Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Winter Champagne Party

Elegant hors d'oeuvres to bring out sparkling wines' festive spirit
Harvey Steiman
Issue: December 31, 2002

Theoretically, Champagne goes with anything. Because sparkling wines are resilient enough to make pleasant companions to most foods, deciding what to serve with a celebratory sparkling wine requires no great insight into the ups and downs of food-and-wine matching.

On the other hand, Champagne, like any other wine, can react to flavors and textures in food. Tart or sweet tastes can change the way a bubbly feels in the mouth. Earthy or fruity notes can steer the flavors in the wine in different directions.

In this menu of bite-size goodies for an hors d'oeuvre party, each item makes a sparkling wine sing a different tune. I sampled a notable Champagne and a California sparkling wine with each item, often with dramatic effect.

The two wines tasted display characteristics typical to their types. The Bollinger Brut Champagne Special Cuvée NV (91, $45) weaves mature notes of toast and nuts through the citrusy-tart character, yet maintains that even handed sense of refinement and focus through it all. The Iron Horse Brut Sonoma County Green Valley Classic Vintage 1997 (88, $28) shows more fruit and a touch of sweetness, but it's subtle, with a lean feel and pear, yeast and vanilla flavors, gaining nuance and depth on the finish.

The food has plenty of personality, but it all works well with the wines. Mushroom-Prosciutto Rolls, for example, wrap thin slices of the Italian ham around a filling of portabella and porcini sautéed with pears, spiked with a tart arugula leaf for contrast. The flavors cancel out the earthiness of the Bollinger and bring out its liveliness and fruit flavors. The Iron Horse becomes more austere, turning toward a tart, bright finish.

Squash-Pistachio Soup, served in espresso cups to make a delicate appetizer portion, has a bit of natural sweetness of its own from the squash and leeks and from the dash of sugar used to enhance the flavor. It also has richness from nuts and cream. The soup negates the earthy notes in the champagne and emphasizes its racy fruit -- like biting into a crisp, juicy pippin apple. The California sparkler strikes a more harmonious balance, with its fruit and earthy flavors brought out in equal measure.

Suspecting from the French wine's success with the prosciutto rolls that the Bollinger likes mushroom flavors, I stirred a little of the leftover porcini-soaking liquid into the soup. That lit up the Bollinger, making it rounder and more complex. If you're serving a more mature-style Champagne, consider adding some of the mushroom liquid to the soup recipe.

Bite-Size Crostini With Smoked Trout Salad plays on the Italian idea of savory-topped toasted bread slices, but is easier to eat as finger food because it's served in smaller pieces. To keep the rustic feel, spread the salad over these small pieces one by one, even though it would easier to spread the salad on the halved loaf first, then cut the bite-size pieces.

The salad will taste familiar to those who know New York-style whitefish salad. It has a similar texture and smoky, creamy flavors. The surprise is a touch of horseradish, which inevitably enhances Champagne. The French sparkler becomes broader, spicier and toastier with the crostini, while maintaining its internal balance. The California bubbly turns toward austerity and picks up a distinct black pepper note on the finish.

The scallop dish is the fanciest hors d'oeuvre of the four. Green apple shreds cook in white wine, to be topped with warm scallop slices and dollops of fresh caviar. Serve the apples and scallops in soup spoons, from which guests can easily eat the morsel in one bite. With the dish, the French wine turns crisp and vibrant, while the Californian sees its fruit flavors enhanced.

As always with food-and-wine matching, the nuances are fun to notice, but the main thing about hors d'oeuvres is that the wines taste good with them. Think of the extra flavor and texture changes as a holiday bonus.

Green Apple Ragout With Scallops and Caviar

  • 2 medium-size green apples, peeled, cored and coarsely shredded
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (or Champagne)
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon Calvados
  • 2 teaspoons hot pepper jelly
  • Salt and freshly ground white pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
  • 1 tablespoon or less lemon juice (if needed)
  • 1/2 pound large sea scallops, cut crosswise into a total of 24 slices
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • 2 ounces high quality fresh black caviar

Toss the shredded apple with the wine to keep the apple from browning. Transfer the apples and wine to a nonreactive sauté pan. Mix in the chopped shallot, Calvados and hot pepper jelly. Boil the mixture uncovered until the moisture evaporates, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and quickly season to taste with salt, white pepper and parsley. Add a little lemon juice, just a teaspoon or so at first, if the balance doesn't seem lively enough.

Arrange the scallop slices in one layer on top of the hot apple mixture, seasoning them lightly with salt and white pepper. Brush the scallops with the melted butter and cover the pan. Let the scallops cook in the residual heat of the pan for 5 minutes. Line up two dozen soup spoons on a work surface or a serving dish. Transfer about 1 tablespoon of the warm apple mixture to each spoon. Place a scallop slice atop each mound of apple ragout and top each scallop with about 1/2 teaspoon of caviar. Serve immediately. Makes 24 servings.

Bite-Size Crostini With Smoked Trout Salad

  • 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
  • 2/3 cup sour cream or crème fraîche
  • 8 smoked trout fillets, crumbled
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 loaf (about 1 pound) sourdough baguette
  • 4 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

In a bowl, mix the horseradish, sour cream or crème fraîche and the crumbled trout. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let the mixture sit for 30 minutes. The mixture can be refrigerated, but should be brought to room temperature before serving.

Cut the baguette in half lengthwise, then into slices about 1/2 inch thick. Toast the slices in the oven and arrange them on a platter. Spread a bit of the trout mixture on each slice. Sprinkle with chives. Makes about 40 crostini.

Mushroom-Prosciutto Rolls

  • 1 small package (1/2 ounce) dried porcini
  • 1 portabella mushroom (5 to 6 ounces), finely chopped
  • 1/2 Bartlett pear, peeled, cored and finely chopped
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup sour cream or crème fraîche
  • 3/4 pound thinly sliced prosciutto (20 to 24 slices)
  • 2 bunches arugula leaves, rinsed and toweled dry

Soak the porcini in hot water until softened, about 30 minutes. Drain well and chop fine. In a large skillet, sauté the chopped porcini, portabella, pear and shallots in olive oil over medium heat until they are nicely browned but not dry, then season them lightly with salt and pepper. Off heat, stir in the sour cream or crème fraîche and taste for seasoning. Set this mixture aside.

Cut the prosciutto slices into pieces about 3 to 4 inches in length. Place an arugula leaf on the prosciutto slice so it extends past the edge. Spoon a generous teaspoon of the mushroom mixture on the prosciutto and arugula and roll into a cone. Repeat with the remaining prosciutto, lettuce and mushroom mixture. The moisture of the ham holds the cone-shaped rolls together without toothpicks. If they must be prepared in advance, cover rolls tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate, bringing to room temperature before serving. Makes 40 to 48 small rolls.

Squash-Pistachio Soup

  • 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, ground fine in a food processor with
  • 1 pound winter squash, peeled and cut into manageable chunks (banana squash, hubbard squash, butternut squash, acorn squash or pumpkin)
  • 1 leek, thinly sliced, dark green discarded
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups strong chicken stock
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped pistachios
  • 3/4 cup cream, half-and-half or milk
  • Salt, white pepper and nutmeg to taste
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup mushroom-soaking liquid, strained (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bake the squash in a lightly oiled pan for 45 minutes, or until fork-tender. If the squash starts to brown, cover the pan lightly with foil.

In a heavy-bottomed 3- to 4-quart saucepan, sauté the leek in half the butter until soft. Add the sugar, the stock and the baked squash. Cover the pan and let the soup cook over low heat for at least one hour, preferably two. Stir the mixture occasionally to prevent sticking and scorching.

Puree the soup in a blender or food processor. If there are strings or fibers, strain the soup through a sieve. Return the soup to a clean pan. The soup can be prepared to this point, refrigerated, and reheated when needed.

Toast the chopped pistachios in a 350 degrees F oven or toaster oven for just a couple of minutes, to bring up their aroma. Set them aside.

To finish the soup, bring it to a boil and add the cream, half-and-half or milk. Immediately remove the soup from the heat. Do not let it boil again. Season it to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir in the mushroom-soaking liquid, if desired. Serve soup in espresso cups and garnish with the chopped pistachios. Makes about 4 cups, more than enough for 24 servings.


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