Hey, with the entry of the Year of the Tiger, it’s only appropriate to pop a couple of corks from bottles of Champagne. Nothing says celebration more than Champagne, or in the words of Napoleon, “In victory, you deserve it; in defeat, you need it.” And it doesn’t specifically have to be from the French variety. Sparkling wine from Spain called Cava is also mighty tasty, as is sparkling wine from the Veneto region in Italy known as Prosecco, which also screams celebration. Perhaps it’s the characteristic “pop” from an uncorked bottle that heralds the start of a celebration. Maybe it’s the gushing foam (as seen in World Series celebrations) and the subsequent wine shower that ensues that tells us “life is good.” It may simply be that sparkling wine is a tasty beverage that pairs well with a wide variety of foods — from fried food, to raw seafood, all the way up to roasted pork and poultry. Because of the refreshing effervescence of the captured bubbles in sparkling wine, it refreshes the palate after each bite of food and effectively cleanses the palate of fat, thereby exciting the taste buds with each new bite of food.
“I only drink champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory
I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am.
Otherwise I never touch it — unless I’m thirsty.”
– Madame Bollinger
The “pop” when opening a bottle of bubbly has taken on a whole new meaning in pop culture (pun intended) with the creation of Pop. Famed Champagne house Pommery created Pop about 10 years ago, leaving a little more residual sugar in the wine to broaden its appeal to the 20-something crowd, and bottled it in individual-serving 187 milliliter bottles with baby blue (standard Champagne) or pink (rose Champagne) labels, complete with wrist lanyards and matching straws for imbibing. Over the top? Of course. Clever marketing? Definitely. Overrated product? Not at all. I’ve tried both the blue and pink label products and they are very good — maybe a little too kitschy for me, but definitely Champagne with substance.
When looking for something to munch on while sipping your bubbly, food choices run the gamut from haute cuisine all the way down to your own pantry. High-end munchies include caviar, smoked salmon and an assortment of rich seafood spreads. The touch of sweetness in Prosecco makes it a great partner for spicy Asian cuisine, while vintage Champagne with several years of bottle aging can pair with heartier dishes such as roasted poultry and pork. And don’t worry if you don’t live the caviar, foie gras and lobster tail lifestyle. Simple fried foods like French fries, potato chips and crisp Tater Tots substitute just fine. In fact one of my standby appetizers for a nice bottle of bubbly is crisp potato chips, preferably kettle cooked with just a hint of salt. Reduced Fat Cape Cod chips used to be the standard, but since they aren’t distributed in the 50th anymore, I’ll settle for Poore Brothers or Kettle Brand. I know I just got my Hawai‘i residency card rescinded for not mentioning Maui Style Potato Chips or Original Atebara Potato Chips from the Big Island, and while those chips are great with sandwiches, burgers and hot dogs, the lighter kettle cooked variety is bubbly’s dancing partner.
“You go to my head/
And you linger on and refrain/
And I find it spinning round in my brain/ Like a bubble in a glass of champagne…”
– “You Go to My Head,” by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie
If you want something outside of the norm to pair with your bubbly, how about freshly popped corn? Popcorn? With Champagne? As strange as it may sound, they make a great pair. But I’m not talkin’ about that simple microwave-in-a-bag stuff. In fact, microwave popcorn has taken a health beating, recently proclaimed as one of the worst foods to consume. Some claim it’s the artificial butter flavoring that’s carcinogenic, others claim the bag lining vaporizes carcinogens into the popped kernels.
Either way, microwave popcorn’s main claim to fame is convenience. Place the bag inside on high for four to six minutes and voila! Instant snack. Almost as fast as instant ramen. But since you’re looking for a dancing partner for a glass or two of bubbly, go that extra 10 feet. Literally. It doesn’t take that much longer to pop your own. Heat a quarter cup of fat over medium to medium-high heat with a half cup of popcorn kernels in a tall four-quart pan. Doesn’t need to be a fancy All-Clad pan either. A simple Paul Revere ware will do (that’s what I use when I’m visiting mom). Constantly swirl or shake the pan once you hear the popping begin. When the popping subsides to once every other second or so, you’re done. Invert into a large bowl, toss with salt and seasonings of your choice, and then break out the Champagne or sparkling wine!
“I’ve got no time to wait aside,
No time to sit and bide my time,
I’m off for now. Hello, Goodbye!
Pop! goes the weasel…”
– Traditional English Nursery Rhyme
While we’re on the subject, what makes popcorn go from rock-hard kernel to fluffy, bite-sized packet of goodness? Part genetic selection, part chemistry and physics. The basic kernel of corn, Zea mays, had an offshoot, Zea mays everta, that was good for making popcorn and thus the sub-species was perpetuated. Basically when a contained packet of starch is heated, and the temperature reaches about 180 degrees and the pressure hits 135 pounds per square inch, the starch gelatinizes and ruptures the hull, rapidly expanding to create the typical popcorn shape. Once the hull ruptures and the subsequent explosion ensues, the temperature and pressure rapidly drop setting the structure as is. Voila, popcorn! The “duds” that remain either in the pot (or the bag if you must) either didn’t start off with enough internal moisture or had an external leak in the hull so that the temperature and/or pressure never hit the critical levels needed for “poppage.” The take home message here is that it’s safe to do in your own home, doesn’t take fancy cooking vessels and doesn’t take a lot more time than the microwave. And you can flavor your product to your exact specifications.
Just remember that the basic recipe is:
• 4-quart high-walled pot
• 1/2 cup popcorn kernels
• 1/4 cup fat
• Seasonings to your preference
My personal favorites for the holidays (since cholesterol and calories don’t count) are a quarter cup bacon drippings from good bacon, a quarter cup drippings from seared foie gras, a quarter cup drippings from pan seared smoked duck breast, or a quarter cup black truffle oil topped off with truffle salt and grated Parmigiano Reggiano. You can also use a quarter cup of your favorite flavored olive oil, but remember to season right after the popcorn is done.
May 2010 bring you health, peace and happiness. A voitre santé!
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.