A Perfect–Imperfect Balancing Act at The Cellar Table
Which one of these is not like the others?
I love my kids. More than anything. But, I also love entertaining. And, sometimes the former makes the latter just a tad more complicated than it should be. I’ve always thought that a great challenge on Top Chef would be to prepare a 5-course meal while babysitting two children. And that’s exactly what it feels like I’m doing whenever I host a dinner party.
Me, my wife, and our two young girls reside in a Brooklyn coop in which many of the residents are families with young children. Several of us have become pretty good friends, and we recently invited two couples over for dinner. My wife had the ingenious idea of hiring a babysitter to watch our combined 6 kids in an apartment upstairs while we eat, drink, and be merry. With the kids out of the equation, all we would have to worry about is keeping our glasses full.
But, first I had to decide what to serve. The food would be easy: I keep a spreadsheet of dishes I like to make in various seasons. The wine, however, is something I often struggle with — no matter how much I love drinking vino.
This dinner would be somewhat challenging. First, many of the dishes really called for a white. I don’t know how true this is, but my own anecdotal evidence suggests to me that many casual wine drinkers prefer to drink red with dinner. Secondly, I was conflicted about what to serve with my pasta course: sweet corn and mascarpone agnolotti with caramelized honey. The dish has quite a bit of sweetness to it, but it’s also rich — there is a lot of butter involved.
My gut told me to go with an off-dry riesling, but I had two problems with that: first, there is a long-standing misconception that all riesling is sweet. I didn’t want to reinforce that stereotype. Secondly, whatever wine I chose for this course also had to be paired with the preceding course, and I didn’t want us drinking wine with a discernible amount of sweetness for such a long period of time.
Once I selected by wines and shopped for all produce and ingredients, it was on to cooking. These types of meals usually involve several hours of prep a couple days in advance and about 8 hours of cooking on game day. Such a long stretch of intense concentration is tough enough, but let me give you a sense of what it’s like with kids:
The Cooking Parent Paradigm
It’s noon. I’ve been prepping since 7:00AM and still have a long way to go. I’m working on the sauce for the agnolotti. The tricky part here is getting the honey to the right stage of caramelization. Too little, and you’re just left with an overly sweet sauce with little depth of flavor. Too much, and you have a bitter concoction that you wouldn’t serve to anyone. Of course, the moment something like this goes from perfectly brown to burnt is the exact moment you turn away. So, as you can imagine, I needed to keep a close eye on it.
With intense concentration, I watch the honey slowly begin to bubble. I stir occasionally to ensure even browning of the luscious nectar.
“I want chips and dip, yo!”, my six-year-old daughter yells from the couch, where she’s watching a YouTube video.
“Hang on one second, I’m busy!”, I reply, questioning the merits of my apartment’s open floor plan and my usage of slang around my kids, all while analyzing the viscosity of the bubbles in the honey as it begins to take on a hint of color.
“Where’s my chips and dip?!,” she asks again, impatiently.
I give the honey a semi-vigorous stir, bring her the snack, and then hustle back to the kitchen.
Time to focus.
“Can I have water, please?” my youngest daughter, four years of age, politely asked. How could I say no to that? While I give the honey another stir, she adds to her request.
“ (something inaudible) blue cup, please.”
“What did she say?” I asked myself. “Sounds like she wants it in her blue cup? Oh, come on, I don’t know where that is.” Frustrated, I stir yet again and then spend the next 30 seconds or so ensuring I have, indeed, the blue cup. Filling it with water, I stir the pot again, and bring the princess her beverage.
She lifts the cup to her mouth, but before taking a sip, examines the cup and frowns.
“I said NOT the blue cup!”
Time To Dine
And this, my friends, is how it goes down at my house.
Despite the interruptions, the sauce came out perfectly, and before I knew it, it was almost dinner time. I cleaned the kitchen for the fifth time that day and got about 30 minutes of downtime before our neighbors showed up. As we sat around our living room, catching up on our summers and all the “drama” our kids went through during the back-to-school season, a chilled espresso cup of watermelon gazpacho was served.
For this amuse bouche, which was slightly sweet and a bit spicy, I served a sparkling rose by a producer in New Mexico. I know what you’re thinking. New Mexico? This producer’s sparklers are actually a great value, and when I’m spending a lot on food, this is the last thing I want to splurge on. It’s also fun to explain it’s from New Mexico. It reminds me of the 1980’s movie Can’t Buy Me Love, when a highschool cheerleader lies to her friends, saying that the fancy suede jacket she “borrowed” from her mother was actually a gift from her boyfriend, a freshman college football star in Iowa. Her friend, trying too hard to fit in, says “Oh yes, the best leather comes from Rome, Paris, and Des Moines.”
Once we were all seated, we moved on to the first plated course: marinated arctic char in a cucumber broth from the Gramercy Tavern cookbook. I could imagine several different wines working with this light, refreshing dish: gruner veltliner, riesling, sauvignon blanc could all work, and I even considered a sake to compliment the dashi-tinged broth. However, whichever wine I chose here had to also work with the aforementioned sweet corn agnolotti. After much deliberation, I went with a gruner. It’s high but balanced level of acidity would work well with both dishes.
The fourth and final savory course was basil-crusted halibut with an emulsion of Menton lemon oil (that I recently picked up after eating at Mirazur in the south of France — but that’s a story for another day) and marinated tomatoes. Since we’ve been drinking strictly rose and white up until this point, I really wanted to go with a red wine here. I know there’s a broad misconception that red wine does not go with fish, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
While you can certainly drink red wine with fish, it’s best to go with something on the lighter side, certainly with low tannins. In such a situation, I typically — almost always — reach for a bottle of Beaujolais. I even have my own mantra:
“When you don’t know, Beau is the way to go.”
I didn’t really feel like Beaujoulais, though, so I considered other options. Specifically, burgundy. I thought a Volnay or something else from the Cote De Beaune would work, However, I ended up going with an Oregon producer who makes his Pinot in very Burgundian style. It was a great choice, as the wine was a hit.
I once heard that fig leaves make a unique and delicious ice cream, but never imagined I’d be able to procure them. Last time I checked, Brooklyn didn’t lay on the Mediterranean. But, last year I was walking around the corner with my mother-in-law, who is from Iran, when she spotted what she said was a fig tree. It was early winter, so there was no fruit, and I wasn’t sure if I believed it was a fig tree. But, low and behold, 8 months later there were figs! It was a really fitting ice cream to serve this evening, since our respective kids have attended school literally 10 feet or so from the tree; or as I put it, our kids and the fig leaves come from the same terroir.
The dessert was accompanied by fresh figs and an 18-year-old calvados by the famed producer Camet. That stuff is liquid gold and really brought home the feeling that were heading into autumn.
For a good couple hours, we didn’t have a care in the world. And that’s the thing with wine in a situation like this. If it does its job right, it’s almost invisible — enhancing the food and conversation, and creating bonds and memories that will last a lifetime. As we finished off the dessert and calvados, there was a knock on the door. It was the babysitter. One of our kids has peed her pants and was crying to come home.
At least we made it all the way through our meal.
About the Author
E.R. Silverbush was born and raised in Syracuse, NY and was an extremely picky eater until the age of 25. He has a strong affinity for Mediterranean and French cuisine, but his true love lies with Buffalo wings. His favorite wines include Burgundy and Côte Rotie, and his favorite pairing is Tokaji Aszu with Foie Gras. A former competitor on the Emeril Lagasse-hosted show On The Menu, E.R. also enjoys playing piano, spending time with his family, and daydreaming about having an actual wine cellar in his small-ish Brooklyn apartment.
Recipes: Gramercy Tavern Cookbook
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