I have spent the last couple of weeks cooking up a storm for the Cabernet Sauvignon chapter of my second “100 Perfect Pairings” book. On the docket last week: Peppered Prime Rib Roast with Crème Fraîche Horseradish Sauce, Lemon- and Olive-Stuffed Leg of Lamb, New York Steaks with Espresso Pan Sauce, Steak and Radicchio Caesar Salad, and Good Old-Fashioned Pot Roast! I couldn’t have done it all without my trusty kitchen assistant Judy. My freezer is stuffed with carnivoric leftovers and, even then, a LOT of goodies got dropped off at the local soup kitchen. Sometimes I wonder what it ends up as – do the homeless of Napa enjoy prime rib in their beef stew?
Here’s what I have to share about pairing with Cabernet Sauvignon: It’s not easy. By that I don’t mean that it’s not doable, only that the list of foods that pair with Cab isn’t long. It’s kind of funny, actually – people tend to think that the most elegant/impressive/fancy wine they can plop on the table for a meal is a Cab, but the reality is that it’s only rarely the best wine for the food. So say I, at least.
Cabernet tends to be quite austere – meaning that it’s kind of sharp and severe and intense – and so you have to account for that austerity in the foods you pair with it. For example, I’ve found that, with almost any recipe, adding Dijon mustard helps. Many food and wine pairings are helped by some form of acid, of which mustard is one, but sometimes a particular acid seems to work well with a particular wine, and Dijon and Cab are one such acid/wine combination, the sharp severity of the mustard marrying well with similar qualities in the wine. (Merlot and balsamic vinegar is another – almost every food that you pair with Merlot will pair better with a little balsamic.)
Bitter ingredients can also help Cabernet pairings, simply because Cab tends to be pretty high in bitter tannins – those compounds that give you the dry-mouth sensation you sometimes get from a red wine – and so adding bitterness to food helps to match up to those tannins. (I fully admit that it’s totally contrary to logic that adding MORE of something to a pairing will DECREASE your overall experience of it, but that’s what happens in food and wine pairing – more acid in the food will decrease your experience of acid in the wine, more sweetness in the food will decrease your experience of sweetness in the wine, etc.) Bitter ingredients that I like with Cabernet include coffee (hence the New York Steaks with Espresso Pan Sauce, pictured, which are pretty killer, if I do say so myself), bitter greens like endive and radicchio, and even nuts like walnuts and pecans – the papery “skin” that nuts have in their cracks and crevices is high in tannins, just like wine can be.
Try this experiment. Next time you’re enjoying Cabernet with your meal, try sprinkling some crushed roasted coffee beans or chopped walnuts onto the food, and see if it doesn’t improve the pairing. It might result in a kooky dish, but I promise you, it’ll go better with the wine.
A final element that always seems to help a Cabernet Sauvignon pairing is fatty meat. That’s not to say that you can’t pair vegetarian and non-red meat dishes with Cab – it’s just to say that adding a fatty meat to the equation is an easy/obvious way to go. So, generally speaking, chicken is better than fish, beef is better than chicken, and a marbled New York steak is better than a lean filet mignon. (Anyone else getting hungry all of a sudden?)
The very, very last recipe I have to finish is the Good Old-Fashioned Pot Roast. Pot roast is plenty rich, which is why it’s a good candidate for Cabernet Sauvignon, but much of that richness is in the form of collagen in the meat, which is why it’s NOT a good candidate for the grill. Quick cooking an inexpensive cut like pot roast will result in tough meat. Slow, moist cooking, though, melts the collagen, meriting fork-tender, falling-apart meat that’s still rich and juicy.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but – 99 down, 1 to go!
I’ll drink to that!