San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group, September 15, 2010

San Jose Mercury News Wine and food pairing advice from an expert

It used to be so easy. Chicken went with white wine and red meat with red. Now you don’t just serve vino. You have to pair the darn stuff.

Relax, says food and wine expert Jill Hough. It’s true that chic chefs and sommeliers put a lot of thought into how the blackberry aroma of the zinfandel complements the smoky essence of the whatever, but when it comes to cooking at home, says Hough, “My philosophy is, don’t worry about it.”

“This is something people can work themselves into a tizzy about,” she says. “Your friends are not coming over for food and wine pairings. They’re coming for you. That said, it’s a fun arena to play in.”

And play she does. Hough, who writes occasionally for Bon Appetit and Cooking Light magazines, and whose “Quick Cuisine” column ran in the Oakland Tribune for many years, has a new book out, “100 Perfect Pairings: Small Plates to Enjoy with Wines You Love” (Wiley, 188 pp, $16.95).

Divided by varietal, the book offers specific small plate ideas — Rosemary Walnuts to serve with your favorite cabernet, for example, or Grilled Gazpacho Shooters with rosé. But Hough also shares plenty of down-to-earth tips that work with any wine.

“I wanted it to be really easy,” the Napa resident says. “Although there’s some very basic information on how to do (pairings), it’s a little like learning how to build a car so you can get in and drive it. Just give me the keys. My approach is, here’s a whole book divided by wine variety. Make any recipe in that chapter. You don’t need to know how or why. Sit down and enjoy them together and you’ll be happy.”

But for those who want to do their own pairings, Hough suggests you ignore nuances and focus on broader characteristics: “How acidic it is, how sweet, how intense, the tannins, the intensity. Those characteristics tend to be consistent within a varietal.”

And beware of food with sweet notes — from barbecue sauce, for example, or mahi mahi with mango salsa.

“The truth is that many foods have sweetness in them,” she says. “And if your wine doesn’t have sweetness, the sweetness in the food makes the wine taste more sour.”