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Win-Win-Wintertime

While others may loathe the heavy coats and gnarled root vegetables that signify the season, I have always adored everything about winter. Perhaps this is because I grew up in a place where it never snowed. Sugaring maples or sledding through the wilderness were only available to me in the books I read. When my parents received Christmas cards featuring barns in the snow and cardinals perched on fir trees, I wondered where such a bucolic scene was a reality. Now I know that that place is Canaan, New Hampshire.

My current reality is one where there is snow, but it doesn’t stay white for very long. Trudging through unplowed sidewalks over ominously tall snow banks gets old after the tenth day. What has carried over from my days of dreaming about a “real” winter is a deep love of cold weather food. So I jumped at the chance to create a pairing dinner with the NV Pommery Wintertime Champagne. I was fascinated by the back-story of this Champagne’s creation, and determined to make a meal highlighting winter ingredients that would really put this bubbly through its paces.

First course: Celery Root Soup

Brown an inch of minced ginger and one whole chopped leek in olive oil, then add two large celery roots cut into chunks. Pour in a quart of vegetable stock. Mine had an intense earthy flavor to it as I’d made it with daikon peel, among scores of other root vegetable scraps I’d frozen for stock-making purposes. After the celery root softens (30-40 minutes at a gentle boil), turn the heat down and puree the soup with an immersion blender. Due to the leek, the soup turned a light pea-green color so I decided to add steamed pieces of butternut squash for color, and finished the dish with chopped roasted hazelnuts and fresh thyme.

Absent of any creamy element, the soup acted as a “palate opener,” playing nicely with the Champagne’s initial flavors of green apple and citrus pith. I also loved the interplay between the Champagne’s bubbles with crisp bits of hazelnut and bites of squash; Champagne has such a fine, distinct quality that it lends itself to a myriad of textural pairing possibilities. There is a reason, other than their romantic connotations, why slippery oysters and juicy, meaty strawberries are often served with bubbles.

Second course: Seared Duck Leg with Roasted Red Onion and Pomegranate Gremolata with Duck-fat Fried Potato Chips

Just as with white wine, Champagne often shows its best after it warms up a touch if poured straight out of a refrigerated bottle. After the Pommery had been in our flutes for 30 minutes, its effervescence slowed and it became fuller and yeastier: the sweetspot state for the second course. Again, I went for different textures here: silky onions, crunchy pomegranate seeds, luscious duck skin and potato chips. I’d never made chips before but it seemed a sin to not immediately use the half-pint or so of duck fat that rendered off the legs after I’d seared them and baked them in the oven at 425° along with the onions.

We sliced rose potatoes about 1/8 inch thick on a mandolin and fried the chips in a cast iron skillet. It only took about 10 minutes of constant flipping to do five single-layer batches. And with wind whistling outside, we simply opened the kitchen window to quickly evacuate the smell. Winter does have its advantages in the deep-frying realm!

At the table, I was amazed at how well it all came together. The zippy acidity of the Pommery, sweetness of the roasted onions, earthiness of the potato chips and richness of the duck provided a myriad of wonderful pairing combinations. Duck + potato chips + Pommery = yum. Pommery + pomegranate seeds = delicious. Duck + onion + Pommery = heaven.

Dessert: Chewy Molasses Cookies

Nothing says winter like desserts made with cinnamon, clove or ginger, and I can’t think of a better pairing for these flavors than sparkling wine.  A few cookies and a final flute later, and we were soon staring at the bottom of the bottle.

Fortified with good food and drink, I feel better prepared to bear the brunt of winter. But even when I’m tucking in to a slice of peach pie or biting into an heirloom tomato, I’ll still be dreaming of this meal.