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Smoke and Sparkle

“Our household has acquired a smoker!” proclaimed a friend over email. No, neither she nor her husband had taken up a new vice – they had just received the Smokin-It™ electric smoker as a wedding present. Having dreamed of smoking my own meat ever since I drooled over Laura Ingalls Wilder’s descriptions of her family’s smokehouse in the Little House on the Prairie series, I quickly arranged an epic, full-weekend cooking event with my closest culinary buddies dubbed the Smoketacular. I was eager to channel my inner Pa Ingalls.

When researching recipes, I came across a blog where the writer professed that a highly allocated rosé Champagne was the perfect pairing for tea-smoked eggs. Though this particular pairing seemed lofty for this shindig, I did think his idea of pairing smoke with sparkle was ingenious.

Like many, I mostly think of sparkling wine as an aperitif or celebratory indulgence: I’ve enjoyed a glass of Lambrusco before ordering a Northern Italian red, and Champagne on birthdays. However, I can’t remember the last time I began and ended a meal with bubbles.

But I was inspired. I bought a bottle of vintage domestic sparkling wine, Lambrusco and Cremant du Jura to enjoy with the wide array of proteins my friends and I had chosen to smoke: ribs, eggs, trout and sausages.

Two days before the Smoketacular, I dry-rubbed a rack of ribs with a freshly ground blend of spices: cumin, fennel seed, Herbes de Napa (rosemary, lavender, fennel, thyme, savory and bay leaf), black peppercorns, grey sea salt, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, chipotle pepper powder, cloves and nutmeg. I refrigerated the rack uncovered overnight, and after work, I skipped to my friend’s roof terrace, the electric smoker’s new home.

Based on the recommendation of Smokin-It’s creator, we smoked the ribs uncovered at 225°F for three hours. His ribs looked amazing, and fortunately, so did ours. Finally at half past midnight, we chomped our way through a quarter of the three-pound rack. Delicious, and so easy! Counting the few ribs remaining, we decided that another rack had to be made along with additional sauces. We made the Carolina Gold sauce from Saveur for our midnight snack, and were hungry for more. Apparently within me was not only a little Pa Ingalls, but also a seasoned Southern pit master.

The next morning, I dry rubbed a second rack with a Middle-Eastern bent: pink peppercorns, sumac, zaatar, grey sea salt, coriander and Hungarian paprika. Just before smoking, I brushed both sides of the meat liberally with honey, and that afternoon, brought it back to greet the Smokin-It once more.

When the dinner table was laid, I was amazed at the caramel- and mahogany-colored treasures before us. When everyone’s flutes were filled, I dug in.

The first thing I noticed was how delicious the smoked trout was, despite it being the most simply prepared. A few hours in a plain saltwater brine and an overnight drying in the refrigerator was the extent of it, and this left the trout flavor pure even with its pronounced coating of hickory smoke. I could easily have polished off a few fillets, but limited myself to a few pieces atop a dab of crème fraiche on a slice of bread. It was wondrous, especially with the Cremant de Jura. The wine’s orchard-fruit-fresh nose perfectly paved the way for the trout’s concentrated savory notes.

Its minerality on the mid-palate also did well with the creamy yolk of the tea-smoked eggs. The eggs, served atop a leaf of culantro – take my word for it, it’s the new cilantro - were also stunningly good with the vintage domestic sparkler. The wine had a full sweetness to it from a decade in the bottle that married wonderfully with the yolk; the culantro, which tasted like a cross between cilantro and parsley, acted as the acid cutting through the richness.

But I’d already known that these pairings would be winners. The smokin’ question in my mind was this: could Lambrusco stand in for red wine at Smoketacular? After all, a big red wine is often the go-to pairing for barbecue, so how does it fare with smoked food?

Answer is: mostly well, but the greatness of the pairing depends on what’s been smoked. The Lambrusco had a tantalizing wild berry note that became more pronounced after zipping around my palate, tempering and sweetening the spicy notes left in the ribs’ wake. A wine that becomes juicier with savory food? Hooray!

With the sausage, however, none of the sparkling wines were wildly successful. As it turns out, smoking can make everything taste the same, and the pork, beef and lamb sausages were only discernable as different proteins by looking at them. We ended up lightly chilling and uncorking a bold Napa Cab, which made the fruit and tannins pop and better complemented the meat.

Today, my friend emailed with an important update: “The rib hooks, seafood rack and cold smoker attachment have all arrived.” Thank goodness, as I’m dying to smoke Mozzarella, Gouda and maybe some oysters. Stay tuned for the next Smoketacular!