The last three times we’ve done Dinner Gang, we happened to have reasonably light wines. Our last hosting experience was with white wines, Neal and Jim did Rosé, and then Kathryn and David did Germany. I thought it was time to head to the opposite end of the spectrum. I wanted gigantic wines.
Our planning started with what wine to have. We don’t have too many huge tannic Californian monstrosities in the cellar, and none of them are ready to drink. Bressler is certainly a cult-level Cali Cab, but it has an elegance that I just wasn’t looking for this time. I wanted a gorilla. I turned to where some of the best Cab in this country comes from, Washington State, and the inimitable Quilceda Creek. We have two different vintages of their Bordeaux-style blend, and I thought it would be interesting to taste them side-by-side because the blends are different (after the high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon). After reviewing the tasting notes on the 2010, we realized that it would also pair well with the dessert we had in mind. We had a plan.
COURSE 1: Spicy Crab Salad, Oven Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, Crusted Filet
David and Kathryn had the toughest job of all. Having a burly wine for a first course is difficult enough; pairing food with it takes it to another level. True to form, they nailed it. The spiciness of the crab salad, the smoky flavor of the tomatoes, and the richness of the filet mignon melded together, delivering an explosion of flavor. Pairing it with the Chianti Classico Riserva, which must spend at least two years in oak and at least three months aging in the bottle, was inspired. Broad-shouldered and velvety, it was elegant enough to be the first wine, powerful enough to go with the theme. A spectacular effort.
Pairing: 2009 Fontodi Chianti Classico Riserva
COURSE 2: Roasted Portabellas Stuffed with Carmelized Root Vegetables, and Homemade Paneer
We knew that Neal and Jim were experimenting with the cheese. We didn’t know what else they had in mind. In addition to the meaty flavors that the mushrooms and root vegetables provided, the texture of the dish was deliciously thick. Bringing it all together was a ripe balsamic vinaigrette, which provided just enough acidity to brighten the dish but not clash with the wines. They paired two wines, one a classic choice from the Medoc and one an outside-the-box selection from southwest France. The Medoc, 2009 Château Les Grands Chênes, was spot on. The right amount of tannin, fruit, and balance to call out all the layers of the dish. The other wine, 2007 Château Bouscassé Madiran is a blend of 60% Tannat (a grape I’ll confess to never having heard of), 25% Cab Franc (now we’re talking my language) and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. With slightly more residual sweetness and aromatics, it took the pairing to another level. It turned the Medoc (which objectively as a straight drinker, I liked better) into a baseline for showing off the dish. Another inspired piece of work.
Pairing: 2009 Château Les Grands Chênes and 2007 Château Bouscassé Madiran
INTERMEZZO: Honeybell Orange and Greek Basil Sorbetto
With all the giant flavors, we realized that we needed something to cleanse the palate after the second dish. We lingered more than 90 minutes between the second course and the third, giving our taste buds a good scrub and a little rest. This was 100% Gretchyn’s idea. She wanted to do blood oranges, but they’re seasonal (even the juice), so we found used the honeybells instead. The basil came right out of the garden. She made it the night before and we pulled it out of the freezer just a few minutes before serving. The blend of the citrus with the greenness of the basil worked like nobody’s business. It definitely reset us for the next course.
MAIN COURSE: Grilled Tuna Steaks, Classic Mashed Potatoes, Shallot and Nutmeg Creamed Kale, Port/Shallot Reduction
Serving enormous tannic wines screams steak to me—fatty rib-eyes. The problem with that is we have two folks who don’t eat beef or pork. That generally doesn’t stop us from using beef (like Kathryn and David did on the first course), it just makes us be creative.
During our brainstorming, we came up with the idea of taking high quality tuna steaks, seasoning them like beef, and grilling them. We happened to be at Mise en Place the week before, so I asked Chef Marty if we were headed in a good direction. He said “Absolutely.” We were off to the races. We had considered a kind of surf and turf with both tuna and regular steaks for the folks who eat it, but the tuna looked so good that we abandoned the beef altogether. From there, it was answering the simple question “what goes with steak?” We chose kale instead of spinach simply because we like the texture better. Even boiled and creamed, the long-leaf kale keeps some of its toothiness, which contrasted quite nicely with both the creamy potatoes and the meaty tuna. I oiled the steaks and then crusted them with Penzey’s Chicago Steak Seasoning. I heated the grill to its max, about 750F. Stopwatch in hand, I cooked them for 2 minutes per side. They rested for 5 minutes as we plated up everything else. I don’t recall ever cooking good tuna steaks at home before. We’ll definitely do it again.
The 2005 QC is made in the style which I love, namely using a noteworthy amount (in this case 9%) of Cavernet Franc. It’s then rounded out with 7% Merlot. Descriptors like “ample,” “plush,” and “enormous” come to mind. The cedar and pencil lead aromas merged with the flavors of the tuna’s seasonings as the tannins gripped the meat. Everything would have been right at home at a high end steak house. The 2010 also worked as advertised. About 84% Cab, 15% Merlot, and a few drops of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot, the fruit was slightly riper, making it both a great finisher with the last few bites of the main course and excellent companion for dessert. Our allocations of the wines of Quilceda Creek are small, so it’s great to be reminded on the infrequent times we drink them just how amazing they are. If you can, get on their mailing list.
Pairing: 2005 and 2010 Quilceda Creek Red Wine Columbia Valley
DESSERT: Chocolate Crust Cheesecake with Fresh Dark Cherries
Inspired by a recipe we found at tasteofhome.com, we substituted the darker cherries (pitted and halved) for the sweeter strawberries. We also used 6 4-inch individual tart pans instead of a larger one. We passed on drizzling it with chocolate, thinking (correctly, as it turned out) that it would be too chocolatey, adding instead a little homemade vanilla whipped cream to bring out the vanilla flavors in the wine. It was the perfect dessert to close the evening. The richness of the chocolate blended perfectly with the creamy cheesecake and bright bite of the cherry.
Five hours later, we were done, another successful Dinner Gang in the books, with Jim and Neal already throwing out idea for number 18. Dinner Gang is certainly one of the highlights of our month, as we get to do some of the things we love most with some of the people we love most.