Beef is to Americans as bread and wine are to the French, food writer Molly O’Neill wrote in her cookbook, “A Well-Seasoned Appetite.”
That big slab of tasty, marbled meat — love it or not — gives us an excuse to circle the wagons, come together and realize that we are not alone.
Happily, a juicy cut of chargrilled New York steak is also a great excuse to pop that bottle of cabernet sauvignon you’ve been saving for a special occasion, such as Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve.
Healdsburg chef Dustin Valette started dreaming about the perfect food-and-wine pairing for cabernet while drinking a 2015 Aperture cab with his friend, winemaker Jesse Katz of Aperture Cellars in Healdsburg. Valette came up with a dish that pushes all the right buttons of the wine, from accenting its herb and spice notes to taming the bitter tannins with fat. The wine has layers of red fruit and spice in front and a lingering finish of toasted oak.
“Jesse and I were sipping his new Aperture cabernet while talking about food,” Valette recalled. “One glass led to another and the next thing we knew we had concocted the ultimate wintertime food-and-wine pairing — charred steaks and red wine — perfect for those festive moments.”
The two friends share a similar work ethic and a no-holds-barred approach to life as well as to food and wine.
As a winemaker, Katz likes to boost the wine’s characteristics and concentration through dry-farming, careful crop thinning, bleeding off of grape juice, cold soaks and a mix of hot and cold fermentations.
As a chef, Valette tries to augment the flavor of the charred steak by pairing it with complex, umami-laden ingredients that keep the palate elevated while complementing the wine’s herbacious, vegetal and spice notes.
So he came up with a dish that would make the big, red wine shine — Peppercorn-Crusted New York Steak — and polished it to a fine sheen by adding a buttery mushroom fondue, roasted bone marrow and potato-and-pepper hash.
“You sear the mushrooms, then add butter and thyme and red wine,” he said. “You are building all these flavors, and the charred steak adds a note of bitterness.”
When explaining his pairing, Valette uses the metaphor of a valley and a mountain peak to describe the flavor ride provided by serving a big, juicy steak with a big cab. You start upwards on your journey, taking a bite of the mushrooms and then the bone marrow before taking a bite of the steak and a sip of the wine, which takes you over the top.
“You crunch down — that’s the peak of the flavor — and when you swallow that’s the valley,” he said. “Then you take a bite of mushroom and bone marrow. That keeps the flavor elevated for a longer time.”
Taking a sip of the cabernet helps cut through the fat clinging to your tongue, he said, clearing your palate for another layer of flavor from the second bite of the mushrooms and bone marrow.
So instead of a sharp, jerky, rollercoaster ride, the food-and-wine pairing takes you on a longer, smoother and more satisfying plateau at the summit.
“The roasted bone marrow and umami flavor of the mushrooms keeps your palate elevated,” he said. “There’s such good umami flavor in there.”