Pairings: 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.

Hors d’oeuvres
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).

Rabbit Tartlets

  • 1 pound rabbit legs, thighs and shoulders
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 carrot, peeled and chopped
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 whole head garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 2 shallots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 10 white mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 12 (1-inch) frozen savory tart shells
  • Fresh chervil leaves for garnish

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.

Return rabbit to pan, add mushrooms and chicken broth and bring to a boil. Cover pan with aluminum foil and place in oven for 30 to 45 minutes, or until rabbit is tender and falls off the bone. Remove rabbit from liquid and set aside. Simmer remaining liquid on top of stove for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, pick rabbit meat off bones, placing meat in a covered saucepan to keep it moist. Add the bones to the liquid and cook until reduced in volume to 1¼2 cup. Strain over rabbit.

Bake tart shells according to package instructions. Warm rabbit meat and liquid over medium heat for about 4 minutes, or until it boils gently. Immediately spoon 1 tablespoon rabbit into each tart shell. Garnish with fresh chervil. Makes 12 tartlets.

Quail Eggs with Caviar

  • 8 quail eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon white distilled vinegar
  • 2 slices pumpernickel bread
  • 2-3 teaspoons sour cream or crème frâiche
  • 1-2 tablespoons Sevruga, Osetra or Beluga caviar or salmon roe
  • Fresh chives for garnish

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.

Mushroom Charlottes

Chef Maxwell suggests baking these tidbits in eight (1-ounce) ramekins. If you wish, you can substitute any wild mushroom of your choice. If you elect to use dried mushrooms, reconstitute according to package directions.

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3 eggs and 2 egg yolks
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
  • 5 medium shiitake mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
  • 5 cremini mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
  • 3 white mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
  • 5-6 slices white bread
  • 2 or 3 sprigs of fresh thyme, cut into 8 pieces

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.

Spoon custard into bread-lined ramekins and spoon about 1 teaspoon mushrooms into each. Reserve remaining mushrooms and keep warm. Prepare a water bath: Place ramekins into a roasting pan and pour water into pan halfway up the sides of the ramekins. (If you wish, place pan into oven first and pour in water from a pitcher.) Bake for 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from oven. Charlottes should come out of ramekins easily but if they don’t, gently run a knife blade around the edges to separate bread from ramekins. Spoon some more mushrooms over the top of each and garnish with thyme sprigs. Makes 8 charlottes.

Roasted Squab with Wilted Wild Frisée, Foie Gras and Wine Sauce

Since the squab is a small bird, Chef Maxwell suggests cooking one per person if it is to be a main course and half per person if it is an appetizer. This recipe is for appetizer-sized portions. Maxwell notes that the two-step cooking process outlined in this recipe is important because the leg and thigh of the squab contain tendons that will be unpleasantly chewy if not cooked until at least medium well, but the rest of the bird should be served medium or rare for maximum tenderness. Maxwell pairs the squab with a wilted frisée lettuce, but says you can substitute escarole if you wish.

Wine recommendations: Dr. Konstantin Frank 1999 Salmon Run Johannisberg Riesling (Finger Lakes), Lenz 1997 Gewürtztraminer (North Fork of Long
Island). Among non-New York options, try a Spätlese Riesling from Germany’s Rheingau.

For the squab

  • 2 squabs
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Butter
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
  • 1 head frisée lettuce
  • 4 slices foie gras, scored on 1 side (optional)

For the sauce

  • 3/4 cup ice wine or sweet Riesling
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken stock

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.

For the sauce, pour ice wine or Riesling into original roasting pan, scraping up any bits of squab stuck to the bottom. Pour into saucepan, add chicken stock and heat over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, until reduced in volume to 1/4 cup.

If using foie gras, heat another pan (at least 10 inches wide), until drops of water sizzle when sprinkled on the surface. Do not add oil or other fat. Place foie gras slices into it in a single layer, scored side down, and cook for about 2 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from heat and keep warm.

In still another pan, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat until it ripples. Add shallot and cook for about 3 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Add frisée and cook for about 8 to 10 seconds, or until lightly wilted.

Remove squab pieces from oven. Divide wilted vegetables evenly between four plates and place a leg and thigh on the back of each mound. Slice each breast half twice, to yield three slices each. Fan slices in front of the mound and, if serving, lean foie gras to the left. Drizzle with sauce and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Wild King Salmon with Black Truffle Potatoes and
Chive Emulsion

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

  • 2 Russet or Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut in thirds
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon canned truffle pieces
  • 1 teaspoon truffle oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the chive emulsion

  • 6 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh chives
  • 2 white mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 1 teaspoon white or black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 1/2 tablespoon or 1 teaspoon white vinegar
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1/8 cup heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) chilled butter, cubed

For the salmon

  • 4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets, or tournedos (rounds)
  • 1 1/3 tablespoons melted butter
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Chopped fresh chives

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.

For the chive emulsion, prepare a bowl of ice water. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add chives and boil for 30 seconds. Drain chives and immediately plunge them into ice water for 30 seconds to set color. Drain, purée in a food processor and set aside.

Combine mushrooms, thyme, peppercorns, bay leaf, lemon juice, vinegar and wine in a nonreactive saucepan and heat over medium-high heat until reduced in volume to 1/8 cup. Stir in cream, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes. While mixture is simmering, add 1 1/2 cups butter, 1 cube at a time, allowing each to melt before adding the next. Season with salt and pepper and strain. Keep warm.

To cook the salmon, heat oven to 350F. Brush salmon with butter and season with salt and pepper. In an oven-proof pan set on the stove over medium heat, heat vegetable oil until it ripples. Place salmon into pan in a single layer and sear for 2 minutes, or until golden; turn and sear the other side. Place pan in oven and bake for about 8 minutes or until fish is opaque. Do not overcook.

To serve, place a mound of potato in the center of each of 4 plates. Top each with a salmon round. Whisk chive purée into strained butter sauce and drizzle around edge of plate. Garnish with chopped chives and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Seared Venison with Huckleberry Sauce, Sweet Potato Strudel and Puréed Celery Root

Marinating the venison for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator will help tenderize it and enhance the flavor, but this step can be skipped if you’re short on time. Chef Maxwell suggests a marinade of red wine, coarsely chopped carrot, onion, garlic and shallot, a few black peppercorns, 1 juniper berry and a few sprigs of fresh rosemary. Ask your butcher to “french” the ends of the bones or do it yourself by scraping them clean of meat. At the restaurant, Maxwell serves this dish with a purée of celery root and sweet potato strudel. If you are not serving a game bird and fish course, you might want to serve two chops per person and double the accompaniments accordingly.

Wine recommendations: Geyser Peak 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley), Pindar 1997 Mythology (North Fork of Long Island).

For the venison

  • 4 venison loin chops, with bones frenched
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

For the sauce

  • 1 cup red wine (Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon)
  • 1 1/2 cups beef stock
  • 1/2 cup fresh huckleberries or dried cherries or cranberries
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

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.

If you are serving celery root purée and sweet potato strudel, prepare according to instructions below before starting venison chops or sauce.

For the sauce, heat wine over medium-high heat until it reduces in volume to about 1/2 cup. Add beef stock and 1/2 cup huckleberries or dried cherries or cranberries. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and gradually add cornstarch mixture, stirring, until sauce has the consistency of heavy cream. Add bay leaf, black pepper and fresh thyme and cook until reduced in volume by one-third. Strain and add remaining huckleberries or dried fruit. Remove bay leaf and keep warm until you are ready to serve.

While sauce is in its last stage of cooking, heat oven to 350F. In an oven-proof roasting pan set on stove over medium-high heat, add oil and heat until it ripples. Place venison chops into pan in a single layer and sear for about 2 minutes or until brown, turn and sear other side for about 2 minutes. Place pan into oven and bake for 5 to 8 minutes or until desired doneness.

Remove chops from oven. Place a dollop of celery root purée in the center of each of four plates. Slice sweet potato strudel on a diagonal and lean a piece on either side of purée. Lean venison chop in front. Drizzle sauce on chop and around edge of the plate. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

For the celery root purée

  • 1 medium-to-large celery root, peeled and cut into medium dice (about 3 cups)
  • Whole milk to cover
  • 1 tablespoon butter, room temperature or slightly warm
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

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

  • 3 sweet potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 sheets frozen phyllo dough
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, melted
  • Nonstick cooking spray

To make the strudel, heat oven to 350°F. Bake potatoes for about 40 minutes or until soft. Remove from oven and let cool.

Using the back of a knife, peel skin off potatoes, working gently so that you lose as little potato as possible. Purée potato in a food processor until smooth. Blend in one tablespoon butter, maple syrup, honey and salt and pepper to taste.

Brush one sheet frozen phyllo with melted butter, top with second sheet of dough, brush with butter and top with third sheet of dough. Using a sharp knife, cut layered phyllo in four equal squares. Position a square of phyllo so that one corner is directly in front of you. Place a generous dollop of sweet potato purée on that corner. Fold two side corners inward to meet. Brush with butter. Gently roll corner that is filled with potato away from you, until you have a cylinder. Repeat with other phyllo squares.

Reduce oven temperature to 325F. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray and arrange strudels on it. Bake for about 8 minutes, or until golden. Keep warm until ready to serve. Makes 4 strudels.

Published on February 1, 2001
Topics: Wine and Food Pairings