Home cooks can pair foods just like the experts. When trendy chefs build a menu, they try to balance the flavor, color, texture, and taste of the total meal.
For the savvy shopper, composing a menu should begin as you walk down the supermarket aisles. It happens as you select the produce and proteins that you'll build meals with. As you shop, think about every purchase as to how you will use it in a meal during the coming week.
Recently, Blade recipe tester Kay Lynne Schaller made a family-friendly recipe of Beef Steak with Grilled Vegetables. As the beef was grilling, she also made sweet corn, which her family loves. Not only did she make the corn-on-the-cob for that night, she also made a couple extra ears of corn so she could prepare Corn Salsa to serve with leftover grilled steak for another meal.
The balsamic vinaigrette-marinated beef and the vegetables went just fine with the corn salsa flavored with cilantro, peppers, chile, and lime juice. The leftover steak was sliced and served on corn tortillas with the Corn Salsa and Avocado Cream. That combination also goes great on salad greens.
Chefs bring inspiration to your table as they pair foods in creative ways. Sometimes they use ingredients in surprising ways.
"Balsamic vinegar is great with strawberries," says Erika Rapp, executive chef at Diva in downtown Toledo. "The acidity in balsamic vinegar brings out the sweetness of strawberries. I pour it over vanilla ice cream and strawberries. It's something I do with my family for a quick and beautiful dessert."
Another favorite combination is pork or veal with lavender. "Lavender is a very underused herb," says Ms. Rapp. "It has a very floral characteristic. It's like braising with the flower. You can go too heavy with it, but in a braise, it blends with the other ingredients. A handful goes a long way. If you use too much it can get soapy."
One combination that does not work in her estimation is combining beef with sweet flavors. "I do braise short-ribs with dark unsweetened chocolate and a dark red wine like Syrah for a dish called Chocolate Braised Short Ribs."
Some vegetables don't go with wine. "Asparagus and wine together have negative characteristics," she says. "Peppers and wine have negative characteristics."
Chef and general manager Mike Rosendaul of Ciao! in Sylvania looks for a combination of textures and flavors for balance. Recently he prepared Roasted Haddock with Hazelnut Crust. It was served with a melon relish (diced cantaloupe, watermelon, and honeydew) flavored with chile pepper and balsamic vinegar. "It had sweet with sour and spicy," he says. "The spice smooths out the sweet."
Another favorite is Sicilian pesto when the local tomatoes are at their peak. He makes the pesto of fresh tomatoes, almonds, a small amount of basil, and garlic. "I do this once a year," he says. "It's only good in the summer." The Sicilian pesto, which is on Ciao's menu now is served with linguine with a touch of cream and grilled chicken slices.
In Northern Italy, there's richer ingredients (closer to French cooking) with the creams and risottos. One of his favorite combinations is a lemon risotto with seared scallops served with a Granny Smith apple slaw made with a little red onion and a vinaigrette.
"I'll make a wild mushroom risotto made with red wine with chicken or lamb for a heartier dish," says the chef who's always looking for a combination of textures. The restaurants wine dinners often feature these creations. In the roasted haddock with the hazelnut crust, it was a soft fish with the crunchiness of the nuts. (Ciao's next wine dinner is Oct. 23.)
He is not alone.
"Textures have a big effect," says Ms. Rapp. "When I compose a plate, I look for creamy and crunchy. I don't want the whole plate to be the same texture."
If the food on the plate is rich, you need something plain or neutral with it, says Ms. Rapp who will be teaching a cooking class Sept. 26 at Kitchen Tools & Skills in Perrysburg featuring a three-course meal. Using seasonal ingredients, "We'll see what it brings," she says about the upcoming menu.
Indeed both chefs are very tuned into seasonal ingredients when creating menus. You wouldn't serve a heavy cassoulet in the middle of summer nor should you expect those magnificent fresh tomato dishes in January.
Take advantage of the remaining days of summer fruit.
Tangy Maple-Marinated Pork chops with Stone Fruit Salsa from the National Pork Board incorporates some of the season's favorites into an unexpected pork condiment: The sweetness of grilled cherries, plums, apricots, peaches, and nectarines is offset by the tang of balsamic vinegar and the heat of grilled jalapeno peppers.
Use a metal grill "wok" or rack for cooking fruits and vegetables to keep them from falling through the grate if desired. (Coat the grate lightly with cooking spray for easy clean-up.)
Hormel Foods has also created a Hormel Natural Choice Meat Pairing Guide based on five different meats.
•Turkey is enhanced by the smoky qualities and acidity of smoke and blue cheeses; lemonade; sauces, dressings or spices mixed with fruit, thyme, sage, and parsley, and freshly baked whole wheat or whole grain breads.
•Ham's saltiness is complimented by the sweet aroma and acidity of tropical fruits such as banana, mangoes, and pineapple; cola drinks which are often made with cinnamon, vanilla, and nutmeg; condiments of horseradish and mustard, and fully, buttery breads.
•Bacon and Canadian bacon compliment green vegetables such as green beans, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli; add saltiness to leaner cuts of meat or fish; pair well with tomato-based salsas, sweet mustards, salad dressings, and aiolis, and go well with lightly flavored breads and potatoes.
•Chicken breast pairs receive a sweet or toasted flavor from pine nuts, almonds, chestnuts, walnuts, pecans, and peanuts; can be matched with an endless variety of herbs and spices from grilled rosemary, thyme and lemon, and Parmesan-crusted; strong condiments such as teriyaki, soy, hoisin, and barbecue sauces, and pair with pasta and rice.
•Beef's assertive taste pairs with potatoes; onions (garlic, leeks, scallions, and shallots); condiments of soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, and horseradish which give saltiness, tartness, and tang and pull the "meatiness" out of the beef, and distinctive yeast breads such as sourdough and rye.
The complete guide can be accessed at http://hormelnatural.com/meatpairing.html.
Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.