Lessons in Food and Wine Pairing: One that didn’t work.

February 17, 2010

I thought it might be interesting to talk about a recipe that I cut from my book, “100 Perfect Pairings: Entrees to Enjoy with Wines You Love,” because I couldn’t make it, well, a perfect pairing!

When you write a cookbook, you start out with a publisher-approved list of recipes, but everyone knows that some might change or possibly be eliminated altogether. That’s just the nature of taking something from concept to reality.

But with this book, I knew that the possibility of elimination was greater than usual, simply because not only do the recipes have to taste great, they have to work with wine. And although you can pretty much always get a food and wine pairing to work pretty well, you can’t always make it perfect. Or better said, my experience is that sometimes, in making the pairing perfect, you so have to so compromise the food that it’s no longer great-tasting. So the recipe ends up on the cutting room floor (the cutting board floor?).

Long story short, Lamb Chops with Fig and Orange Tapenade (pictured above, recipe below) is one of those that didn’t work. I made it four times – and I have to tell you, each version was really, really delicious dish, with a super-simple tapenade, one that you can make in 5 minutes, as a bed for pan-seared lamb chops. But not delicious with Merlot, the wine I was imagining for it.

So what went wrong?

It had elements that I know work with Merlot – meaty/fatty lamb, salty olives, and a slight fruitiness to complement the fruitiness in the wine. But I also knew it was risky – because fruit adds sweetness to food, and sweetness in food can make the wine that you enjoy with it taste less sweet, and sometimes even downright sour. Even a dry wine, like Merlot, with no noticeable sweetness, can get robbed of its fruit flavors, leaving the wine tasting too acidic.

So I proceeded with caution, first making just the tapenade and trying it with the wine. Knowing that dried fruit tends to have less sweetness than its fresh counterpart, I used dried figs. Knowing that there’s plenty of bitterness in citrus peel, which would balance some of the sweetness, I used peel-and-all orange pieces. I also used plenty of olives (salty), capers (salty and vinegary, or acidic), and balsamic vinegar (also acidic) – to further ensure balancing the sweetness of the figs and oranges.

But the tapenade didn’t work with the wine. It was too sweet, making the wine taste sour.

So for attempt number two, I increased the olives and vinegar in the tapenade, and decreased the figs. I also added more acidity, in the form of lemon juice. This time I tried the tapenade with the seared lamb chops. Delicious. But still too sweet for the wine.

For my third attempt, I eliminated one of the sweet elements, the orange, and used lemon instead, again peel and all. I again increased the proportion of olives, adding green, martini olives along with the black kalamatas, and decreased the figs. I also eliminated the capers. Still a fantastic, easy-to-make dish – but now so lemony-bright that it didn’t work with the darker flavors of Merlot. And besides, the fig taste was lacking – the recipe no longer delivered on its name, and didn’t want to take “fig” out of the name because I felt that was one of the things that made the dish attractive.

So it was back to the kitchen again, going back to all Kalamata olives and an orange, playing with the proportions one last time. Again, delish. Again, not with Merlot.

Every time the food was too sweet and was making the wine taste sour, I had three options for the recipe – increase a) the acidity, b) the saltiness, or c) both, any of which would help keep the wine from tasting sour. But when I used enough acid, in my third attempt, all the attractive figginess disappeared. In my fourth attempt, I added more salt at the table, which did help with the food-and-wine combination, but made the food on its own too salty.

So, although I really enjoyed the dish, I cut it from the book. When and if I have time to play some more, I might try the recipe with other wines, maybe something with a little sweetness in it to stand up to the sweetness in the food (Rosé?), maybe even a white wine like Gewürztraminer.

Meanwhile, here’s the recipe. Enjoy it. And let me know if you come up with a perfect pairing!

Lamb Chops with Fig and Orange Tapenade

As I mentioned in the above post, this really is a super simple recipe to make. Just put the tapenade ingredients into the food processor and – buzz, buzz, buzz – that’s done. Then season and pan-sear the lamb. Then plate and garnish. Voila!

Serves 4

10 dried mission figs

1 small navel orange

1 cup drained pitted brine-cured nicoise or kalamata olives

1 tablespoon red wine or balsamic vinegar

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

1 3/4 teaspoons freshly ground pepper, divided, or more to taste

8 lamb rib chops, about 3/4-inch thick, or 8 lamb loin chops, about 1 1/4 inches thick

1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt

Stem and quarter the figs. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the figs and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the figs are softened, about 15 minutes. Drain, reserving 2 tablespoons of the cooking liquid.

While the figs are cooking, cut 1/4 of the orange into 2 or 3 chunks (including the peel). Use a vegetable peeler to cut 4 thick pieces of the colored part of the peel from the remaining orange (save the remaining fruit for another use). Cut the peel crosswise into thin slices and set aside.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the figs, reserved cooking liquid, orange chunks, olives, vinegar, 1/3 cup of the olive oil, and 1 teaspoon of the pepper and pulse to make a coarse puree, scraping down the bowl as necessary. (You can prepare the tapenade and orange peel slices up to 2 days in advance, storing them covered in the refrigerator. Return them to room temperature before serving.)

Sprinkle both sides of the lamb with the salt and remaining 3/4 teaspoon of pepper.

In a very large skillet over medium-high heat, warm the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. (If you don’t have a skillet large enough to hold the lamb without crowding, use 1 large and 1 small or 2 medium skillets, dividing the olive oil between them.) Add the lamb and cook to desired doneness, about 2 1/2 minutes per side for rib chops and 3 1/2 minutes per side for loin chops for medium rare. Transfer to a platter or plates and let rest, loosely covered with foil, for 5 minutes.

Arrange a puddle of tapenade on serving plates, dividing it evenly. Top with the chops, garnish with the orange peel slices, and serve hot.

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