- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Lounging around the fireplace with a coveted stash of artisan chocolates in one hand and a glass of

port in the other is one of fall’s most decadent pleasures.

Sipping port doesn’t have to be a late-night cheese-and-chocolate-only affair. Port pairs well with a wide range of sweet — and savory — foods, making it the perfect honored guest at multicourse tasting dinners.

“Sure, port is great with cheese and chocolate, but it doesn’t have to be a dessert wine. Once you let yourself taste it with savory foods, a whole new world will open up,” says Peter Prager, winemaker at Prager Port Works in St. Helena, Calif.

Before opening that vintage ruby stashed in the back of the wine closet, get to know the different varieties of port.

True port, often labeled “porto” in the United States, is from the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. Many of the port-style fortified wines made throughout the world, labeled simply “port,” are less expensive than their Portuguese counterparts. Keep an eye out for port from good American, Australian or South African winemakers to keep your dinner party costs down.

Ports age gracefully — good news for those unopened bottles, bad news in terms of price. Even the youngest ports (ruby) require several years of aging to develop their characteristic sweet, jammy flavor.

The price of port varies greatly depending on the type of aging (bottle versus barrel), length of time aged (between 2 and as long as 100 years) and whether the grapes are from a single vineyard. Fortunately, with its high alcohol content (port is fortified with alcohol to develop sweetness) and rich flavor, small pours are preferable.

You can count on eight generous 3-ounce servings of port from a 750 ml bottle (compared to five skimpy 5-ounce glasses of wine), so you can afford to spend a little more on each bottle.

Start the evening with a glass of white port. They’re typically crisp and fruity, lighter than classic ruby ports, so they work beautifully as a first-course wine. Balance the fruitiness with rich, buttery dishes such as pan-seared scallops, mushroom bisque, ravioli with cream sauce or ricotta gnocchi with truffled corn puree, a favorite of executive chef Sean Hardy of the Peninsula Beverly Hills’ Belvedere restaurant.

Or try Peter Prager’s foolproof appetizer for fall: a chilled glass of Prager Aria White, a semisweet chardonnay port, served alongside a heaping platter of freshly shucked oysters. “Seafood and port? You bet. As long as it’s white port, the seafood is fresh and you leave well enough alone,” says Mr. Prager.

With your guests happily sipping port and slurping oysters, you can slip back to the kitchen to pop open the next bottle of port, although choosing between ruby, tawny, vintage or any of the half-dozen hybrid ports can be daunting.

MGM Mirage Las Vegas wine director Mark Thomas recommends starting with young ruby ports. “Too much complexity in a port — like an aged vintage port — can compete with your food. Look for ruby ports or younger vintage ports that will complement the food, not overwhelm it,” he advises.

For the second course, try chicken, veal or venison with nonvintage ruby port. Because these ports are aged a short time, they tend to be brighter and fruitier than their vintage and tawny counterparts. A bold, jammy sauce, especially one with port or other fortified wine such as sherry or Banyuls, will bridge the dish with the drink.

Top chefs around the country are using port and fortified-wine infused sauces to turn otherwise wine-only dishes into an amiable port companions. At Sona restaurant in Los Angeles, wine director Mark Mendoza recommends a ruby port with chef David Myers’ roulade of Fontina cheese and veal with wilted radicchio and port glaze. At Bacar Restaurant and Wine Salon in San Francisco, executive chef Robbie Lewis pairs ruby port with bacon-wrapped venison osso bucco and dried plum port salsa seca. At Tristan restaurant in South Carolina, chef Ciaran Duffy serves up roasted quail with mushrooms, truffles and Pirigueux (truffle and Madeira) sauce with a glass of ruby port.

You could stop now, and your guests would surely be impressed, but if you really want to wow them with your port pairing prowess, pull out the aged tawny port. They’re typically barrel aged 10 to 40 years, instilling a subtle but rich nutty flavor.

“Tawny ports tend to be a little spicy, so when you pair them with spicy food, the port mellows,” says Bertrand Bouquin, executive chef at the Broadmoor’s Summit restaurant in Colorado Springs, Colo.

A vintage port is aged for years, but it is aged in the bottle rather than barrel. Single-vineyard vintage ports are big, rich, decadent — and expensive. They beg for an equally splurge-worthy dish.

Coffee cream tart in cocoa-espresso crust

This recipe is from Mary Cech, co-author of “The Wine Lover’s Dessert Cookbook” and pastry chef at Sky Lodge in Park City, Utah.

COCOA-ESPRESSO CRUST:

½ cup granulated sugar

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1½ teaspoons instant espresso powder or very finely ground espresso-roast coffee beans

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 large egg

11/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting work surface

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

COFFEE CREAM FILLING:

½ cup whole coffee beans

1 cup heavy cream

½ cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed

5-ounce can evaporated milk (½ cup plus 2 tablespoons)

1 small (4-inch) vanilla bean, split lengthwise

1 large egg

3 large egg yolks

Prepare the crust: Using a standing mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the sugar, butter, espresso powder or beans, and salt at medium speed until creamy. Add the egg and mix until well-blended, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula. At low speed, add the flour and cocoa powder and mix until the dough comes together around the beaters. (Alternatively, use a food processor.)Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Roll it with a floured rolling pin into a 10-inch circle, moving the dough frequently as you roll and adding flour as needed to prevent sticking. Carefully drape the dough over the rolling pin and unroll it, centering the dough over a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the dough firmly into the pan, repairing any tears by patching them with dough scraps. Refrigerate the crust while making the filling.

To prepare the filling: Place the coffee beans on flat surface and use the bottom of a heavy skillet to crack them into large pieces. Transfer the cracked beans to a medium saucepan and stir in the cream, brown sugar and evaporated milk. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the cream; drop in the pod as well. Heat the cream mixture over high heat, stirring occasionally, until very hot but not boiling. Reduce the heat to as low as possible, stir well, cover and leave for 15 minutes to infuse the coffee into the liquid.

Remove the pan from the heat and cool the mixture until it is near room temperature, about 30 minutes. (To accelerate cooling, place the pot in a bowl half filled with ice and a little water, stirring occasionally until cool.)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer and discard the solids. Whisk the whole egg and egg yolks together in a small bowl, then whisk into the cooled coffee cream. Strain the filling into the chilled crust. Bake the tart on a baking sheet until the filling begins to puff around the edges and is softly set but jiggles in the center when you shake the pan, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer the tart in its pan to a cooling rack and let cool slightly. Remove the tart ring, transfer the tart to a serving platter and refrigerate until chilled, about 2 hours or up to 3 days. To avoid condensation, wait until the tart is completely cold before covering with plastic film. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Dried plum salsa seca

This recipe is from executive chef Robbie Lewis, Bacar Restaurant and Wine Salon in San Francisco.

1 cup dried plums

2 cups ruby port

½ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Place dried plums in a saucepan and cover with port. Cook on very low heat for 30 minutes to hydrate plums and reduce port to a syrup consistency. Strain plums, reserving port syrup. Roughly chop the plums and place in a medium bowl. Add walnuts, port syrup, vinegar and olive oil, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Stir in parsley just before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

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