Great food is sensual. It can be earthy, rustic and comfortingly familiar in its sensuality, it can grab you by the short hairs and make you crave it, drool for it. It can interrupt your thoughts during the day, commandeer your tastebuds with an explosion of flavor, and make you lust for it in the middle of another meal. Or it can romance you and seduce you, leaving you misty-eyed and a little sad that the affair is now over. The best food can deliver all three experiences to you at one time, something that even a good lover would find an exhausting challenge.
Although I would welcome stories about your experiences, if you care to divulge.
Mexico has always charmed me with its chiles and chocolate. Tease me with something fiery, then romance me with rich, dark chocolate, and you'll successfully stimulate all my dopamine receptors AND give me a big endorphin rush. I will always believe that an expertly-made mole negro is waaaay better than sex. Just ask my husband, the budding food critic.
I love the food culture of Spain as well. It has its own mystery and richness. Rustic, earthy, full-flavored foods fill the Spanish table, as well as oranges from Seville, Marcona almonds and that fabulous nougat made from honey and almonds known as turron. Spain delivers big flavors and impressive, memorable foods. Who can forget a gorgeous shellfish-studded paella? When has jamon Iberico disappointed?
French cuisine, on the other hand, seems to have built its lofty reputation on subtlety and sophistication. The French like to compose a dish of flavors and components that are married elegantly together. It is a glorious alchemy; the result of wringing every last drop of flavor from the ingredients. It is not enough for the French to simply combine cooked rice with a few herbs and some other things and call it "dinner." The rice must first be cooked in a broth that is the product of reducing water and something like roasted bones, shells or peelings, along with some salt and herbs, and then enhanced with a little dry white wine. Then the warm, flavor-infused rice is combined with onions, shallots or garlic (or any combination of same) that have been cooked gently in fat--either olive oil, butter or bacon fat (or any combination of same). Then you would add some salt and pepper. And some fresh herbs. And some freshly grated Parmesan cheese. And some egg yolks or cream. And sometimes some fresh bread crumbs. And of course, more cream.
And then you would use this lovely rice mixture for stuffing any number of things (although the rice is so delicious it might not make it into the cavity of anything but the large one in your face), like hollowed-out vegetables or hens or rabbits or eels. And then you would put more cheese and bread crumbs on top and roast whatever you had stuffed. And while you are roasting, you would baste with some of the same broth that infused the rice and some more dry white wine. And then whatever you had been roasting would be eaten with a glass of good French wine and perhaps little else. And what you had roasted would taste like nothing else you had ever tasted. And it would be meltingly tender. And your house would be perfumed for several hours afterward with the aromas of your efforts, rather like the scent of your lover lingering on your bed linens. Lingering with you like the remnants of a dream.
Get the picture? The French know how to make love to food. Or rather, they know how to make food make love to those who eat it.
This past weekend, my friend Bill the Wine Guy and I teamed up again for another afternoon of wine and food pairings for friends who gather around The Voluptuous Table. Bill always does a great job of picking wines that are affordable and really delicious.
Bill picked grenache noir as the varietal for this tasting, which made it very easy to find foods that would sing in concert with the wine. We enjoyed sipping, tasting and discussing all things wine and food (as we always do; see the complete menu here), but the point in the afternoon that brought complete silence to the table was the combination of a Spanish Garnacha and a "fusion dish" of Spanish, Mexican and French flavors that belted out the Hallelujah Chorus.
This was the wine, Santo Cristo Seleccion Garnacha 2009, full of wild raspberries, vanilla and a spice finish without any traces of oak. This wine is made from old-vine grenache. It is a lovely bottle, the fruit and tannins beautifully balanced, for about $10 or so; ask your wine guy at your local Spec's to help you find it.
And this was the dish, a Poblano pepper, stuffed with Provencale-style creamy, aromatic rice, roasted in the oven with bread crumbs and feather-grated Manchego cheese, then topped with a rustic rouille that was adapted from a Provencale recipe, but tweaked in the direction of Spain with a little sherry vinegar.
The rouille. Which, incidentally, tastes good on just about everything.
Smoky, garlicky, creamy, sophisticated and addictive, these rice-filled peppers are great dinner party food. Serve with a Spanish rioja, or a red wine that is dry, fruit-forward and not too oaky.
Roasted Poblanos with Provencale-Style Rice Filling and Rouille
4 poblano peppers, cut in half lengthwise and seeds removed (make sure pepper halves can lie flat on the baking sheet)
2 slices thick bacon, finely chopped
1 small onion (or substitute shallots), finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup warm rice, cooked in a broth of your choice and a little dry white wine
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
6 leaves fresh basil or any fresh herbs of your choosing, finely chopped (or substitute 1 tsp. dried herbs)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
Rouille (recipe follows)
1.) Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2.) Lay the poblano pepper halves on a baking sheet and set aside.
3.) In a skillet heated to medium-low, gently cook the diced bacon and onion together. The idea is to render the fat from the bacon and cook the onions without browning. This should take you about 8 to 10 minutes.
4.) Stir the garlic into the bacon-onion mixture and cook for another minute or two, just enough to blend the flavors.
5.) In a medium bowl (or directly in the skillet you are using), combine the bacon-onion-garlic mixture with the rice, stirring gently until all is well-blended. Let cool slightly.
6.) Now add half the Parmesan cheese, the fresh herbs, the salt and pepper and enough cream to bind the mixture together moistly, rather like the consistency of a meatloaf.
7.) Divide the rice mixture evenly among the pepper halves. I like to use a small scoop for neatness and ease.
8.) Sprinkle each pepper half with bread crumbs, dividing evenly, then with the remaining Parmesan cheese.
9.) Sprinkle each pepper half with a generous amount of smoked paprika.
10.) Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until peppers are soft and topping is melted and slightly crisped. Serve with rouille (see procedure below). Serves 4.
Rouille (for 4 very generous servings): With a mortar and pestle, or carefully in a food processor or blender, coarsely crush one jar of drained roasted red peppers with 4 cloves of garlic and a good amount of kosher salt. You want a coarse, rustic texture. Now, with a whisk, begin drizzling in some good-quality olive oil (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup), beating until you have a thick-ish sauce-like consistency. Season to taste with some cayenne pepper (rouille should be spicy), and more salt if needed. Stir in a generous pinch of saffron if you have it in your pantry. You can also add an egg yolk for a richer consistency and taste if you'd like. Then stir in a handful or two of fresh bread crumbs to give it some body, and 1 to 2 tsp. sherry vinegar. Serve immediately or chill for use by the next day. If the rouille is too thick after chilling, thin it with a few drops of hot water.