- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2004

My first real experience with champagne — or at least I thought it was champagne — was with Freixenet Cordon Negro brut. You know, the one in the matte black bottle with the swirly gold writing.

I was 19, and I thought it was elegant when a college boyfriend brought me a bottle one cold night. We drank the entire thing out of chipped mugs, listening to John Coltrane’s “Ballads” while snow fell outside at just about the same pace as the bubbles rose in my glass.

The dizzy joy I felt as the fizz trailed down my throat was almost as exhilarating as having my first hangover the next morning. The whole package was romantically thrilling for a naive 19-year-old.

Looking back, I laugh at myself and the memory not only of drinking too much of the headache-inducing wine, but also of eating nothing with it. At $5 a bottle, the boyfriend could have afforded at least a snack.

Since then, I have learned a little more about sparkling wines, beginning with the obvious, which is that not all sparkling wines are true champagne. Champagne, technically, only comes from the region of France bearing the same name. But that’s not to say French champagne is the only worthy sparkling wine available. There are plenty of affordable sparklers, including Italian prosecco and several nice selections from California.

As a food writer, I’m interested not only in trying new sparkling wines, but also in pairing them with food. Generally speaking, dry or brut sparklers are best served at the beginning of the meal, and the sweeter, or sec and demi-sec, are best with dessert. Beyond that, it’s up to you to select what suits your tastes.

Oddly enough, popcorn actually may be the ideal food match for champagne, according to Jay McInerney, author of the informative and entertaining “Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar.” Mr. McInerney was convinced after spending an afternoon over four bowls of popcorn and three bottles of Krug with Remi Krug of Krug Champagne.

If the pairing of a movie snack with champagne isn’t unusual enough, Mr. McInerney devotes an entire chapter to a tasting of Dom Perignon champagne and Japanese kaiseki cuisine. Kaiseki is a formal Japanese dinner of sushi and seasonal delicacies that can sometimes include flowers and tree leaves. Sake may sound more logical, but Mr. McInerney was convinced otherwise.

For your next holiday gathering, you may decide to offer something a little more elegant than popcorn and a little less formal than kaiseki.

So it may be a relief that most people who know either a little or a lot about wine will tell you that champagne goes well with just about anything. They also may tell you that there are specific flavors and textures that complement it, such as salty foods, cured meats, eggs and fish, but you can simply use these as guides to creating your own hors d’oeuvre course.

The classic champagne companion we all know is caviar because the acidity and dryness of brut sparklers help cut through the caviar oiliness, leaving the palate refreshed. Texturally speaking, the bubbly, popping quality of caviar is also a nice pairing with the effervescence in a sip of champagne.

Domestically farmed sturgeon caviars can help you get around the problem of overfishing in the Caspian Sea, the origin of most caviar. Farmed white sturgeon, paddlefish, whitefish and wild Alaskan salmon roe are all delicious, widely available and environmentally sustainable.

Fish are not the only creatures whose eggs complement sparkling wine. A good old-fashioned omelet makes a surprising partner to a glass. The acidity cuts through the richness and saltiness of egg dishes.

Also delicious with sparkling wine are oysters, which are similar to caviar in their brininess and textural feel. There is nothing in the food-and-drink world like an oyster and a sip of champagne. I like the way an oyster cannot be eaten casually. It’s necessary to stop conversation and concentrate for a moment, which is what I believe we should do with all bites of food and sips of wine.

Other oily fish, such as smoked salmon, also are well-suited for champagne. Cured meats, such as prosciutto, complement champagne for similar reasons. Champagne delivers a quick, dry antidote to the fattiness and saltiness of cured meats.

Prosciutto is a versatile choice for hors d’oeuvres because it can be mild and thus goes well with other foods, such as fruits and nuts. Some champagne has a nutty, toasty aroma that complements nutty, toasty flavors in foods.

When creating a menu to highlight sparkling wines, I like to stick to the theme of celebration, to serve foods that evoke the same decadent and celebratory spirit as the drink.For me, many of these are the foods that traditionally pair well with champagne, including oysters and smoked salmon.

Smoked salmon rice rolls

3 cups warm cooked white rice

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 ounces smoked salmon

About 1 teaspoon wasabi paste

1/4 cup capers

Place warm rice in a large glass bowl. Combine vinegar, sugar and salt in small saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves. Pour vinegar mixture over rice and toss to coat. Cover rice and cool completely at room temperature. (Do not refrigerate.)

Place a few sheets of smoked salmon, with slightly overlapping edges, on a sushi mat or waxed paper so that the longest sides of the mat or paper are perpendicular to you. Place about 3/4 cup of rice formed into a log along the center of the salmon. Spread the rice evenly, covering the entire area of salmon except for about 1/2 inch at the long top edge. Thinly spread about 1/4 teaspoon of wasabi down the center of the rice the long way, from one end to the other.

Lift up the edge of the mat or waxed paper closest to you. Gently begin rolling away from you, rolling over the wasabi and connecting rice to rice. Then stop to make sure you still have a 1/2-inch strip of just salmon left over at the top. (This is what seals the roll.)

Lift the edge of the mat or paper slightly and continue rolling away from you, connecting the salmon pieces. (Remove the mat or paper as you roll.) Gently squeeze both sides while pressing gently on top with both index fingers. Cut roll into 6 pieces, about 3/4-inch wide. Repeat with remaining salmon and rice. Garnish cut rolls with a few capers and serve. Makes about 24 pieces.

Oysters with sour-apple mignotte

12 oysters

Crushed ice or rock salt for lining platter

1/4 cup champagne vinegar

3 tablespoons Granny Smith apple, finely diced

2 tablespoons red onion, finely diced

2 tablespoons chives, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

First, shuck the oysters. Hold oyster flat on work surface with a towel, flat shell up. Insert tip of oyster knife into hinge of shell, and twist gently to open shell. Slide knife along inside of upper shell to free oyster from shell. Discard upper shell.

Slide knife under oyster to release from lower shell, leaving in shell. Repeat with remaining oysters. Serve on a platter lined with crushed ice or rock salt. Combine vinegar, apple, red onion, chives and salt and pepper to taste. Serve in a small bowl alongside oysters and invite guests to spoon it over individual servings. Makes 12 oysters.

Blini with caviar

This recipe is adapted from a Russian Tea Room recipe that appeared in Gourmet magazine in 2002. The batter can be made 3 days ahead and chilled, covered (after letting it rise in a warm place).

1 1/4-ounce package active dry yeast (11/4 teaspoons)

11/2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup sifted all-purpose flour (sift before measuring)

1/2 cup sifted buckwheat flour (sift before measuring)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole milk, heated to warm (105 to 115 degrees), plus more to thin batter (optional)

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, divided

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Caviar (4 ounces make 32 to 40 1/2-teaspoon servings; use more if indulgence demands and pocketbook allows)

Stir together 1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees), yeast and sugar in a bowl, and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If mixture doesn’t foam, discard and start over with new yeast.) Add all-purpose flour, buckwheat flour and salt, then stir in milk, 3 tablespoons butter and eggs.

Cover bowl with plastic wrap, and set it in a roasting pan filled with 1 inch of warm water. Let rise in a warm place until dough is increased in volume, has bubbles breaking the surface and is stringy when scooped, 11/2 to 2 hours. Stir batter before using. If necessary, thin batter with a few teaspoons of milk before using.

Heat a 12-inch nonstick skillet over moderately high heat until hot, and brush with some of remaining melted butter. (If butter browns immediately, lower heat.) Working in batches of 4, spoon 1 tablespoon batter into skillet for each blini, then cook, turning over once, until golden on both sides, about 2 minutes. Transfer to an ovenproof platter and keep blini warm in preheated 250-degree oven. Serve blini topped with caviar (1/2 teaspoon per blini). Makes about 36 pieces.

Roasted pears with prosciutto and hazelnuts

This recipe was adapted from Judy Rodgers’ “Zuni Cafe Cookbook” (W.W. Norton and Co.).

3 ripe Bosc pears

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup hazelnut picada (recipe follows)

8 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto

Cut each pear into 8 wedges, then roll the wedges in oil to coat; place on small baking sheet. Broil until hot through and just beginning to caramelize on the edges, several minutes. Sprinkle a few pinches of hazelnut picada on each as you pull from broiler. Wrap each pear wedge with a slice of prosciutto and skewer with a toothpick, if desired. Makes 24 pieces.

HAZELNUT PICADA:

3/4 cup mild olive oil

2 pieces chewy, peasant-style bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick

24 finely chopped hazelnuts (about 3 tablespoons)

1 teaspoon orange zest

2 garlic cloves

6 to 8 small mint leaves

Salt, optional

Pour olive oil to a depth of 1/2 inch into an 8-inch skillet or 2-quart saucepan set over medium-low heat. (Test the temperature with edge of bread. It should barely sizzle on contact.) Reduce heat slightly and add bread in a single layer. Check underside at 1 minute: It should be just beginning to color.

Fry bread until the color of cornflakes, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Poke center. When ready, it should be firm. Make sure oil doesn’t smoke. Drain and cool bread on a paper towel.

Break into coarse chunks, discarding any doughy non-fried parts. Spread chunks between two clean brown paper bags, then use a rolling pin (or wine bottle) to crush into crumbs. The bag will absorb a lot of oil. Or grind in a food processor.

Roast hazelnuts in preheated 325-degree oven on small baking sheet until skins start to split and become papery, about 10 to 15 minutes. While still hot, bundle them in a towel and scrunch and massage them to rub off some of their skins. Don’t worry if some of the skin sticks. Finely chop the nuts. You should get about 3 tablespoons. Finely chop the orange zest with the garlic and mint, then combine with the bread crumbs and nuts. If bread is bland, you might need to add a pinch of salt. Makes about 1/2 cup.

Simple omelet with wilted greens

24 eggs

Salt and pepper

6 tablespoons olive oil

12 ounces baby greens such as arugula, lettuce or spinach

Whisk two eggs with a pinch of salt. Heat small nonstick skillet over medium heat, and add 11/2 teaspoons olive oil. Pour each batch of whisked eggs into skillet and stir with back of fork until edges begin to set. Cook until omelet is entirely set, using a spatula to lift edges, allowing uncooked egg to flow underneath, 1 to 2 minutes.

Slide omelet onto paper towels and place a small handful of greens in the center, rolling omelet around greens. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Repeat with remaining eggs. Serve warm on a warmed plate. Makes 12 omelets.

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