Pairings: Hors D’Oeuvres That Sparkle
BY MARY HUNT
Delectable bites to munch while sipping the bubbly can range far beyond oysters and caviar.
My idea of a great cocktail party does not include cocktails: It calls for Champagne, and plenty of it, along with an interesting range of tantalizing hors d’oeuvres. Oysters make a nice match, especially small sweet ones like Kumomotos. Wide curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese are another classic pairing, as is caviar, which is particularly nice on whole-wheat blinis with crème frâiche. But it’s fun to explore other options as well.
Traditional wisdom tells us what not to serve with the sparkling stuff: anything too strongly flavored, with lemon, vinaigrette, garlic and strong spices being major culprits. The real key to making food compatible with Champagne is subtlety. You can put a little lemon in a marinade or add in a touch of garlic without ruining the pairing. Adapt a recipe that calls for peppers by using only a quarter of the pepper amount called for, then replace another half with celery for crunch, and round it out with some chopped mild fruit.
For flavors that are compatible with sparkling wines, read the descriptors used by experienced tasters (see this issue’s Buying Guide for a good selection) and incorporate those flavors—vanilla, mango and bread, among others—into your cooking. Keep in mind, however, that as with any food and wine pairing, using too much of a flavor will overpower and mask the wine.
This summer I was one of the judges in a Champagne-and-hors-d’oeuvres pairing competition aboard some spectacular yachts in Newport, Rhode Island, sponsored by Showboats International magazine and Charles Heidsieck Champagne, and it yielded excellent examples of what to do—and what not to do. Chefs from the dozens of yachts arrayed for the annual show—all of which are available for charter, were asked to suggest menus, with eight dishes chosen for the competition. A few of the chefs developed their recipes based on wine descriptors they’d been given by event organizers rather than their own taste-buds, which yielded some odd combinations (e.g., jerk pork with lavender) that totally wiped out the Champagne.
The winners, on the other hand, called on some ingredients one might not normally think of, in combinations that were palate-pleasing and ever so appropriate with the libations: lamb chops with balsamic vinegar and mango chutney; tuna tar-tare with radish, mango and parsley potato chips; a “Nantucket Bucket” of lobster, shrimp, asparagus, Gruyère cheese, mushrooms and pignoli, served on toast. The judges’ favorite from the chef aboard the Eastern Star, was a combination of shrimp, mango, green chilies, cilantro, garlic, Parmesan cheese, pignoli and blue corn. (recipes follow).
Tradition calls for the lightest nonvintage Champagnes and sparklers to be served before dinner: usually fresh and elegant nonvintage brut, blanc de blancs or Prosecco. But using livelier ingredients in your hors d’oeuvres—especially if your Champagne party is an end in itself rather than a means of passing the time until dinner—lets you bring in more powerful vintage Champagne and blanc de noirs. And, if you emphasize sweeter flavors, some rosés and demi-secs work well. Cheers!
Green Chili and Cilantro Pesto with Shrimp and Mango in Blue Corn Cups
Courtesy of Motor Yacht Eastern Star
This winning entry in the Newport competition shows how traditional caveats can be thrown out the window when it comes to Champagne-enhancing hors d’oeuvres.
Champagne recommendations: A medium-weight, yeasty-toasty Champagne like Charles Heidsieck’s 1995 Mis-en-Cave Brut sparkles alongside this colorful dish.
For the filling:
- 4 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 3 garlic cloves
- 5 mild green chilies, stems and seeds removed
- 1/2 cup pine nuts (pignoli)
- 1/2 cup parsley leaves
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, plus additional sprigs for garnish
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 ripe mango, peeled and diced
For the cups:
- 4 ounces cream cheese
- 5 1/2 ounces unsalted butter
- 4 1/2 ounces blue cornmeal
- 12 ounces all-purpose flour (sifted)
- Salt and pepper to taste
To make filling: In a food processor, mix Parmesan cheese and garlic until blended. Add chilies, pine nuts, parsley, cilantro and olive oil; process to smooth paste Roughly chop the shrimp and toss them with the pesto. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spread shrimp mixture evenly on a sheet pan and bake, uncovered, about 10 minutes. Remove and let cool. When it reaches room temperature, mix in diced mango.
To make cups: In a standing mixer or by hand, beat cream cheese and butter until soft. Beat in dry ingredients, but be careful not to overwork. Coat three mini muffin tins (36 cups) with nonstick cooking spray. Place 1 level tablespoon of the blue corn mixture into each prepared cup; press to coat the bottom and sides with dough. You should have enough dough to make at least 36 cups. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 20 minutes. Remove and let cool.
To assemble: Roll shrimp mixture into small balls and place into cups (or simply spoon the mixture into the cups). Garnish with fresh cilantro sprigs. Makes about 36.