I mentioned in last week’s column some of my ideas about pairing various beers, wines and foods together, and already I’ve gotten a few questions. They mainly involve how someone knows certain things go together before they spend a fair amount of money during a trip to the store. Pretty much anyone who cooks even semi-regularly is willing to experiment and improve, and I’m one who has been lucky enough to make a fair living doing so.
I have difficulty with so-called “fusion” cuisines because I think most are simply substituting a local ingredient for the traditional. For instance, it’s not much of a stretch to substitute crawfish for shrimp, rename the dish as something “Cajun-” and charge an extra dollar. That’s not a “new” cuisine.
The French wine industry is based on the idea of terroir, which Wikipedia says “can be loosely translated as ‘a sense of place,’ which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product.” In other words, the climate, the soil, surrounding plants (and pests) and other factors work together to make the grape (and the resulting wine) what it is. The same grape, grown in a different terroir, can produce a remarkably different wine from the same grape grown only a few miles away.
If I’m doing a salmon dish, for example, I’ll start with looking where the fish is from. Scotland? The Pacific Northwest? As this fish is swimming along, what is around it? In the case of Pacific Northwest, there is plenty of wild dill and wild green onion. There are mushrooms and various edible, wild greens and a few grains and berries. Any of these things are going to work well with the salmon. Similarly, wines produced in the same terroir will usually pair best – and Washington and Oregon produce some great ones.
We see this same thing all the time locally in a simple plate of jambalaya or bowl of gumbo. The duck, chicken, hogs for sausage, the rice and whatnot usually come from the same region and go very well together. In other words, foods that are best are those usually available naturally and nearby. The locavore movement isn’t new. It’s just that modern refrigeration, transport and the addition of various preservatives have made foods from farther away more available and less costly. Sadly, I think we’ve taken this much too far with what I call the McDonaldization of our regional cuisines.
There are times, such as last week, when something entirely unexpected hits the palate and opens up an entire new culinary direction. While at Tracey’s, I tried the new Lemon Wheat beer from Abita. The first taste that washed through my mouth was kalamata olive, and this was reinforced with each additional sip (in addition, of course, to the wheat and lemon). Immediately, I’m thinking about what else is produced in the same region as kalamata olives. Already, I’m seeing a plate with some olive and pine-nut hummus, some lamb with garam masala and maybe some tomato and lightly grilled haloumi cheese. Very Mediterranean – and not exactly what the fine folks at Abita had in mind. Now I just have to get all that together and try it, because I know it will work well. I’ll report back.
When I’m in an experimental mood (which is usually), sometimes you’ll find me in the grocery store with my eyes closed and imagining a certain terroir. To me, it’s the main fun of cooking.
The right music helps too, while you’re cooking. Maybe I’ll put this Mediterranean dish together while listening to the soundtrack of “Zorba the Greek.”
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.