Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wine with "Salisbury steak"

Dear me, note the old neophyte anxiety to pair food perfectly with an under-$10 wine. As any expert will tell you, "most wines go with most foods."

The most savory preparation for ground beef that I have ever come across includes a combination of chopped fresh lemon zest and grated nutmeg, in surprisingly large quantities. The recipe is called "Cannelon of beef" and it appears in Marion Cunningham's 1986 revision of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Lemon and nutmeg make the ground beef taste somehow beefier than other preparations that rely on tomato, thyme, or oregano, or overpowering doses of onion or Worcestershire sauce. Here is the original recipe:

2 pounds ground beef; 1 tsp. nutmeg
<grated rind of 1/2 lemon; 1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. minced parsley; 1/4 tsp. pepper
1 egg; 2 Tbsp. minced onion;
2 Tbsp. butter, melted; 4 slices salt pork

Preheat the oven to 400. Combine the beef with all the other ingredients except the salt pork (I have also used 2 slices of bacon). Mix until very well blended. Chill, then shape into a roll 6 inches long. Place on a rack in a roasting pan, arrange the slices of salt pork over the top, and bake for 30 minutes. Remove to a warm platter.

In my experience, 30 minutes at 400 degrees is nowhere near long enough to bake a 2 pound, chilled meat loaf, and I hate having to guess whether pink meat is done and safe to eat. That is why I have tweaked this recipe to make good old Salisbury steak -- hamburgers in gravy -- while making sure to keep that savory lemon-and-nutmeg combination.

Last night's dinner, therefore, was simply a pound and a half of ground beef mixed with the zest of half a lemon -- chop it very finely, and it will dissolve in cooking -- some nutmeg, salt, and an egg. I browned the patties in a little olive oil, and then removed them from the pan and sauteed onions, leeks, garlic, and celery in the drippings. Then back everything went into the pan, along with a little wine -- a zinfandel, perhaps no more than 1/3 cup. It simmered slowly for about an hour. For accompaniment, I made mashed potatoes and boiled carrots with butter and a shake more nutmeg.

But what wine will match nicely with this? I had the zinfandel on hand -- Barefoot Cellars, one of my favorites -- and another great favorite, St. Gabriel riesling. Strangely enough, two such very different wines were both rather good with the meal. Zinfandel's spice and weight was the right counterpoise to the beef and the sweet carrots; the riesling's initial sweetness but final dry elegance went very well with more delicate flavors of lemon, leek, celery, and potato. After much sipping and slurping I ended up pouring a full glass of the St. Gabriel.

And by the way, after years of trial and error, I can confidently advise on how to mash potatoes. After you drain them, put them back in the pot and mash them dry. Then add the pats of butter and let them melt. Stir everything up with a fork, add whatever milk you like, and stir that. Done. Much easier. No need to attempt to mash down cold hunks of butter, and no need to heat up butter and milk first before adding the potatoes and mashing that -- very French and authentic, to be sure, but haven't you got enough to do to get dinner on the table?

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