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Monday, January 12, 2009

Organic wine match of the day: Ceàgo Merlot & chicken paprikas

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Despite what that fellow Miles might have said about it, there is still a very good reason why you should drink ultra-premium California Merlot, which is the same reason why some of the state’s most prestigious winemakers – like Bruce Neyers and Selene’s Mia Klein – still specialize in the grape: it makes wine that can enthrall the senses the way Keira Knightley eats up a camera. Resistance is senseless.

Here’s another reason: the 2006 Ceàgo Camp Masut Merlot (about $25) is biodynamically grown, on top of being totally delicious; its classic red berry/black cherry Merlot aromas enhanced by pretty, floral, violet-like perfumes; and on the palate, round fleshy, finely polished textures punctuated by the luscious berry flavors and buoyed by soft yet sturdy tannins. Textbook.

Ceàgo, as it were, was founded by Jim Fetzer, former president of the same Fetzer Vineyards that was among the pioneers of organic grape growing in California. After the Fetzer family sold their winery and vineyards in 1992, Jim immediately set out to establish vineyards in Mendocino falling within even stricter biodynamic guidelines monitored by Demeter International. In fact, one of the best explications of the why’s and how’s of biodynamics can be found on the Cèago Vinegarden Web site.

“The ‘perfect marriage’ of food and wine,” said the late Roy Andries de Groot, “should allow for infidelity.” While the standard choice is red meat, my all-time favorite match for a full, lusciously fruited Merlot is something white (or rather, reddish): the classic, Hungarian style of csirkepaprikas, or chicken paprikas. Mr. de Groot (the blind Esquire food and wine author who, incidentally, was also the first critic to use a 100 point wine scoring system – not Robert Parker! – in the late 1960s) once proclaimed his recipe for paprikas – browned with goose fat, then braised with onions, garlic and, finally, a sauce pigmented by generous doses of the mildly spiced paprika chile before thickened in the end with sour cream – as one of the most glorious dishes in the world, and I cannot disagree.

Over the years I have taken some liberties with de Groot’s original recipe (I don’t, for instance, usually have the goose fat on hand); and of course, the variations come every time the bird hits the pot. This is, however, a close approximation:

1 whole 4-5 lb. chicken, disjointed (thighs and back necessary for flavor)
3 tbs. unsalted sweet butter
1 lemon
2 large sweet onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
6 large white mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 thin slices pancetta (or two strips thick bacon), sliced in squares
½ cup white wine
¾ cup chicken stock
Half bunch Italian parsley, chopped
Hungarian sweet paprika
Olive oil
Ground peppercorns and salt to taste
1 pint sour cream
10-12 oz. wide egg noodles

Rub chicken pieces with salt and juice of halved lemon, and set aside. In a large pot (preferably cast iron or Le Creuset), brown pancetta or bacon with drop of olive oil over medium heat. Add butter, and when melted sauté the onions and garlic until wilted. Add paprika (2 to 3 tbsp.) and stir into onion mix until it attains a fiery red color. Immediately add chicken pieces two or three at a time, browning them until both sides are impregnated with the paprika. Add sliced mushrooms, followed by white wine (burn off some alcohol), and then chicken stock. Lower temperature, cover pot with lid, and let it simmer for about 45-60 minutes, smelling the wafting perfume while enjoying your glass of Merlot and some sensuous vocals like Diana Krall or Madeleine Peyroux.

Remove chicken pieces, and stir in sour cream until the sauce reaches a creamy consistency, adjusting seasonings to taste. Add back chicken pieces, stir in most of chopped parsley, and over low temperature let pot stew for final ten to fifteen minutes while egg noodles are boiled al dente. When noodles are drained, place in large, wide bowl and coat with half of paprika cream sauce; lay chicken pieces over noodles and top with rest of sauce. Garnish with rest of chopped parsley, and serve.

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