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Pairings: Hors D’Oeuvres That Sparkle

Delectable bites to munch while sipping the bubbly can range far beyond oysters and caviar.

My idea of a great cocktail party does not include cocktails: It calls for Champagne, and plenty of it, along with an interesting range of tantalizing hors d’oeuvres. Oysters make a nice match, especially small sweet ones like Kumomotos. Wide curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese are another classic pairing, as is caviar, which is particularly nice on whole-wheat blinis with crème frâiche. But it’s fun to explore other options as well.

Traditional wisdom tells us what not to serve with the sparkling stuff: anything too strongly flavored, with lemon, vinaigrette, garlic and strong spices being major culprits. The real key to making food compatible with Champagne is subtlety. You can put a little lemon in a marinade or add in a touch of garlic without ruining the pairing. Adapt a recipe that calls for peppers by using only a quarter of the pepper amount called for, then replace another half with celery for crunch, and round it out with some chopped mild fruit.

For flavors that are compatible with sparkling wines, read the descriptors used by experienced tasters (see this issue’s Buying Guide for a good selection) and incorporate those flavors—vanilla, mango and bread, among others—into your cooking. Keep in mind, however, that as with any food and wine pairing, using too much of a flavor will overpower and mask the wine.

This summer I was one of the judges in a Champagne-and-hors-d’oeuvres pairing competition aboard some spectacular yachts in Newport, Rhode Island, sponsored by Showboats International magazine and Charles Heidsieck Champagne, and it yielded excellent examples of what to do—and what not to do. Chefs from the dozens of yachts arrayed for the annual show—all of which are available for charter, some for upwards of $100,000 per week—were asked to suggest menus, with eight dishes chosen for the competition. A few of the chefs developed their recipes based on wine descriptors they’d been given by event organizers rather than their own tastebuds, which yielded some odd combinations (e.g., jerk pork with lavender) that totally wiped out the Champagne.

The winners, on the other hand, called on some ingredients one might not normally think of, in combinations that were palate-pleasing and ever so appropriate with the libations: lamb chops with balsamic vinegar and mango chutney; tuna tartare with radish, mango and parsley potato chips; a “Nantucket Bucket” of lobster, shrimp, asparagus, Gruyère cheese, mushrooms and pignoli, served on toast. The judges’ favorite was a combination of shrimp, mango, green chilies, cilantro, garlic, Parmesan cheese, pignoli and blue corn.

Ultimately, the size of the yacht didn’t relate to the winning recipes (a cheery thought for those of us without mansions and kitchen staff). Third-place winner Bridgett Campbell is chef and first mate aboard the motor sailer Blue Eagle, which has three small cabins and an eat-in kitchen, and is captained by her husband. Second place went to Daniel Escarament of the $35,000-a-week yacht Cookie Monster, a broad-beamed comfortable boat with rooms the size of what you’d see in a house. And winning chef Kimberly Hicks was on her maiden voyage aboard Eastern Star, a converted commercial boat with houseboat-like looks that charters as a floating inn (recipes follow).

Tradition calls for the lightest nonvintage Champagnes and sparklers to be served before dinner: usually fresh and elegant nonvintage brut, blanc de blancs or Prosecco. But using livelier ingredients in your hors d’oeuvres—especially if your Champagne party is an end in itself rather than a means of passing the time until dinner—lets you bring in more powerful vintage Champagne and blanc de noirs. And, if you emphasize sweeter flavors, some rosés and demi-secs work well. Cheers!

Lamb Chops

From chef Daniel Escarament of the yacht Cookie Monster

One dosen’t often think of lamb chops as hors d’oeuvres, but properly frenched rib chops do come with their own handles. (Ask your butcher to do this for you.) The combination of slightly sweet and sllightly sour flavors in this recipe suits it perfectly to dry yet slightly fruity Champagnes.

Champagne recommendation: Try a young vintage Champagne with this dish, like the taut and crisp 1995 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Reserve Brut.

  • 24 small baby lamb rib chops
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Mango chutney
  • Rosemary for garnish

Prepare marinade of lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Marinate lamb chops, refrigerated, at least two hours. Discard the marinade. Pan-sear the lamb chops in a medium-hot skillet til nicely browned and pink inside. Arrange on platter. Garnish with rosemary. Serve with mango chutney.


Green Chili and Cilantro Pesto with Shrimp and Mango in Blue corn Cups

From chef Kimberly Hicks of the yacht Eastern Star

This winning entry in the Newport competition shows how traditional caveats can be thrown out the window when it comes to Champagne-enhancing hors d’oeuvres.

Champagne recommendations: A medium-weight, yeasty-toasty Champagne like Charles Heidsieck’s 1995 Mis-en-Cave Brut sparkles alongside this colorful dish.

For the filling:

  • 4 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 5 mild green chilies, stems and seeds removed
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts (pignoli)
  • 1/2 cup parsley leaves
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, plus additional sprigs for garnish
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 ripe mango, peeled and diced

For the cups:

  • 4 ounces cream cheese
  • 5 1/2 ounces unsalted butter
  • 4 1/2 ounces blue cornmeal
  • 12 ounces all-purpose flour (sifted)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

To make filling: In a food processor, mix Parmesan cheese and garlic until blended. Add chilies, pine nuts, parsley, cilantro and okive oil; process to smooth paste Roughly chop the shrimp and toss them with the pesto. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spread shrimp mixture evenly on a sheet pan and bake, uncovered, about 10 minutes. Remove and let cool. When it reaches room temperature, mix in diced mango.

To make cups: In a standing mixer or by hand, beat cream cheese and butter until soft. Beat in dry ingredients, but be careful not to overwork. Coat three mini muffin tins (36 cups) with nonstick cooking spray. Place 1 level tablespoon of the blue corn mixture into each prepared cup; press to coat the bottom and sides with dough. You should have enough dough to make at least 36 cups. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 20 minutes. Remove and let cool.

To assemble: Roll shrimp mixture into small balls and place into cups (or simply spoon the mixture into the cups). Garnish with fresh cilantro sprigs. Makes about 36.



Parmesan Sables

Adapted from a recipe in Hors d’Oeuvres by Eric Treville and Victoria Blashford-Snell (DK Publishing, NY, 1999)

These rich sables—a cross between cookies and crackers (what the British would call savory biscuits)—allow you to bring together Parmesan and Champagen, a match made in heaven.

Champagne recommendation: The Parmesan sables enhance virtually and sparkler; we like Chandon’s NV Reserve Brut from California.

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups cold butter, diced
  • 1/4 pound Gruyère cheese, grated
  • 1/4 pound Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water

Place flour, butter and cheeses (reserving 2 tablespoons of Parmesan) in a food processor; pulse til mixture forms a dough. Add a little cold water (1 teaspoon at a time), if necessary, to form a ball. Roll out on a floured surface to a 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out into decorative shapes with pastry cutters (try stars, hearts or diamonds). Place shapes about three-fourths of an inch apart on two parchment-lined baking sheets. Refrigerate until firm (about 30 minutes).

Preheat oven to 350°F. Brush sables with egg mixture and sprinkle with remaining Parmesan. Bake til golden brown, approximately 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 40.


Tantalizing Tuna Tartare with Parsley Potato Chips

From chef Bridgett Campbell of the yacht Blue Eagle.

This recipe, which will work with a range of Champagnes, can be used as an hors d’oeuvre toping, a dip, or even a lunch salad.

Champagne recommendation: The meaty flavors of tuna can stand up to a rosé, such as Delbeck’s NV Heritage Brut.

For the tartare:

  • 8 ounces sushi-grade tuna
  • 1 stalk celery, diced in 1/4-inch cubes
  • 3 radishes, diced in 1/4-inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoons chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup mango chutney
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
  • Salt and pepper to taste

For the chips:

  • 3 baking potatoes, peeled
  • 3 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
  • Salet and pepper to taste

To make tartare: Cut tuna into 1/2-inch cubes. In a medium-size bowl, mix together tuna, celery, radishes, chicken stock, parsley, onion, salt, pepper and mango chutney. Refrigerate.

To make chips: Preheat oven to 500°F. Grate potatoes into a medium-size bowl. Add parsley, salt and pepper, and mix well, squeezing out liquid. form into a log about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap in wax paper and chill at least 30 minutes. Prepare 2 or 4 baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray. Slice potato log into circles, as thin as possible. Arrange in a single layer on baking sheets. Bake til crisp and golden.

You can assemble this as a formal hors d’oeuvre, spooning some of the tuna mixture onto each chip, or serve the tuna mixture onto each chip, or serve the tuna mixture in a bowl with chips on the side. Makes about 3 dozen individual hors d’oeuvres.