I recently wrote about hosting a wine-tasting party. Several readers wrote back, asking about what food I serve at my food and wine dinners. One of the problems with hosting a wine tasting, and I am incredibly guilty of this, is that the host oftentimes is working so hard in the kitchen that he or she doesn’t have enough time to enjoy the wines and the company.
I still go overboard at times, but I’ve realized that, as is so often the case, less is more! It’s tough to put together a menu that will work for all wines, and in fact working on one that suits a set of wines perfectly is but the first step down the path to a gorgeously over-involved dinner!
Yes, I love matching six courses with six flights of wine, but when I want to spend more time with my guests, not to mention the wines, I know it’s time to simplify!
Rosso di Sagrantino can produce pretty intense wines, and this dish can handle that power with ease. Try to find one with a few years of age on it as the wines develop a nice earthy component that forms a flavor bridge with the mushrooms.
So, what to do? Well, since summer has passed and I’m already in full-fledged red wine mode, I’ll share with you a little bit of how I put together a wine-tasting dinner for me and my friends. And I’m going to make it simple, I promise!
Ideally a wine dinner should have a few courses, so here is how I like to structure mine.
First course – Classic antipasto
I usually serve up a nice spread of preserved meats: salami, bresaola, mortadella, and speck, all arranged around some sliced fresh mozzarella with baskets of bread on the side.
In addition, having a bowl of mixed olives and some marinated grilled eggplant and zucchini helps to complete this monster first course. I love to begin a meal this way because it’s easy to prepare ahead. It’s all purchased food, and it fills people up, meaning there’s less cooking to be done later.
Second course – Pasta or risotto
I usually serve a baked pasta dish for this course, and while it is an easy, make-ahead item, it does take planning. Of course, the benefits outweigh the problems here, since you can throw your pasta in the oven and it will stay hot much longer than freshly cooked pasta. I’m a big fan of serving pasta with mushrooms, so I’d suggest something along the lines of pasta (I like to use fusilli bucati, the classic hollow corkscrew shape) baked with pancetta, mushrooms, and leeks. My recipe can be found below, or download it from the sidebar on the left.
Third course – Meat and potatoes
Here’s where it really pays to keep it simple. I’ve gone all out for the main course many a time and, while the planning is fun, the execution can ruin a night -- either yours or your guests. Maybe even both! I mean, who wants to get up in the middle of a great dinner to go cook for 20 minutes or more? And will you be in any shape to actually do that after a few flights of wine?
I’d rather spend that time at the table, doing what people do at the table at wine dinners, which is to say, mostly drinking wine! So, my main course solution is to make something simple like a roast beef; a whole filet is dramatic and simple or, if you want to get a little creative, meatloaf.
Yes, good old meatloaf, don’t shy away from it. You can whip up some pretty gourmet meatloaves, and they are not only easy to make and serve, but they can work wonderfully with a variety of wines! It’s meatloaf to the rescue! And besides, leftover meatloaf sandwiches rock!
A simple side of mashed potatoes works well with either meat course, though in all honesty I tend to serve polenta (I love my polenta -- childhood memories and all) more often than not. Another solution that works especially well is a variety of roasted vegetables. You may have to time each vegetable a little differently, or roast them individually before dinner then just reheat them together, but a bowl of roasted brussel sprouts, carrots, parsnips and potatoes makes a perfect side dish for almost any meal.
Fourth course – Cheese
I love ending a meal with cheese. I’m not a big fan of sweets in general, and much prefer the complexity afforded by a selection of cheeses to the mass of a typical dessert. And the cheese plate lends itself so well to grazing that it allows the meal to taper off, rather than serving as that final exclamation point. Although some desserts I’ve had may have been more of a question mark.
When I put together a cheese plate I like to pair wines and cheese from the same country or region, though that is often impossible. Including a variety of cheese increases the chances that your guests will find a wine and cheese match that’s perfect for them. Also, by buying a lot of cheese there is some left over for you to enjoy! I always look at the cheese plate as an excuse to stock up on some cheese I don’t often buy.
My cheese plate will generally include six to eight cheeses -- yes I like cheese, a lot, and go over board, a bit. I always have a slab of parmiggiano chiseled off the quarter wheel I keep in my fridge. I wasn’t joking, I like cheese. Then there’s usually a nice blue, a pair of sheep and goat’s milk cheeses (one young and one aged of each) and a stinky cheese or two, maybe one other washed rind cow’s milk cheese. And of course, bread, crackers, crisps, and whatever other baked goodies seem appropriate to support all this cheese.
So, that’s my basic guide to a menu for your next wine dinner. There are so many variations and permutations that I could probably write up one a week for the rest of my life and never repeat, but I hope you get the picture here. Experiment and be creative. Learn how much work you are willing and able to do, and build from there.
The more I have hosted wine dinners, the more I have simplified them. Your plan might be different. The point is to find your comfort zone and go with it. Combining good wine, good food, and good company has made for the greatest nights of my life. Here’s hoping that you have the same experience!
See the recipe on page 2.