Thu 7 Feb 2013
When I open a new cookbook, I’m always a little disappointed if it doesn’t include wine recommendations. I like to see what the chef or writer visualizes as the ideal wine with each dish and, of course, if I agree or not. In Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen (Broadway Books, 2005), for example, the founder of well-known Greens restaurant in San Francisco recommends with the Brussels Sprout and Mushroom Ragout with Herb Dumplings “a New World Chardonnay with rich fruit and a little oak, from Santa Barbara, such as Sanford or Au Bon Climat.” Now we make this savory, deeply flavorful and autumnal dish at least once during the Fall and Winter every year, and Madison’s recommendation brings a shiver to my very being. “No, no,” I want to shout, “this needs something crisp and incisive, a dry stony Alsace riesling or pinot blanc or maybe a sauvignon blanc that has seen no oak whatever.” It’s also good with a lean, minerally Anderson Valley pinot noir. See how much fun this is!
Anyway, there are several methods of recommending wines in cookbooks, and I’m going to use two volumes, published last year, as illustration. First is The Fire Island Cookbook by Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (Emily Bestler Books/ Atria, $30), and the second is The Art of Cooking with Vegetables by celebrated French chef Alain Passard (Frances Lincoln Ltd., $29.95), proprietor of the restaurant L’Arpège in Paris. DeSimone and Jenssen, known as the World Wine Guys — and whom I know slightly, having been on a trip with them and other writers in 2010 — had a busy year in 2012; in addition to The Fire Island Cookbook, they published Wines of the Southern Hemisphere: The Complete Guide (Sterling Epicure, $24.95).
The Fire Island Cookbook presents 14 menus, one for each weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so the emphasis is on food for summertime, when the living is reputedly easy. Each menu includes wine recommendations, most for each separate dish on the menu; occasionally the authors offer alternative wines. The menus tend to follow themes — Rainy Day French Menu, Villa in Tuscany, A Midsummer Night’s Dinner — and so do the wines, at least in terms, generally, of their country of origin.
For example, the America the Bountiful menu consists of a corn and tomato salad, grilled romaine BLT salad, peppercorn-brined pork chops with grilled sweet peaches and salted chocolate caramel brownies. The wine recommendations are all American: for the first salad, the Hearst Ranch Three Sisters White Cuvée, a roussanne-marsanne-viognier blend from Paso Robles; for the second salad, a Boxwood Rosé, a cabernet franc-merlot-malbec blend from a winery in Middleburg, Va.; with the pork chops either the Hudson-Chatham Cabernet Franc from the Hudson River valley or the Heron Pinot Noir (Paso Robles, Monterey and Russian River Valley grapes); and for the dessert, with the combination of salt, chocolate and caramel, a tot of Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. My choice with the pork chops would be the cabenet franc, though it’s good to have an alternative here because wines from New York state are very difficult to find outside of New York and Connecticut. Of course Virginia wines aren’t easily found outside of Virginia, but one appreciates how the wealth is spread around in this selection.
And so on, with Italian wines for the Italian dinner and also for Peak Summer Produce; French wines for the “Rainy Day”; Spanish wines for the Spanish-themed meal; all California for the Fourth of July Pool Party; an eclectic range of Spanish, Italian, Rhône Valley and Greek selections for the Mediterranean Odyssey. The whole package, deliberately kept light-hearted, is thoughtful and appropriate. No vintages are given for the wines because doing that would date the book. For the majority of the wines, the most recent vintages are the best, or ask your friendly neighborhood wine merchant for advice.
We find a different approach in Alain Passard’s The Art of Cooking with Vegetables. This is a stylish book whose innovative and somewhat radical seasonal recipes are illustrated with the chef’s colorful and cute collages, though I would rather have pictures of the finished dishes; I assume that luxury, with the necessary prop person, stylists and photographer, would have added to the cost of the book.
Forty-four of the 48 recipes in the book come with recommendations for French wines; the remaining items carry endorsements for mint tea, a cocktail and a couple of Spanish wines. The wine recommendations can be maddeningly vague. A nod to “a young Riesling from Alsace” does little help since rieslings from that region range from jarringly dry to off-dry to various levels of sweetness. “A full-bodied Spanish red wine” or “a dry white Spanish wine” open daunting possibilities. Would any full-bodied Spanish red or dry white wine do?
On the other hand, the recommendations in this cookbook can sometimes be annoyingly precise (without mentioning producers or estates), as in “A dry, fruity, white wine from the Loire or from Alsace, preferably made from the Chasselas grape” or “a Chardonnay, preferably from the Jura.” The nits I am picking here don’t actually have to do with the recommendations themselves, many of which sound intriguing if not downright risky, as with the sweet gewurztraminer from Alsace matching Globe Artichokes with Bay Leaves and Lime, as with the difficulty of finding many of the wines in the United States, at least outside markets like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Wines from the Jura region or Jasnières, at 160 acres the Loire’s smallest appellation making wines sold mostly in the neighborhood, or a Floc de Gascogne or Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh are about as easy to find in American as a June bug on a duck farm. And how do you translate a chardonnay from the Jura region to, say, California? What’s the equivalent in manner and effect?
If I ever get to L’Arpège again — I dined there in March 1990, a decade before Passard took the restaurant vegetarian — I would like to try some of these unusual food and wine suggestions, but as far as making a fit with American cooks, that aspect of the book doesn’t work.