The glorious synchronicity of Merlot and csirkepaprikas

Syn•chro•nic•ity:  the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance and that are observed to occur together in a meaningful manner (see Carl Gustav Jung).

Despite what Miles, that fellow in Sideways, might have said about it, there are still many good reasons 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 stupid.

Equally stupid is the combination of a good, drippy, juicy Merlot with a good, drippy, juicy red Hungarian csirkepaprikas, or chicken paprikas

Thomas Fogarty in Santa Cruz Mountains

But first, let us single out one contemporary classic:  the 2006 Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains Merlot (about $32).  I know, I know – this is not one of the big boys (Duckhorn, Pahlmeyer, Blackbird, etc.).  But if you’re still stuck on labels, you’re in the wrong place, my friend.  Let the unconcious souls gleefully discover what the Fogarty Merlot is all about:  a unique, high altitude/low attitude, mountain estate grown style of Merlot that combines a fisted core of un-watered down fruit and tannin with all the outwardly soft, silky extravagance – plush black cherry laced with cinnamon, savory and allspice – of a classic Merlot.  Textbook.

“The ‘perfect marriage’ of food and wine,” said the late Roy Andries De Groot, “should allow for infidelity.”  While the standard choice for a good Merlot is red meat, my all-time favorite match for a full, lusciously fruited Merlot is something white (albeit, clothed in bright paprika-red):  classic, Hungarian chicken paprikas

Mr. De Groot, if you’re wondering, was the once widely read blind gastronome and Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts author; and in his heyday, the swinging sixties, he was also the first magazine critic to use a 100 point wine scoring system (not Robert Parker!).  It was De Groot who 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 – to be one of the most glorious dishes in the world; and for a matching wine, he prescribed a good Pomerol.

Rarely having a Pomerol on hand, most of the time during the past thirty years I have been substituting a good California Merlot for my csirkepaprikas; finding the combination equally glorious and, yes, synchronistic – needing no real causal connections to explain its sensory meaningfulness.  Is iustus est.

Over the years I have also 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, and proven, 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, for syncretic purposes, some sensuous vocals like Diana Krall or Madeleine Peyroux (the sensory build-up, a good reason for having at least two bottles on hand).

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.

Oh, and Miles... you don’t know squat.


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