Pairings: Beyond White Wine with Fish

Pairings: Beyond White Wine with Fish

Beyond White Wine with Fish

New trends in the preparation of fish inspire wine pairings that blow the old assumptions right out of the water.

Long, long ago, ordering fish meant choosing between a well-mannered trout meunière and a demure poached sole, and the wine of the evening had to be white. Then came the culinary awakening of the 1970s and ’80s that left the American public insatiably hungry for ever-new flavor combinations and ever-more-exotic cooking preparations. Today, with the likes of sea urchin and peeky-toe crab gracing the menus of the hottest restaurants, inventive chefs are throwing clams on the grill, making masala with codfish, matching lobster with beet reduction and serving skate with caramelized grapefruit. In the face of such overwhelming variety, the old white-wine-with-fish rule is hopelessly outdated.

Instead, says Rick Moonen, co-owner and executive chef of New York’s Oceana, “You look for the overall tone of the dish. You want a wine with similar qualities.”

On the West Coast, Mark Franz, co-owner and executive chef of Farallon in San Francisco, agrees: “There’s nothing in the fish world that won’t pair with any wine in the world.”

The key to the pairing, say both chefs, is twofold: the character of the particular fish you’re cooking and the cooking methods, seasoning and accompaniments that you choose for it.

The subject of fish and wine is one to which both Moonen and Franz have given a great deal of thought. Both are distinguished chefs (Franz a veteran of Jeremiah Towers’ Stars and Balboa Cafe, and Moonen, an alumnus of the Water Club, La Côte Basque and Le Cirque) and both preside over kitchens that specialize in fish. Both have given considerable resources to their restaurants’ wine cellars; Oceana boasts 1,000 labels and Farallon, 450.

Franz points to his mentor, Tower, a founding father of San Francisco’s trendsetting restaurant community, as the inspiration for his approach to pairing: “A very simple rule of thumb that Jeremiah taught me years ago is if you’re cooking for a particular wine, you want to taste the wine and decide its character. If it’s high in acid, you want to layer whatever you’re doing on the plate with something rich and fatty.” The reverse is also true, he says: “If you have a rich wine, you would pick a lighter fish.” And if, like most chefs, you start with the food and match the wine to it, the same rule applies. “It’s almost as if you’re making a vinaigrette in your mouth,” says Franz.

Picking up on his chef’s train of thought, Farallon’s sommelier and wine director, Peter Palmer, describes an entrée of grilled Monterey squid with cannellini beans, frisée and lobster remoulade. The squid, he says, “picks up a smoky quality from the grill,” but the dish has plenty of richness from the beans and fattiness from the remoulade. With it, he suggests a lighter Syrah for a red or a Vernaccia, Verdicchio or Côtes du Rhône Blanc for a white.

For a lighter dish such as Franz’s poached steelhead served with a ragu of vegetables, Palmer says, “I would want a medium-bodied red wine like a Pinot Noir or a medium-bodied Sangiovese.”

Matching fish and wine is a balancing act, as with any pairing, says Doug Bernthal, wine director at Oceana. “Classically, you want to say, ‘What is the texture of the fish? Is it a rich, fatty fish or a thinner fish? Is the sauce butter-based or oil-based?’ If the dish is very rich, you want something to complete it,” he says.

Seared Wild Striped Bass on Chive Whipped Potatoes with Truffle Vinaigrette and Shitake Mushrooms

The starting point for any fish-wine pairing is the fish itself. With all the varieties of fish available today, however, knowing which is which and what goes with what can be challenging. Moonen likes to categorize fish by their flavor and texture, and by the cooking methods that work best for each. It’s a system that can be invaluable for anyone who is a novice in the fish market. Here’s how he does it:

Oily fish: Anchovies, bluefish, mackerel and sardines all fall into this category. These fish grill well, and because of their fat content, can stand up to good amounts acidity, either in their preparation or in the wine that accompanies them. Oily fish, says Moonen, pair nicely with simple, fruity, less complex wines. Beaujolais Nouveau would be a good match.

Meaty fish: Striped and black sea bass, cobia, turbot, monkfish, mahi-mahi, tuna and Dover sole are all meaty in texture and flavor. (Skate and turbot can also be included in this category for their texture, although their flavor is fairly mild. Swordfish and Chilean sea bass can be considered meaty, too, but because they have been overfished and supplies are dwindling, Moonen and other chefs don’t recommend their use.) Meaty fish are ideal for many styles of cooking. They can be grilled or pan-seared, poached, steamed, sautéed or broiled under top heat only. They marry well with bigger, richer, rounder wines—woody Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot, heavier Beaujolais and Pinot Noirs, but not what Moonen calls “inky stinkies—no old Bordeaux.”

Mild fish: Cod, grouper, flounder and sole are all mild fish. (Skate and turbot are mild in flavor as well). The mild fish don’t do well on the grill, but are wonderful poached, steamed, sautéed or broiled under top heat only. “Here,” says Moonen, “you fall back on the old standards—Chardonnay or Chablis.”

Distinctively flavored fish: Salmon, tuna and hamachi (yellowtail) all have their own distinctive flavors. They stand up to many cooking methods and do particularly well on the grill or raw, as sushi or tartare. For these wines, Moonen lets the cooking method and accompaniment determine the pairing.

Shellfish: There are many subcategories of shellfish, and they can handle a variety of cooking methods—including, for some of them, no cooking at all. Sweet shellfish such as lobster, crab, scallops and sweet mussels go well with Chardonnay or perhaps Sauvignon Blanc or, if they’re prepared with a spicy seasoning, Riesling. Shrimp and raw oysters, with their high iodine content, call for Champagne and sparkling wines. Clams and briny East Coast mussels, with their mineral tang, do nicely with unoaked Chardonnays (like Chablis), chalky wines and fruity rosés.

Of course, as Moonen is quick to point out, seasonings and accompaniments can send these “rules” out with the tide. The fish, he says, “is sort of the blank canvas.”

“I look for the most predominant flavor component when I make the match,” says Bernthal. “It could be the fish; it could be the sauce, the garnish or the accompaniment.”

As an example, Moonen suggests cooking halibut—a mild fish typically served with a white wine—in a richly caramelized veal stock. That would change its character and make it ideal for a red wine. He offers salmon as another example. Grilled and served with cucumber salad and accented by horseradish cream, he’d pair it with a fruity white, like a Riesling. Without the cucumber and horseradish, the same grilled salmon would go well with a light Rhône or a Pinot Noir.

Franz concurs. “You can take the same piece of fish,” he explains, “sear it the same way and do different accompaniments with it and have a different set of wines for each.”

The fish-wine pairing that allows for the least amount of flexibility, in Franz and Palmer’s view, is raw fish and shellfish. The best choice for the raw bar or the tartare platter is white wine, says Palmer. But for those who only drink red wine, he has a few suggestions:
“If you’re going to break into the red wine category, I’d go with Beaujolais or a fruity Pinot. A trick that some people use is black pepper to make the transition from the shellfish to the red wine.” Finally, he says, chilling the wine helps, too. “Put a 2000 Beaujolais in the ice bucket for five minutes to echo the chill of the food you’re eating.”

So forget the old rules. Here’s the new mandate, fresh as today’s catch: When you order fish, the wine can be…just about anything!


Grilled Whole Red Snapper with Grilled Fennel and Ratatouille

Adapted from a recipe by Chef Rick Moonen of Oceana in New York.

Moonen’s grilled whole red snapper makes for a wonderful presentation, and the accompaniments of fresh grilled fennel and ratatouille are perfect complements for a summer meal. The lusty flavors will go well with a full-bodied white or a medium-bodied red wine.

Wine recommendations: Oceana wine director Bernthal recommends Torbreck’s 2000 Marsanne-Viognier-Roussanne blend, a white that he describes as “rich, full-bodied, round and floral, with a touch of minerality, an Australian wine made in the style of a Rhône wine.” His other choice is Nicolas Potel’s 1999 Epenottes Pommard premier cru from Burgundy, a Pinot Noir that he believes is redolent of bright cherries, with “a hint of anise. It’s soft, velvety, feminine, medium-bodied and able to stand up to grilled items. It’s not overpowering, by any means.”

For the snapper:

  • 1 whole (4-6 pound) red snapper, scaled, gills removed, gutted,
    rinsed and patted dry

  • Freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon sliced fresh garlic
  • 1 tablespoon roughly chopped
  • Italian parsley
  • 1-2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 lemon, peel on, sliced in 1/4-inch half-moons
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

For the ratatouille:

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1 small eggplant, peeled, seededand diced
  • 1 zucchini, peeled, seeded and diced
  • 1 yellow squash, peeled, seeded and diced
  • 2 tablespoons diced shallot
  • 2 tablespoons diced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup seeded, diced plum tomatoes

For the grilled fennel:

  • 1 bulb fennel
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

To marinate the snapper: Using a sharp knife, make three shallow incisions on each side of the snapper. Place the snapper in a stainless-steel pan and season with white pepper. Place garlic, parsley, olive oil, lemon, oregano, white pepper and red pepper flakes into a bowl and mash them together with your hands, combining all the juices. Lightly massage the marinade into the snapper, being careful of the dorsal fin, which can be very sharp. Cover and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.

To prepare the ratatouille: Heat the oil in a large sauté pan set over medium-high heat until the oil ripples. Add the onion, stir to coat with oil and cook, stirring frequently, for 1 minute. Add the bell peppers and stir; cook briefly, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the eggplant, and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the zucchini and squash, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, for 2 more minutes or until all the vegetables are soft. Add the shallot, garlic and thyme, stir to combine well, and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the diced tomato, heat through, and keep warm until ready to serve.

To prepare the fennel: Trim off the tough outer pieces. Slice it lengthwise into “stalks” 1/2-inch thick (so that each piece consists of bulb and stalk). Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.

To prepare the snapper: Rub the grill rack with oil, and preheat the grill, leaving one section with no coals under it. When the coals turn white, the grill is ready. Wipe out the cavity of the snapper with a paper towel (excess oil inside can spill onto the coals and cause flare-ups) and place it on the grill. Grill for 2 minutes, until lightly charred. Turn. (Grasp the snapper between a flat, long-handled spatula underneath and the side of a long-handled fork on top. Do not pierce the fish with the fork.) Grill for 2 minutes, until charred. When both sides are charred, move the snapper to the side of the grill without coals directly below. Cover the grill and let the snapper cook for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the flesh inside the cavity is opaque, not translucent.

Meanwhile, grill the fennel for about 2 1/2 minutes, turn and grill the other side for 2 1/2 minutes, or until the fennel is lightly charred. Remove from the grill.
When the snapper is done, place it on a serving platter and surround with grilled fennel and ratatouille. Serve immediately. Serves 6.


Seared Wild Striped Bass on Chive Whipped Potatoes with Truffle Vinaigrette and Shiitake Mushrooms

Adapted from a recipe by Chef Rick Moonen, of Oceana in New York.

Wild striped bass is a “meaty” fish and when Moonen pairs it with earthy accompaniments such as shiitake mushrooms and truffle vinaigrette, it stands up beautifully to a red wine of some depth. If you can’t find wild striped bass in your local fish market, this recipe will work with any non-oily, firm-fleshed fish such as black sea bass, grouper, monkfish or cod. The shoestring potatoes are a tasty but optional garnish.

Wine recommendations: Moonen describes this dish, with its mushrooms, potatoes and truffles, as “pure earth.” The wine needs similar structure—acidity and earth. “This screams Pinot Noir,” he says. “It screams something rustic.” The chef and his wine director recommend a J.K. Carriere 1999 Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, or the even denser Alta Vista 1998 Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina.

For the truffle vinaigrette:

  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup finely diced shallot
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3/4 cup truffle oil
  • 1 cup grapeseed oil
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped truffle peelings, optional

For the chive oil:

  • 1 cup well-chilled vegetable oil
  • 1 bunch fresh chives, finely sliced
  • Salt

For the chive whipped potatoes:

  • 4 medium Idaho potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup chive oil (see recipe)
  • Diced chives

For the shiitake mushrooms:

  • 1/2 cup haricot verts
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 cup shiitake mushrooms
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 1/2-2 tablespoons chopped shallots
  • 2 teaspoons chopped garlic
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/4 cup seeded, diced tomatoes

For the shoestring potatoes:

  • 2 baking potatoes, peeled and cut with a mandoline or sharp knife into thin
    “shoestring” strips

  • 3 cups oil
  • Salt

For the bass:

  • 6 (6-8 ounce) wild striped bass fillets, skin on
  • 1 tablespoon butter, at room temperature
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil

To make the vinaigrette: Heat the chicken stock in a saucepan set over high heat until the liquid reduces in volume to about 1/2 cup. Place the shallots into a large stainless steel mixing bowl and pour the hot stock over them. Steep for 10 minutes. Add the vinegar, season with salt and pepper to taste and slowly add the oil, whisking constantly until completely blended. Stir in truffle peelings, if you are using them. Set aside until ready to serve. (This recipe makes 2 1/4 cups. Leftover vinaigrette can be refrigerated for several weeks.)

To make the mashed potatoes and chive oil: Place the potatoes into a saucepan and cover with cold water. Add a dash of salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook for 15 minutes, or until tender.

Meanwhile, make the chive oil by blending oil and chives in a food processor until puréed. Season to taste with salt. (Any leftover can be refrigerated for 1 week.)

When tender, drain the potatoes and mash with cream, butter, salt and pepper. Stir in 1/4 cup chive oil and diced chives and keep warm until ready to serve.

To make the shiitake mushrooms: Heat a pot of water to a rolling boil, add the haricot verts and a dash of salt and boil for about 90 seconds, until tender crisp. Prepare a bowl of ice water. Drain the haricot verts and plunge into ice water for 30 seconds. Drain again and set aside.

In a frying pan set over medium-high heat, melt the butter in the olive oil. Add the shiitakes, season with salt and pepper and cook for about 2 minutes, until the mushrooms are softened and lightly browned. Add the shallots, garlic and thyme and continue cooking for about 2 minutes, until shallots and garlic are soft and translucent. Add the haricots verts, toss to combine and remove from heat. Stir in the diced tomato. Keep warm until ready to serve.

To make the shoestring potatoes: heat the oil in a skillet set over low heat, until it reaches 350F. Add the potatoes in a single layer, working in batches if necessary, and cook, stirring frequently, until the potatoes are crispy and beginning to brown. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon, place on paper towels to drain and season with salt to taste. Set aside until ready to serve.

To prepare the bass: Preheat the oven to 375F. Brush bass fillets generously with butter, skin-side only. Score the skin lightly with a sharp knife to keep it from curling. Heat a large nonstick ovenproof skillet over very high heat. When a drop of water sizzles in the bottom of the skillet, add the oil and swirl to coat. Place fillets into the hot pan, skin-side down in a single layer, and cook for 2 minutes, until browned. Place the skillet into the oven and bake for 3 minutes.
To serve, mound equal portions of hot chive whipped potatoes in the center of each of six serving plates. Top each with one fillet, skin-side up. Surround each with truffle vinaigrette and shiitake mushrooms and if you’ve made them, scatter the shoestring potatoes around the plate. Serves 6.


Curried Scallops with Tomatoes and Easy Rice

Adapted from The Minimalist Cooks Dinner by Mark Bittman (Broadway Books, 2001).

Curry powder gives sweet scallops an Asian twist, and the tomatoes provide an acidic contrast to the scallops’ richness.

Wine Recommendation: Bittman writes: “Inexpensive rugged red, like Zinfandel or Syrah from California, no-name wine from the south of France or Chianti.” A rough-and-tumble Barbera from California’s Sierra Foothills is another good choice.

For the rice:

  • 1 1/2 cups long-, medium- or short-grain rice, rinsed and drained
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

For the scallops:

  • 3 medium ripe tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 to 2 pounds large sea scallops
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder or to taste
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream, sour cream or plain yogurt, optional
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

To prepare the rice: Combine it with the water and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. When the water starts boiling, stir and lower the heat to medium, so that it still bubbles but not furiously.

After 8 to 12 minutes, small craters will appear on the surface of the rice, indicating that the water is almost all absorbed. Cover the pot, turn the heat to low, and cook until tender, about 5 more minutes. Keep warm until ready to serve. The rice can sit for up to 1 hour before serving.

To prepare the scallops: Core the tomatoes and cut them in half horizontally. Gently squeeze out the liquid and shake out most of their seeds. Chop their flesh into 1/2-inch pieces and set aside. Heat a 12-inch non-stick skillet over medium heat for about 3 minutes. While it is heating sprinkle the scallops with salt and pepper and spread the curry powder on a plate.

Add the oil, then quickly dredge the scallops lightly in the curry powder and add them to the pan. About 2 minutes after you added the first scallop, turn it—it should be nicely browned (if it is not, raise the heat a bit). When the scallops are all browned and turned, cook for another minute, then add the tomatoes and cream if you are using it. (If you are using yogurt, lower the heat immediately; it must not boil.)

Heat the tomatoes through, then taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Sprinkle with the lime juice, stir in the cilantro and serve with the rice. Serves 4.

For more recipes, pick up this month’s issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Published on July 1, 2002