Thursday, March 31, 2011

Paired Up: Malbec and Chicken Fajitas

In our Paired Up posts, we review a wine and the food we wisely (or foolishly) paired it with. 

The Wine

2007 Hightower Cellars Malbec Red Wine Estate Grown (Red Mountain)

Malbec got its start as a component in Bordeaux blends, but found its way to being a stand-out stand-alone varietal via South America. It has since begun to rise as a solid grape for Washington. As with our Pinot Noir and salmon pairing, we tried to mesh together some semblance of climactic familiarity between the wine and dishes on this one. The (very!) spicy fajitas we assembled come with southwest flavor suited to a dry, hot climate. This wine comes from the estate fruit of Hightower Cellars, grown in one of Washington's warmest AVAs - Red Mountain, whose southwest exposure makes for long days of hot sun.

We bought the wine at Fred Meyer the day we made the dinner and decanted it for only about 15-20 minutes while veggies were cut. It definitely got better as it aired out, so a longer decant would help it smooth the edges.

The Food

Fajitas are a relatively easy and fool-proof meal to make, so many people have their own versions of how it's done. That is certainly the case for us, so we paired up our cooking skills to make a truly collaborative dinner. Katy had an idea that she wanted to try for the chicken, so she took that on while Hunter brought the heat with the veggies. Being a meal borne of teamwork, and Katy ever being a fan of creating a shorthand word, this dish has been given the name "Aqueminitas".

Katy on the chicken:

With Hunter helming the peppers, all I had to worry about was the chicken. My new obsession for easy awesome chicken is simple: I defrost an individual breast from our personal stock of chicken (hehe), then bring a small pot of water to boil, and simply place the chicken into it. Boil for about 10-15 min (or, you could go off, and forget about it, on accident, for a while, but it's not going to get dried out! Genius!), then remove from heat, drain the water, and let cool a little bit. When you're ready, take 2 forks and shred it Van Halen style. Now, you can season it however you want before it goes into the mix. For the fajitas, I used some cayenne, cumin and a dash of habanero sauce. And this is so versatile for so many dishes! Simple.

Hunter on the veggies:

While the chicken was boiling, we chopped up the veggies. Katy put in an assist with a red pepper and a few cloves of garlic. I eschewed a green bell pepper in favor of an Anaheim chili, and then sliced up 3 serrano chilis to add some heat.

An aside: when working with anything spicier than an Anaheim chili (e.g. serrano, jalapeno, habanero), I wear gloves. The first time I worked with raw habaneros, I couldn't feel my fingers for a couple days afterward. There was also an unfortunate incident of pepper-juice-in-nose that I would like to avoid repeating...

The peppers prepared, I cut up half of a yellow onion. Thanks to newly-sharpened knives, I wasn't reduced to the puddle of tears that normally results from such an endeavour.

Next, I heated some EVOO over medium-high heat and threw the peppers, onion and garlic in. I proceeded to spice the heck out of them with salt, pepper, garlic salt, garlic powder, chili powder, cayenne pepper, Mexican spice blend, cumin seed and habanero sauce.

Putting it all together:

We added Katy's chicken into the mix and somehow, the whole pile turned out a little too spicy (how could that have happened?!), so Katy added some port in to sweeten it up. This turned out to be a key save and really moved the fajitas from the just-spicy realm to the theater of spicy, sweet and delicious!

We heated up tortillas, two at a time (this was a first for us and we found that it had the effect of sort of steaming them), on a skillet. We applied a layer of spice-countering sour cream to our tortillas and some salsa (we are partial to Desert Pepper Black Bean and Corn) before adding the fajita mix. Finally, we topped them with some Tillamook Mexican cheese blend, wrapped them up and enjoyed! 

Hunter's Gatherings

Pours a deep-dark ruby red. The aroma is strong with black pepper, musky deer hide and earthy notes coming through right away. Vanilla and spices speak to the oak.  The wine has an acidic, spicy attack that gives way to red fruits at the mid-palate. The finish is long and surprisingly throat-cooling. A gamey undercurrent gives the wine a consistency throughout. While the attack is a tad on the harsh side, the fruits do an admirable balancing act and the mellow finish is unexpected and very welcome. 87

The spiciness of the fajitas was such that it dwarfed that of the wine, making it seem cooler in comparison. Those same spices also let the pepper tones of the wine shine, while the sweeter flavor of the chicken helped to bring out more of the fruit. The cooling finish was especially welcome when my mouth started to heat up. The overall effect was tough to describe. The wine just reacted with the food and made pockets of interest that enhanced the meal as a whole. I may not know exactly what happened here, but I know it was great, and I know I want to do it again!

Katy's Take 

It has a very deep red hue, and a slightly powerful aroma which seemed to open up my entire sinus system. Initially I detected varying hints of red and black currants, cherry, and of course some vanilla, but as as my glass opened up more, a slightly masculine, peppery/tobacco undertone became more present. The attack was completely unexpected. It was a medium, off-dry burst of sour cherry which gave a warming experience on my tongue, although it was admittedly slightly closed. The mid-palate blossomed into a more open and sweet cherry flavor, with more of a peppery burst. After all of that, it surprised even more with a slightly sweet and gamey finish. 87 

Paired Up:
Hunter did good! The food was good, the wine was good, the pairing was good... everything was good! There may have been a little more heat to the fajitas than I am used to, and I might have even been a little nervous to melt my face off... but washing down the spice with the Malbec was perfect! It made the heat have more discernable flavors instead of being just hot, and the wine, which by itself seemed more closed and sour, ended up tasting much sweeter and juicier. On their own, both would have been decent choices, but paired up they both brought each other to a whole new flavor level. Well done Aquemini Us! 

The Conclusion

The sheer spiciness of these fajitas is something of a challenge for wine. The more obvious choice here - and one that would also work extremely well - would be a nice, refreshing Mexican beer, but there is something about Malbec that allows it to work well with peppers. This Hightower Malbec, with its complementary pepper notes and soothing finish was a great pairing for fajitas. We had several moments where we could not quite describe what was happening; we just looked at each other and said, "mmmm."

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