Cooking With Rocco: Red Wine


Real men drink red (with fish): Well, it's not always true, but it's catchy.

Another catchy writer, William Shakespeare, wrote in Othello: "Come, come, good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used."

You know what I say? Good red wine is a good familiar creature if it doesn't blow away your taste buds, obliterate the flavor of the dish, is relatively low in alcohol and lets you pay your mortgage that month.

Just like with white wine, finding a red that fits my description of a good familiar creature is tricky.

It's all too easy to end up with expensive, high-alcohol oak bombs that are more style than substance.

Red wines by nature can overwhelm the flavor of many dishes simply because we really don't eat the kinds of food we used to. Ironically, as we now eat lighter and healthier, big reds are becoming more popular.

And because red wines are bigger and badder than whites, the wrong red wine paring can be a spectacular train wreck in the mouth. For example, a big California Cabernet over a light Pinot Noir can completely change the texture and flavor of a meal.

An ideal pairing is one in which the food and wine realize their full potential simply because they are consumed together. Like the yin and yang of a lasting marriage, great wine pairings bring out the best in each other. You should be able to take a bite, drink a little wine, let the flavors meld and transform into a new, better flavor. That's what I call an ethereal pairing.

But don't get too caught up with the challenge of matching wines to food and the ensuing anxiety, because I have done the work for you. Think of a pairing as a good friend, someone you want to be around and have a laugh with. Here is a perfectly matched red wine -- a 2003 Pinot Noir from Maple Ridge Winery -- and an original fish recipe from Flavor, my James Beard Award-winning cookbook.

Don't be surprised -- remember, I told you real men drink red wine with fish!

Pinot Noir is the grape varietal used in the famous reds of Burgundy. And in contrast to the heavy, dark brutes such as Cabernet and Syrah, a good Pinot Noir is light on its feet and in complete harmony with its destiny. This reasonably priced pick from Oregon is everything it needs to be: medium-bodied with soft tannins, and lots of fruit tones with good acidity to temper the fat of salmon.

There's also no need to let this red breathe -- in fact, too much exposure to air will dilute its light flavor. Serve it at slightly cooler than room temperature, preferably between 55 degrees and 59 degrees.

And if $13.99 a bottle isn't expensive enough for you to make friends and influence people, try the top wines from Burgundy's two most acclaimed estates, Romanee Conti and Leroy, which fetch well north of $500 per bottle.

AJ Liebling summed it up best: "Burgundy is a lovely thing when you can get anybody to buy it for you." So maybe you'll use someone else's money to make this purchase. Oh wait -- you can afford it!

Seared Salmon With Scallions and Rhubarb

Rhubarb sauce:

  • 3/4 cup dry (fino) sherry
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar, preferably turbinado
  • 1/2 pound fresh rhubarb (about 2 stalks), trimmed and coarsely chopped
Fava beans:
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 pound fava beans, shelled


  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 pound scallions (2 bunches, or about 15), thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1/8 tablespoon table or sea salt, plus more to taste
  • Ground black pepper, to taste
  • 4 salmon fillets (with skin), 6 ounces each
  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1. In a medium saucepan, combine sherry with sugar and cook over high heat, stirring continuously, until sugar is dissolved. Add rhubarb and cook 2 minutes. Strain, reserving liquid; return liquid to saucepan and boil until reduced by half. Add rhubarb back in and simmer until a thick puree, about 5 minutes.

2. Bring a medium pot of water to boiling; add 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Fill a large bowl with cold water and ice; dissolve in it the remaining tablespoon of kosher salt. Boil fava beans for 2 minutes; transfer to ice bath for a few minutes. Drain and peel fava beans.

3. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add scallions; cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 12 to 15 minutes. Add the stock, thyme, 1/8 teaspoon salt and pepper. Cover and simmer until scallions are extremely tender, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat. Discard thyme; gently fold in fava beans.

4. Light a grill or heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Brush both sides of salmon fillets with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Working in batches if necessary, grill the salmon, skin side down, until skin is very crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Flip salmon and continue to grill until barely cooked through, 2 to 5 minutes more, depending on thickness of fish.

5. Before serving, gently reheat the onion-fava mixture; stir in lemon juice. For each serving, layer plates with one-quarter of the onion-fava mixture, rhubarb sauce, and then one salmon fillet.

For more info on Rocco DiSpirito, please visit or click here to find his cookbooks.

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