Pairings: Rules of the Game
When choosing a wine to complement venison, squab, rabbit and other delicacies, adventure is the name of the game.
Rules of the Game
When pairing wine with venison, squab, rabbit and other delicacies, adventure is the name of the game.
Readers of a certain age probably remember studying Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle in school. It's the tale of a man, circa 1765, who sets out for an afternoon of hunting in the hills of the Hudson Valley, but instead meets the ghosts of Henry Hudson's crew. He joins them in their game of ninepins, drinks from their flagon and falls into a sleep that lasts for twenty years, waking to find his wife dead, his children grown and the world transformed.
What I did not remember until I reread the tale recently was that hunting was one of the few things the famously henpecked, lazy Rip loved to do. And while Rip's story may have been fantasy, Irving's depiction of the landscape was an accurate portrayal of the Hudson Valley, both of the 18th century and long afterward. It was a land throbbing with wildlife. Those who lived there, both Native Americans and European immigrants, relied on game as their chief source of meat. Indeed, so did most of North America. Even after the introduction of domesticated livestock to the New World by European settlers, game was the predominant source of meat for many Americans until about 100 years ago. Today, when the wild pigeon of Rip Van Winkle's table is a rarity (and we've lost our taste for his other favorite, squirrel), Americans can be divided into two camps: the minority—largely hunters and adventurous diners—that eats game, and the majority that does not.
On the tip of the island that in Washington Irving's day was called Manhattoes, there is a restaurant that aims to change that. In the heart of New York's financial district, far from anything remotely resembling woodland, the Hudson River Club regularly serves game. The 12-year-old restaurant emphasizes ingredients from the Hudson Valley in its contemporary cuisine, and its game dishes have won an ardent following.
Executive Chef Matthew Maxwell rhapsodizes about the virtues of game: "When some people hear the word 'game,' they think it's, well, gamey," he says. "But a perfectly cooked squab is absolutely decadent. I say, 'You owe it to yourself to try it.' Nine times out of ten, people like it." A Culinary Institute of American graduate and veteran of fine New York restaurants such as the Water Club and Oceana, Maxwell often serves venison, rabbit, squab and pheasant. Every fall the restaurant offers a game dinner—with game-based hors d'oeuvres and four or five courses, all elegantly prepared.
For the annual game dinner, José Almonte, the restaurant's wine and service director, selects only New York State wines, in keeping with the restaurant's Hudson Valley theme. This past fall he chose 19 wines (most gold medalists in a regional competition for which he served as judge), ranging from the 1998 Herman J. Wiemer Blanc de Blancs that was served with the hors d'oeuvres to the 1998 Hunt Country Vidal Blanc Ice Wine presented with the dessert. He paired Maxwell's venison and huckleberry sauce with the Pindar's 1997 Mythology from Long Island, a Bordeaux-inspired blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
"The robust elegance of that Meritage—it was like a child playing in a pond. It was not just one drop on the tongue; it was plenty of drops, a flavor explosion, like fireworks." The wine is ideal for venison, adds, the Juilliard graduate, because it harmonizes so well with the meat's intense flavor.
In general, says Almonte, when pairing wine with game, it's important to remember that game tends to be leaner than other meats, so it often pairs nicely with wines that have low acidity. The frequently woodsy flavors of Pinot Noir complement most game dishes, and for consumers looking beyond New York State offerings, those from Burgundy, California and Oregon can all fill in with aplomb. Wines from France's Rhône valley and many Italian reds also fare well.
Almonte and Maxwell have an almost missionary belief in game, and both urge the uninitiated to try it. Maxwell believes that game is not just for restaurant dining, but can be prepared at home. "Game cooking takes a little time and patience, and a little dedication," he says. "But if you watch what you're doing, it will turn out to be a delicious dish."
The key to game cookery, he says, is not to overcook it. "Venison is a lean meat; there's not much fat to it. The secret to venison is to cook it medium rare—medium at most," he says. The same goes for squab and other game birds. Because they are leaner than other fowl, they require less cooking time. Maxwell warns, however, that just like chicken and turkey, the leg and thigh meat of game birds often takes longer to cook than the breast. If you are roasting game birds, he suggests cooking the whole bird just until the breast meat is done, then cutting off the legs and thighs and returning them to the oven for a few more minutes of cooking.
There was a time when marinating game before cooking was almost obligatory, because the meat of animals living in the wild was often tougher than their domesticated counterparts. The acids in the marinade tenderized the meat and mellowed its flavor. Today, because much game is farmed, there is generally less need to marinate the meat before cooking; however, says Maxwell, if you have time, it will add flavor.
Another time-honored way of handling game birds is hanging them for several days after the hunt, which tenderizes the meat and intensifies its flavor. This is not necessary for farmed birds.
As a fish course for his game dinner, Maxwell serves wild king salmon from Alaska—far from the Hudson Valley, but the source of some of the best wild salmon in the world. Compared to the farmed salmon that dominates most fish markets, wild salmon differs significantly in taste and texture. A cold-water fish, it has more fat than farmed salmon, but because it swims freely, the texture is different—the flesh is meatier and less creamy than that of farmed fish. Almonte pairs it with low-acid Chardonnays to let its unique flavor stand out, but he says its flavor is strong enough to pair with Pinot Noir.
Whatever you pair with game, stay away from ghosts bearing flagons; you won't want to wait twenty years for your next delectable game dinner.
Executive Chef Matthew Maxwell of New York's Hudson River Club offers several game-based hors d'oeuvres at his annual game dinners.
Wine recommendation: Herman J. Weimer 1998 Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine (New York), or Cuvaison 1998 Chardonnay (California).
Heat oven to 325F. Season rabbit with salt and pepper. In an oven-proof pan set over medium-high heat, heat oil until it ripples. Sear rabbit on all sides, about 5 minutes each, or until golden brown. Transfer rabbit to a platter. Reduce heat to medium and add carrot, onion, garlic and shallots to same pan; stir in tomato paste, adding a little more oil if necessary, and cook for 5 minutes, or until vegetables soften and begin to brown. Add wine and cook for 15 minutes, until reduced in volume by one-third.
Quail Eggs with Caviar
Gently place eggs in a pot and pour in vinegar and enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook for 3 to 4-minutes. Meanwhile, toast pumpernickel lightly and cut each slice in 8 triangular pieces. Remove eggs from pot, run under cold water and peel under running water. Cut in half lengthwise. Spoon a small dollop of sour cream or crème frâiche on each piece of pumpernickel, top with half an egg and a dollop of caviar or salmon roe. Garnish with fresh chives. Makes 16 hors d'oeuvres.
Whisk together cream, eggs and yolks, season with salt and pepper, and set aside. Heat oil in a pan over medium-high heat until it ripples. Add shallots and cook until softened. Add mushrooms, season with salt and pepper and cook about 5 to 8 minutes, or until mushrooms soften and the liquid they release has evaporated. Remove from heat.
Heat oven to 350F. Using a 1-ounce ramekin as a cookie cutter, cut 8 circles from one or two slices of bread. Butter all ramekins and press a bread circle into the bottom of each. Remove crust from remaining slices and cut each slice in half lengthwise. Wrap the slices inside the ramekin walls, pressing the ends together so they stick. Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for 3 to 5 minutes, until slightly brown. Remove from oven.
Roasted Squab with Wilted Wild Frisée, Foie Gras and Wine Sauce
Wine recommendations: Dr. Konstantin Frank 1999 Salmon Run Johannisberg Riesling (Finger Lakes), Lenz 1997 Gewürtztraminer (North Fork of Long
For the squab
For the sauce
Truss squabs (tie legs together so their breasts will plump). Season with salt and pepper and brush with butter. Heat oven to 350°F. In an oven-proof roasting pan set on stove over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons oil until it ripples. Place squabs into pan in a single layer and sear on all sides, about 2 minutes each, or until skin is crisp and golden brown. Transfer pan into oven and bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven and let squab rest for about 5 minutes. Cut off the legs and thighs, place them into another roasting pan and return to oven to roast for 5 more minutes. Using a sharp knife, cut off each breast half in a single piece; transfer to a platter and keep warm.
Wild King Salmon with Black Truffle Potatoes and
Chef Maxwell garnishes this dish with a nest of fried potato strands. An alternative is to sprinkle it with fresh chives.
Wine recommendations: Panther Creek 1997 Reserve Pinot Noir (Oregon), Peconic Bay 1998 Chardonnay (North Fork of Long Island).
For the potatoes
For the chive emulsion
To make potatoes, place them into a pan of salted water set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer for about 25 minutes, or until soft. Meanwhile, in another saucepan, melt 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter in heavy cream. When potatoes are soft, drain and mash with a fork or potato masher, slowly adding cream and butter mixture. (Don't use a food processor or potatoes will be gummy.) Mix in truffle pieces and truffle oil, season with salt and pepper to taste and keep warm.
Seared Venison with Huckleberry Sauce, Sweet Potato Strudel and Puréed Celery Root
Wine recommendations: Geyser Peak 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley), Pindar 1997 Mythology (North Fork of Long Island).
For the venison
For the sauce
If you are marinating the venison, combine ingredients in a nonreactive bowl or pan and arrange chops in a single layer. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours. When you are ready to cook, remove chops from marinade and discard marinade. Wrap bones in foil so they do not discolor in cooking.
For the celery root purée
Place celery root into a medium-sized saucepan and add enough milk to cover. Set pan over medium heat and cook for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until a fork pierces the pieces easily. Strain, discarding milk. While celery root is still hot, transfer to a food processor and purée until smooth. Blend in 1 tablespoon butter and salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm until ready to serve. Makes 3 cups.
For the sweet potato strudel
To make the strudel, heat oven to 350°F. Bake potatoes for about 40 minutes or until soft. Remove from oven and let cool.