The East End of Long Island is party central during the warm nights of early fall. In fact, even more than hot, sticky summer nights, Indian summer presents the perfect opportunity to dine al fresco. But temperature changes and early sunsets must be accommodated and this can present a challenge when making food and selecting wine.
Hosting a dinner party should present an opportunity to cook dishes that you’re proud of or to try new ones. Wine is a welcome component at any dining event and is useful as both a pairing and as an ingredient. It works well with food because of its balanced flavors and because its mix of acidity, natural sugar, tannins and alcohol can enhance the flavor of a dish. Every wine has different levels of these components and every dish can benefit from them to differing degrees.
Some, particularly seafood, pop with a bit more acidity. Others gain flavor and complexity with sweetness or alcohol. Tomatoes, for example, contain alcohol-soluble compounds that don’t dissolve in water, which is why wine works so well in some tomato sauces.
But cooks must be careful which wine they put in which sauces. A tart and vibrant tomato sauce differs from a rich and intense one and a touch of wine in either can make a big difference. A rich sauce works better with a richer wine, while a fresher and brighter sauce will meld better with a light and crisp wine or even, gasp, no wine at all.
Wine can also be a major component as a sauce, marinade or poaching liquid. Zabaione requires a fortified wine like Marsala or port, and many risottos and poached dishes rely extensively on wine. At other times it serves as an accent or a slight adjustment. Think: Finishing sautéed scallops or shrimp with a Lillet, an apéritif or white port.
It is not always necessary to drink the wine used in cooking, but it does provide satisfying closure. To serve a certain wine with a certain dish, add a little of the wine during cooking to make the pairing seem more natural. For instance, serving a pinot noir with sautéed or grilled fish is a touchy proposition, but not if a little splash is in the sauce. The opposite is true for a lamb dish that would normally be paired with a rich, hearty cabernet or syrah. To serve a light Champagne, try making a zabaione with the sparkling beverage and then plate the grilled lamb with the sauce. Unusual and bold pairings always sate (and impress) savvy diners, an important key to pulling them off resides in the sauté pan, not in the glass.