Home Cooking

Points on Pairing

October 15 2013 - 9:00 AM

For me, it was a 2005 Savagnin Vin Jaune from Domaine de Montbourgeau served with turtle consommé, the second course of what would later become one of the most memorable meals of my life. The funky, intense white Jura wine had been aged in the fino Sherry flor-covered style, developing oxidized, complex flavor, yet remaining ethereally light. The soup was deceptively simple, with delicate fennel, carrots and leeks brought together by a rich broth just different enough to be noticed, but just familiar enough to be comforting.

Individually, each was amazing. Together, they were other-worldly.

Most food lovers have similar memories of a pairing that elevated a good meal to a great one, and once they get a nip of that, hum-drum dining won’t cut it anymore. But where does that magic come from? How can a foodie manage this transformation at home?

What to Drink - CoverEnter What to Drink with What you Eat from James Beard Award-wining authors Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. This book manages to be both a serious how-to and a casual read by interweaving pictures, interviews, lists, tips and quotes from many personalities in the hospitality and restaurant industries. Flipping the book open to a random page might reveal a philosophy lesson from Chef Daniel Boulud, a tasting menu from Alinea, or suggestions on drink choice for cilantro, cinnamon and coconut milk.

The first quarter of the book is an introduction to pairing. It is meant to give the reader some general guidelines and to prime them to appreciate what a proper food and drink partnership can offer. Here, for example, the authors present tips on how to structure longer progressive dinners, and later introduce one of my favorite features, the 5 point pairing scale. (Scoring any experimental combination from “-2” (abysmally contradictory) through “0” (benign) up to “+2” (revelatory) gives quantitative meaning the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”)

The rest of the book is something of an encyclopedia. There is the “What to Drink with What you Eat” section, — useful for looking up a food and finding a beverage match, — but there is also a chapter on “What to Eat with What you Drink” for those more like me who pick their bottle out before opening the fridge to start cooking. Chefs and sommeliers then contribute lists of “Desert Island Wines” and restaurants provide examples of their own classic power pairings.

Throughout, the writing is simple, clear and devoid of snobbery, and the coverage is remarkably in-depth. This is a book that is accessible to the non-professional or novice, but can be equally powerful in the hands of a dining and drinking veteran. Such balance is not an easy feat, and it’s the reason that the book has become the go-to on the subject.

What to Drink, however, does show its age in one regard. Published in 2006, much of the wine advice is timeless and stays as true today as then, but the intervening years have pushed spirits and cocktails from the bar to the dining table. There is coverage of aperitifs and some nice advice from Gaz Regan on the pitfalls of trying to partner naked, full-proof liquor, but in 2013 the cocktail pairing palate needs more than a token Cosmopolitan or two.

Likewise, I wish there were more emphasis on non-alcoholics. The book promises extensive coverage of coffee, tea, water and soda, but I found those features lacking (Doing breakfast? Consider coffee!). Today, home soda machines mean that cucumber fizzies can be whipped up quickly and curiosities like Thai drinking vinegars are nearly as available as vintage Bordeaux.

However such quibbles are small. The truth is that there are over 350 pages of great ideas that can be put to use immediately. Tonight’s dinner – be it coq au vin or White Castle sliders – has an entry in there somewhere. Pick up a copy and find it now.


Andrew and KarenAndrew Dornenburg and Karen Page will soon be in Chicago for a book signing and meet-and-greet. Stop by The Spice House in Old Town (1512 North Wells Street) on Wednesday, October 16 from 6-7pm. Appetizers will be provided (inspired by the couple’s other bestseller, The Flavor Bible) and books will be available for purchase. The event is free, but an RSVP is requested. Call 312-274-0378 or email spices@thespicehouse.com.