Food & Drink, Libations

Time for the Dr. Booze challenge

Are you fond of rubs? Salmon or steelhead? Barbecuing? Barbecue sauces? These are murder on wine pairings as thousands of amateur sommelier can attest. What in the name of all that’s decent do you pair with salmon, especially salmon with a spicy/sweet rub?

Time for the Dr. Booze Challenge!

I have tasted more bad pairings around salmon and steelhead than any other single food. Not only is the fish hard to pair on it’s own (it doesn’t really lend itself to white, and virtually all reds are too much for it) once you add some kind of spice or glaze you really have a puzzle.

Slightly sweet sauces taste great with salmon, but sweeteners are total wine killers. Pinot Noir is the sommelier choice but I’ve never found it a convincing match. Theoretically there’s a perfect specific PN out there but Iíve never found it. My preference is a really dry sherry served ice cold, but try to get a dinner party to buy in on that one.

So what do you pair with the unpairable that your guests will drink? This was the problem posed to me over the phone by a friend. Nancy knows her way around a wine list, so I was flattered but a bit surprised when she asked me for advice. I asked Nancy for her budget and the menu.

Price is important to all of us. Nobody wants to be on hook for a couple of $K worth of dinner party wine. Nancy said she’d like to stay under $20 a bottle. Six guests and two hosts make a party of eight. I suggested Nancy buy Pink and Seaview Brut, four bottles each. Note that had she lashed out with say a second growth Burgundy she’d be on the hook for 8 times $75, a $600 dinner party.

Pink is an off dry, Pinot Noir based bubbly. Seaview is a dry (very dry by today’s sweet standards) Champenoise style bubbly. These wines are widely distributed across Canada, and neither cost more than $15, so she was only out $120 for the wine. (Theoretically there will be leftovers but despite folks sneering at cheap bubbly, the stuff just seems to evaporate when I open it. Must be that dry prairie air.)

I asked for a favour from Nancy. I requested she and her guests serve as judges of the pairing, which of the two was the better match. Not only would this be useful information for me, Nancy realized right away this was a perfect homework assignment for a dinner party of foodies.

The pairing of choice was Pink; according to Nancy the decision was ìhands down favourite. In general with a slightly sweet dish you want a slightly sweet wine, but the degree of sweetness desired will vary from person to person.

Hereís a brief list of some possible Challenge playoff pairings youíll find entertaining for yourself or a dinner party at the cottage. Feel free to issue periodic challenges or stage an entire playoff series to establish a champion. Wines and styles come and go, as do trends, so this needs to be at least a biannual event. Even monthly isn’t too often…

Trendy Wino Challenge: Santa Margherita Valdobbiadene Prosecco vs. Martini Rose. Prosecco is all the rage at the moment and most are off dry, but Santa Margherita makes a stunning dryer version.

Sales Champ Challenge: Henkell Trocken Rose vs Freixenet Carta Nevada Extra Brut. Freixenet and Henkell have been around for decades as the go-to sparklers for people not wanting unbelt for Champagne. These two are less popular labels of their lineup, the rose from Henkell and the drier version of Freixenet. Both are hugely under appreciated wines (i.e. deals), and worth a try.

Senior’s Slapdown: Beringer White Zinfandel vs. Yellowtail Bubbles. White Zin is one of those wines that gets no respect, including usually from me. But I was surprised how well it went with a curry I had a few nights ago, and you may be too. Yellowtail Bubbles is a wine that’s either an entry level bubbly or the long time favourite label of folks of a certain age. (AKA Zoomers).

Wine Lover Surprise: Yellowglen Pink vs. Barefoot Brut. Seaview is the best Champagne-style bubbly I’ve ever struck at this price. Pink is one of the most food friendly wines I know, and Barefoot Brut will shock a few hardcore winos with the value it delivers. Nuff said. At this price range you really canít go wrong.

Santa Marghertia Valdobbiadene Prosecco, NV. $22.70 *****
Martini Rose, NV. $13.49 ****
Freixenet Carta Nevada Extra Dry, NV. $15.29 ****
Henkell Trocken Rose, NV. $14.99 ****
Beringer White Zinfandel Sparkling, NV. $14.99 ****
Yellowtail Bubbles, NV. $14.49 ****
Barefoot Brut, NV. $14 ****


In addition to being the President of a large national publisher, Nancy is an excellent cook. Here’s her recipe if you want to replicate the challenge in original form. The parenthetic notes are hers and mine.

1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp coriander seed
1 tsp chili powder (Dr B. Suggests ground chipotle substitution)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsp dark brown sugar
4 6-oz (170g) salmon fillets (with or without skin)
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
1/2 cup finely diced onion
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely diced, oil-packed or rehydrated
6 Roma tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
1 bulb roasted garlic
Coarse sea salt and freshly gound black pepper to taste
2 Tbsp unsalted butter or olive oil

Preheat the over to 350 degrees F

Place the cumin and coriander in a small skillet, and dry-roast them over medium-high heat until they are warm and fragrant a few may even pop. (Although obvious, do not let them burn). Once roasted, grind them in a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder reserved for spices. Combine the toasted spices with the chili powder, cinnamon, pepper and sugar.

Prepare the salmon by rubbing all sides with 2 tbsp oil. Coat the top of the salmon evenly with the spice mixture: if the pieces are thick, leaving the sides uncoated for a contrasting colour is a nice touch. Let the salmon rest for 30 minutes or prepare it in advance and refrigerate. Just before cooking, sprinkle with salt and pepper (I skip the salt and pepper at this point).

Saute the onion in 2 Tbsp olive oil until softened. Choose a small skillet for this step ñ one that can hold the tomatoes in a single layer and then go into the oven. (Actually, I end up using a largish skillet so that the tomatoes can, indeed, fit in a single layer). Once the onions are soft, place the sun-dried tomatoes on the onions and arrange the Roma tomatoes, cut side down, on top. Place the skillet in the oven. After about 12-15 minutes, check the tomatoes. If the skins are wrinkled you can slip them off. (The skins do not actually wrinkle – they start to split. I then take a fork, carefully enlarge the split and pull off the skins with my fingers. At this point you run a high risk of burning yourself on the skillet.) Squeeze the roasted garlic into a small bowl, mash, and then add to the tomato mixture and mix carefully so that you do not mash the tomatoes. (I typically transfer to an oven proof casserole and cover to keep warm. If it cools, I place in the oven, or you can zap in the micro.)

Raise the oven temp to 400 degrees F. Heat the butter or oil, preferably in a non-stick skillet, until very hot. Sear the spice rubbed side of the salmon just long enough to set the spices and create a crust. Gently turn the salmon over and transfer the pan to the oven to finish cooking. Depending on the thickness, it will be done in 4-6 minutes, It should be firm to the touch, springy, not soft, but definitely not hard and flaking. Serve with the warm tomato salsa.

They suggest that you can serve with Oven fries or corn on the cob and grilled asparagus. I have served with asparagus. (Dr. Booze would sub in wild rice for the fries.)

James Romanow writes about Wine and all things Boozy for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him @drbooze.