BY GRETCHEN MURRAY
Special to the Record-Eagle
SUTTONS BAY — Chefs, vintners and just plain great cooks have always fretted over food and wine pairings.
Karen Pontius at the Suttons Bay Trading Company says matching the perfect wine with a great dish is easier than it seems — if you follow her logic.
Karen and her husband Kim are owners of Suttons Bay Trading Company, distributing more than 300 separate spices and their own Karen-created spice blends in addition to herbs, seasoning blends, rubs and marinades, flavorings, sausage supplies and gourmet cooking products to restaurants and meat markets across the country.
A trained chef who loves the restaurant industry, Karen realized early on that its demands would be too time consuming for a mother with young children.
"A lot of people think when you graduate with a chef's degree, you go to work in a kitchen, but that's not necessarily true," Pontius said. "The spice business allows me to be creative.
"Many people talk about pairing food and wine when what they're really pairing is the wine and the spices, herbs and other seasoning elements like salt and sugar. We always ask people if they have ever tasted just a plain boiled chicken or a plain boiled or fried piece of meat — no salt, pepper spices or herbs. It's really the spices that your nose identifies."
A few years ago, the Pontiuses began learning more about pairings by working with Ryan Sterkenburg, owner of Gill's Pier Vineyard and Winery on Leelanau Peninsula, to offer sensory tasting experiences. The events combined the wine, the food and the spices. Some spices were being used in the food and some were noticeable characteristics of the wine. Their findings bore out Pontius' theory.
"When participants' olfactory senses were stimulated by smelling or tasting the raw spices or spice blends before tasting the food or wine, they could more easily recognize these compounds in the food or wine," she said.
Pontius suggests wine and food lovers test the theory on their own.
"For example, Gill's Pier carries a wonderful Cabernet Franc that is described as having blackberry, cherry and cocoa overtones," she said. "If you take in the scent of fresh blackberries or cherries first, it will be easier to recognize those hints of flavor in the wine. As far as a spice to go with it, I would recommend Garam Masala, a blend of cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and black pepper."
Pontius suggests people break out of their plain palate comfort zones by putting together a few pairings on their own.
"If you grew up with salt, pepper and sugar on the table and garlic salt was considered an exotic spice, maybe it's time to try something new," she said.
Spanish Meatballs in Almond Sauce
2 oz. white or wheat bread, crust removed, soaked in 3 T. water
1 lb. lean ground pork
1 c. finely chopped onions
2 t. minced garlic
2 T. chopped fresh parsley
1 egg, beaten
½ t. Suttons Bay Trading five spice mix
¼ t. ground cloves
Freshly ground nutmeg, salt and black pepper to taste
Flour, for coating; olive oil for frying
Soak the bread in water for 5 minutes, then squeeze out excess water and put bread in a medium-size bowl. Add the pork, onion, garlic, parsley and egg, then season generously with five spice mix, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. Knead the ingredients well together to form a smooth mixture.
Spread some flour on a plate. With floured hands, shape the meat mixture into about 30 equal-size balls, then roll each meatball in flour until coated. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy bottom skillet, add the meatballs, in batches, so that they do not overcrowd the skillet, and cook for 4-5 minutes, or until browned on all sides. Remove the meatballs from the skillet and set aside.
2 T. olive oil
1 oz. bread cubes
2/3 c. blanched almonds
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2/3 c. white wine
Salt and pepper
Up to 2 c. vegetable or chicken stock
To make the almond sauce, heat the olive oil in the same skillet in which the meatballs were cooked (as long as the pan has not been burned). Break the bread into small pieces, add to the skillet with the almonds and cook gently, stirring frequently, until the bread and almonds are golden brown. Add the garlic and cook for an additional 30 seconds, then pour in the wine and boil for 1-2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and let cool slightly. Transfer the almond mixture to a food processor. Pour in the vegetable stock and blend the mixture until smooth. Return the sauce to the skillet.
Carefully add the cooked meatballs to the almond sauce and let simmer for about 10 minutes. Add more chicken stock if the sauce seems too thick. Season with salt and pepper. Serve in a dish sprinkled with lemon juice and chopped parsley to garnish. Serve hot with crusty bread.
Wine Pairing: Gill's Pier 2010 Cabernet Franc/Merlot
-- Recipe courtesy Chefs Harlan "Pete" Peterson and Perry Harmon
Classic Thai Fish Cakes
1 lb white-fleshed fish fillets
6 kaffir lime leaves, snipped into thin strips with scissors
3 T. coconut milk
2 T. fish sauce
½ t. shrimp paste OR 1 extra T. fish sauce
½ T. chili powder
1/3 t. ground cumin
¼ t. ground coriander
½ t. brown sugar
3 green onions, sliced
1 thumb-size piece galangal OR ginger, grated
3 cloves garlic
1 red chili, sliced, OR ½ t. dried crushed chili
1/3 to ½ cucumber (to accompany cakes)
Oil for high temp. frying
To serve: Thai sweet chili sauce, lime wedges, handful fresh coriander
Rinse fish and pat thoroughly dry (if using frozen, the fish will be more moist so be sure to dry it as well as you can). Cut into chunks and place in food processor or large food chopper.
In a cup, combine the coconut milk, fish sauce, shrimp paste, chili powder, cumin, ground coriander and brown sugar. Stir with a fork to combine, then pour into the processor over the fish.
Add remaining ingredients (kaffir lime leaf strips, green onion, galangal/ginger, garlic and chili). Pulse to create a thick fish paste.
Picking up a small amount in your hand (about the size of a golf ball) pat the paste into a small cake and set on a clean plate. Note that traditional Thai fish cakes are small (about 2 inches in diameter and 3/4 to 1 inch thick) and not too thick. Tips: If your paste is too wet to easily form into cakes, add a little flour or bread crumbs to the mix. As you continue making the cakes, it helps to rinse your hands every so often with cool water to prevent paste from sticking.
Set plate of cakes in the refrigerator for 10 minutes to firm up. Meanwhile, prepare your pan for frying as well as your garnishes. Cut the cucumber length-wise, then dice up into small cubes and set aside. Pour oil into a small frying pan or wok (at least 1 inch deep).
Heat oil. When hot enough (a bread crumb should sizzle and cook immediately when dropped in), gently place cakes in oil. Allow to fry 30 seconds to 1 minute before turning, gently lifting cakes from the bottom of the pan (they may stick a little). Fry until golden-brown and drain on paper towel.
Serve fish cakes immediately with the chopped cucumber and Thai sweet chili sauce drizzled over. Top with fresh coriander and a squeeze of lime juice just before eating. Excellent like this, or served with rice for a main course dish. Serves 4-6 as an appetizer or 2-3 as a main course.
Wine pairing: Gill's Pier 2011 Royce
-- Recipe from about.com/Thai Food
Perfect Pairings is an occasional feature presenting suggestions for recipes that pair well with specific wines from around the region. To submit items for Perfect Pairings, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 933-1477.