006 California Rose: This dish is great with a moderate intensity red, white or rose, something that is not too tannic or oaky since it's braised rather than grilled. The tomato and herbs make it a great match with a wine that has some acidity and herbaceousness as well, such as the above bold rose.
-- Fleming's wine director Marian Jansen op de Haar
Mac 'n' cheese
2005 Forman Chardonnay, Carneros: The crisp, clean apple and citrus flavors pair beautifully with the sharpness of the Fiscalini Cheddar. The fruitiness of the wine brings a refreshing quality, while the bright acidity cleanses the palate. This Chardonnay also has enough body to stand up to the richness of the dish.
-- Market wine director Gaylen Richardson
Barbecue Meatballs with Syrah Grape Barbecue Sauce
Makes 48 meatballs; enough for 10-12 appetizers or 6-8 entrees
Chef Scott Youkilis uses 1/4 cup of his Youk's Hot Sauce in place of the 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper and 1/4 cup of the cider vinegar listed in this recipe. You can use your favorite hot sauce instead, or purchase Youk's at Maverick restaurant in San Francisco. Serve these with sourdough toast points for an appetizer or over egg noodles for an entree.
1 pound ground veal
1 pound ground beef (chuck)
1 pound ground lamb
1 cup bread crumbs
Pinch of salt and black pepper
2 cups Syrah (or Concord grape juice)
21/2 cups granulated sugar (use only 11/2 cups sugar if using Concord grape juice)
1/4 cup canola oil
2 medium onions, sliced
11/4 cups apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons chile powder
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 16-ounce bottle Heinz ketchup
1 cup orange juice
1 cup water
Salt and black pepper to taste
1. For meatballs, crack eggs and stir until yolks and whites are fully incorporated. Add ground meats and bread crumbs. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well.
2. Using a 1 ounce ice cream scoop, fill meat to top and then roll into ball. Lay balls side by side in large roasting pan. Repeat until all meat is in meatball form. Place in refrigerator (or wrap tightly with plastic wrap and place in your freezer; will last up to one month).
3. In small sauce pot, add Syrah or grape juice and sugar. Reduce until syrupy and sauce coats the spoon. Let cool and set aside.
4. Place large sauce pot on high heat and add oil. When slightly smoking, add onions and brown. Add apple cider vinegar. Let reduce slightly, then add chile powder, paprika and cayenne (or hot sauce if using). Stir well. Let simmer for three minutes.
5. Add grape juice syrup, ketchup, orange juice and water. Stir well and continue to stir until all ingredients are incorporated. Turn heat down to medium or medium-low and let simmer for 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper.
6. Make sure sauce is not too thick. If it is, add more water. Season accordingly. Strain sauce through sieve and let cool.
7. When ready to serve, preheat oven to 350 degrees. For service, pour barbecue sauce over meatballs and cover with aluminum foil. Cook for 15 minutes, check for doneness and cook for 5-10 more minutes if needed. Do not overcook.
-- Recipe from Maverick executive chef Scott Youkilis; tested by Jenny Slafkosky
Per meatball (with sauce): 150 calories, 8 g protein, 15 g carbohydrates, 6 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 0 fiber. Calories from fat: 33 percent.
-- Staff analysis
A Very Adult Macaroni & Cheese
Serves 4 as an entree or 6-8 as an appetizer
1 pound elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 cup panko bread crumbs
3 cups heavy cream
1 cup grated Fiscalini (or other artisanal sharp cheddar)
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano (or other parmesan), grated
1/2 cup cooked and crumbled bacon (preferably Hobbs apple-smoked bacon)
3 tablespoons parsley
3 tablespoons chives
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Cook elbow macaroni according to package instructions, except shorten the cooking time slightly so the noodles are slightly undercooked. Drain the noodles, toss them with extra virgin olive oil and allow to cool to room temperature on a cookie sheet.
2. Toss noodles with the sour cream and mustard. This part can be done ahead and the coated noodles kept refrigerated until ready to finish and serve.
3. To toast the panko bread crumbs, spread 1 cup on a cookie sheet and bake at 275 degrees until golden brown. This should take approximately 8-10 minutes, but check often so they don't burn. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature. This step can be done ahead also, but be sure to store them in an airtight container in a cool place, so they don't lose their crispness.
4. To finish the dish, heat heavy cream until hot, but not boiling. Add grated cheddar and parmesan cheeses. Stir until cheese has melted and incorporated into the cream. Add the precooked macaroni and the crumbled Hobbs bacon. Stir to combine. Once the noodles are heated thoroughly, stir in the chives and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
6. Pour into a serving dish or individual bowls and garnish with a heavy sprinkling of the toasted bread crumbs.
-- Recipe from Market chef Eduardo Martinez; tested by Jenny Slafkosky
Per serving (based on 8): 770 calories, 24 g protein, 54 g carbohydrates, 51 g total fat, 29 g saturated fat, 155 mg cholesterol, 960 mg sodium, 2 g fiber. Calories from fat: 60 percent.
-- Staff analysis
Braised pork shanks
Ask your butcher to order fresh pork shanks (you don't want to use smoked), or use veal or lamb shanks instead.
5 pork shanks (or veal shanks), at least 8 ounces each
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 large carrot
1 large celery stalk
1/2 medium onion
2 teaspoons minced thyme
2 teaspoons minced rosemary
2 teaspoons minced cilantro
4 teaspoons minced garlic
1/4 cup red wine (preferably Cabernet Sauvignon)
1 141/2-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 quarts chicken stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1. Season both sides of the pork with salt and pepper. Dust with flour. In a heavy skillet, cook the shanks over high heat, in batches if necessary, in the olive oil until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to a deep baking dish, leaving the oil in the skillet for the vegetables.
2. Rough-cut the carrots, celery and onions into about 3/4-inch chunks and saute in the same heavy skillet over medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes. Add the thyme, rosemary, cilantro and garlic and cook for 5-6 minutes. Add red wine and cook for 1 minute.
3. Add the canned tomatoes, chicken stock and tomato paste and cook for 5-6 minutes, stirring often to incorporate all the ingredients. Pour the sauce over the meat and cover with aluminum foil. Cook at 350 degrees for 2 hours or until just tender.
4. Carefully remove the shanks from the pan and place on a sheet pan to cool. Press out the sauce through a strainer, discarding the solids. Place the liquid into a sauce pot set on medium-high heat, skim off any excess fat and reduce to sauce consistency. Top the tender shanks with the sauce.
Per serving: 510 calories, 43 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 31 g total fat, 6 g saturated fat, 165 mg cholesterol, 2,760 mg sodium, 2 g fiber. Calories from fat: 55 percent.
-- Staff analysis
Comfort, without fat
Comfort food wine pairings got us thinking about the notion of comfort wines. Is there a wine that achieves the same feeling as a steaming plate of mashed potatoes? For some, it might be a low-alcohol red. For others, it's the high alcohol content that comforts. We asked three wine directors to define comfort wines:
-- Jessica Yadegaran
A take on tumblers
A discussion of comfort foods and wines is not complete without a nod (or frown, depending on your take) to wine tumblers, the latest trend in glassware. In Italy, where food is synonymous with wine, stemless glassware has been the norm for centuries. Here in the States, however, we didn't see legless bowls blow up until Riedel released its "O" series. Now, affordable copycats abound. Are they good? Certainly nothing says comfort like curling up next to the fire with a stemless glass of Port. It's fun, easy, and the missing stem means you're less likely to spill on that bearskin rug. That said, here are things to keep in mind when considering tumbling:
Don't tumble when:
-- Jessica Yadegaran