by Rosina Tinari Wilson
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.5
Ever notice there are just too darn few summer holidays? Fourth of July. Over with. Labor Day. Not even party material. So unless you celebrated the summer solstice, Bastille Day, or maybe an obscure festival from some remote corner of the planet, the official-excuse-for-a-bash scene has been truly bleak.
So why not invent your own excuse (holiday)? Your dog’s birthday (so apt for the “dog days” of summer). The anniversary of your first speeding ticket (or the first time you talked the cop out of one). The annual “Bad Karaoke Festival.” Whatever. Just make it something you can turn into a tradition. And whatever it is, why not mark the occasion by pouring some bubbly.
Doesn’t matter if it’s true Champagne, a mid-priced California sparkler, some inexpensive-but-delicious Spanish cava or Italian spumante — the stuff’s a sure-fire party starter. And even though people think “expensive” when they hear corks popping, it’s no stretch to say that you can get better quality in a bottle of bubbles than in a typical chard or cab of the same price.
A few years ago, the folks at UC Davis, along with those from Domaine Chandon, put together a “Sparkling Wine Aroma Wheel” to describe the huge range of possibilities in a flute of bubbly. Depending on the type of grapes used, the production method, the amount of time on the yeast, the sugar level of the “dosage,” and the winemaker’s skill and style, a sparkling wine can taste like anything from lemons and apples to raspberries and cherries to pastry dough and toast to butter and nuts to… You get the point.
What sparkling wines all have in common, in general, is good, crisp acidity (which goes well with both rich, fatty foods and tangy ingredients such as citrus) and a bit of sugar (which works well with sweet, tart, salty and spicy flavors). This opens up lots of options for edibles that’ll do your bubbly justice. And if you can pick up on any of the flavors in the wine by matching them in the food, so much the better.
Nothing has to be complicated. You can get your gig off to a flying start with salted nuts, or sesame or poppy seed crackers with assorted mellow cheeses (try creamy Brie, a nut-studded Cheddar spread, a light blue such as Cambozola, and a plain Monterey Jack). Or serve up some skinny breadsticks wrapped with thinly sliced ham or salami. Even corn chips with not-too-hot guacamole will do nicely.
Since the summer harvest is in high gear, make a simple bruschetta by chopping and mixing together fresh tomatoes (several colors if possible), basil, green onions and a touch of raw garlic, then adding a little olive oil and salt. Spoon the mix onto slices of fresh or toasted baguette or just arrange the tomatoes (whole, quartered or sliced, depending on size) on a platter with a few basil sprigs, and sprinkle the olive oil and salt on top.
Spanish cava, a methode champenoise blend of native varietals (which now can also include some chardonnay and pinot noir), works great with the apps. It’s generally dry but fruity, easy-drinking and a steal at under $10 a bottle.
Once everyone is settled in, bring out the main event — a super-easy do-ahead version of the classic Salade Nicoise, of French Riviera bistro fame. Anyone who can boil water can put it together. Pop open some California blanc de noir or good-quality rose. You’ll find some real gems in the $12 to $18 range. They’re rich enough to stand up to the salad’s punchy flavors, the salty ingredients will bring on the bubbles, and the salmon-pink color is gorgeous.
No need to fuss with dessert. Ol’ Mom Nature has flooded the market with yummy, dripping-with-juice peaches, nectarines, apricots and berries for you to gorge on. Pick up some nice butter cookies (the ones with candied ginger added are especially tasty with the fruit) and some just-sweet-enough muscat-based Italian bubbly. (Look for “Asti Spumante” or some version of “moscato” on the label.) Then just bask in the compliments and start figuring out what you’ll do next year!
R E C I P E
E-Z Spaghettini Nicoise
(serves at least 12)
This dead-easy version of the classic French Salade Nicoise is adapted from my book, Seafood, Pasta & Noodles — The New Classics (Ten Speed Press).*
1 lb. spaghettini (skinny spaghetti), cooked al dente
1/4 cup olive oil (preferably extra virgin)
1/2 t salt, or to taste
3/4 cup olive oil (preferably extra virgin)
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 t dry mustard
1/2 cup finely minced red onion
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
4 to 6 cloves garlic (or more), finely minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 bag washed raw spinach (throw out any yellow or brown leaves)
3 6-oz cans oil-packed tuna, flaked with a fork
4 hard-boiled eggs, cut into 6 wedges each
1 lb. fresh or frozen string beans, cooked crisp-tender
1 cup roasted red bell pepper (from a jar), cut into strips
1 lb. cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup Nicoise olives, halved and pitted, or plain canned pitted black olive halves or rings
2 2-oz cans anchovy fillets
1/4 cup capers
The night before the bash, or early in the day, toss cooked spaghettini with olive oil and salt; refrigerate. An hour or two before party time, whisk together all ingredients for the dressing. Toss the pasta with about three-quarters of the dressing, and spread out on a serving platter. Arrange the spinach leaves around the outside, then arrange the toppings on the pasta. Just before serving, top with remaining dressing. Serve chilled.