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Lessons in Chardonnay

Chardonnay can be surprisingly hard to pair with food, but F&W's Marcia Kiesel has figured out how to do it perfectly. Here, eight of her spectacular recipes to match with Chardonnays in all styles, from fresh and lively to buttery and oaky.

I can always tell when test kitchen Supervisor Marcia Kiesel is developing a new recipe, because she stands in a corner of the kitchen with her back to me. She wants to be able to taste without having me ask if I can have a bite too. "I try to get things right on the first try," Marcia says, "but sometimes the flavors aren't balanced. Or the meat is good but the sauce needs work." When she was creating recipes to pair with Chardonnay she had an additional challenge—make the food taste great with the wine. Here's our journal of the mistakes and the successes.

Unoaked Chardonnay

Bay Scallop Pan Roast • 2004 Christian Moreau Chablis
Braised Pork with Pearl Onions and Grapes • 2005 Hendry Unoaked Chardonnay
Zucchini Salad with Taleggio • 2005 Kim Crawford Marlborough Unoaked Chardonnay

When Marcia tries to create the ideal dish to pair with unoaked Chardonnay—a lean, minerally Christian Moreau Chablis, say, or a crisp Hendry Unoaked Chardonnay—she starts by thinking about seafood and butter, Chardonnay's classic partners. Even though Chardonnays aged in stainless steel tanks tend to be less luscious than those aged in oak barrels, they still have a richness that's a natural match for butter. She decides to prepare a bay scallop pan roast, browning the scallops in butter and oil, then sautéing mushrooms and shallots. Just before I get to taste the dish, she combines the seafood and mushrooms and sprinkles buttery bread crumbs over the top. She's nailed it on the first try: The dish is spectacular when we taste it with the wine.

Butter is also key to another one of Marcia's recipe ideas, a pork dish. Marcia decides to braise a pork loin cut near the shoulder, which contains darker, succulent meat, with pearl onions in a combination of wine and chicken broth. I suggest that she add grapes to the braise to mirror the fruit in the wine. But there's a problem with the dish. "It's not working," Marcia reports. "The grapes are making the wine taste vinegary." She tries again, this time sautéing the grapes in butter before serving them with the pork. This softens the tannins in the skin and makes the dish perfectly wine friendly.

Moderately Oaked Chardonnay

Fresh Corn Soufflé with Bacon and Comté • 2003 Morey-Blanc Meursault
Wine-Baked Chicken Legs with Marjoram • 2004 Matua Valley Judd Estate Chardonnay

For Chardonnay that has had some barrel-aging—wines like Morey-Blanc Meursault from Burgundy—Marcia once again begins by thinking about traditional pairings. In Burgundy, for instance, Meursault is a classic partner to gougères (cheese puffs). Marcia's idea is to make a cheese soufflé, using a Comté-thickened corn puree instead of the usual béchamel sauce, and adding smoky bacon to echo the oak in the wine. The creaminess of this dish is just right for a Chardonnay that has spent some time in the barrel, which develops more body than unoaked versions.

Because cream is part of the reason the soufflé is so good with the wine, Marcia also decides to prepare chicken legs in a cream-enriched sauce. And the dish is great with the wine the first time she prepares it. She simply places legs in a baking dish and pours white wine over them, which glazes the chicken as it bakes. For a sauce, she adds a little cream, butter and marjoram to the cooking liquid. But when Marcia decides to test the recipe again with chicken breasts as well as legs, the combination falls flat—the wine seems to lose all its flavor when paired with the chicken. We try nine different Chardonnays, but each one tastes as dull as the next. At last we figure out that the white meat isn't rich enough to pull out the richness of the wine. The juicy dark meat, however, makes the wine taste wonderful.

Lavishly Oaked Chardonnay

Boudin Blanc with Leeks and Mustard Sauce • 2003 Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay
Poached Salmon with Caper Butter Sauce • 2004 Wente Nth Degree Chardonnay
Lobster Pappardelle with Chive Butter • 2004 Deloach O.F.S. Chardonnay

Buttery, oaky Chardonnay loves salmon, lobster, sweetbreads, veal. Aging in new oak barrels creates full-bodied Chardonnays like Wente Nth Degree Chardonnay and DeLoach Estate O.F.S. Chardonnay, both from California, which demand luxurious food. Marcia decides to create a dish with indulgent boudin blanc, a smooth French veal-and-pork sausage made with eggs and cream. She first poaches the sausages and leeks separately in chicken broth, then uses this leek-infused broth to make a creamy mustard sauce. When we try the dish with the wines, we see right away that it's a fabulous pairing and that Chardonnays with plentiful oak can stand up to strong flavors like mustard as long as there's enough richness in the dish.

Richness is again essential to a lobster dish Marcia prepares with pappardelle noodles. She boils a couple of lobsters, then sautés the shells with shallots, thyme, tomatoes and wine to make a flavorful stock, enriching it with cream and a little butter to make a sauce. Then she adds even more butter. "Initially, I didn't want to add more butter because I already had heavy cream in the sauce," she says. "But I tasted the Chardonnays with the dish and decided the sauce really needed more richness to match the full body of the wines. This pairing is all about opulence, so why hold back?"

Published October 2006
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