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Pomerol and polenta

(article, Deborah Madison)

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Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, the wine-writing couple for the Wall Street Journal, have a sound hunch that people tend to sit on their good wines and not drink them because they’re too expensive, too special, or that the menu for an odd weekday night just isn’t going to live up to the expectations of what’s inside that special bottle. 

Certainly this has been the case in our home for years. I can’t even guess the number of times my husband has pulled out a promising bottle of Ridge, or some gorgeous Burgundy, and said, “How about this for tonight?”

Invariably, I groan.

“Really? That? But we’re just having . . .” You can fill in the blank: leftovers, tofu, a stir-fry, something pretty modest and not particularly wine-worthy. “Can’t we wait until we can plan something that will be great with that wine?” I ask.

[%image cork float=left width=325 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/Mental Art" caption="Go ahead, open that bottle of wine you've been saving."]

And so the bottles are returned to their cubbyholes, where they lie forgotten and gathering dust (but aging) until the same scenario is repeated a few months later. The truth is that I never do end up planning a menu to go with particular bottles.

So on a very busy, not untypical Thursday a few weeks ago, we both arrived home at the end of the day, tired and hungry. It was also cold — in the low 20s and getting colder — and I was well chilled. Two winter months spent in Ireland last year taught me that the best way to warm up fast is to take a super-hot bath. And if it’s painfully hot, you’ll stay warm for hours. I headed off to scald myself and handed Patrick a few recipes for a book we’re writing together.

“Why don’t you cook them,” I asked. “After all, if this is a book on solo cooking, you need to know how to manage alone with these recipes.” He cheerfully agreed and started reading the instructions.

As I was happily soaking up all that good, wet heat, I heard a cork being pulled and smiled in anticipation of a glass being poured. A few minutes later, Patrick brought a glass of gleaming garnet wine to my side. I swirled and sipped. 

“How is it?” he asked.

“What is it? “ I asked in return. “It’s really, really good!” 

It was so good, in fact, that I was sure we never would have opened it if we had known its identity.

“Some French wine that someone gave us,” Patrick replied, shrugging his shoulders, and went back to the kitchen and his task of cooking polenta and washing the chard for a braise of greens.

I had already made a mushroom ragout earlier in the day with some dried porcini gathered in the mountains last summer. We were going to have warm polenta, half of it soft, half of it firm, with these two vegetable toppings for dinner — a regular recipe-test sort of night. I dressed and came into the kitchen to help, but first I picked up the bottle. It was a 2001 Lalande-de-Pomerol.

“My God! Do you know what you opened?” I asked. 

Friends who are wine enthusiasts had given this bottle to me on my birthday last summer, and we had stashed it away and forgotten about it. Some old bottle someone gave us, indeed! Yes, this was exactly the kind of bottle we never would have opened had we discussed it first. But there it was, open, on a Thursday night, polenta bubbling away in the pot, a skillet of mushrooms simmering on the stove, some of us already pajama-clad.

We set the table, warmed my favorite little French plates, and sat down to what was actually a pretty good meal. The two polentas with their toppings were delicious and just the thing for this winter night. We had some odds and ends of cheeses, and with a little rummaging, I turned up some dark chocolates and shortbread cookies. We savored every drop of that lovely wine and every bite of that dinner, right down to the last morsel and crumb. 

This unplanned evening, with more-than-usual time spent at the table and definitely better-than-usual wine, allowed for better-than-usual conversation. We lingered and talked, then cleaned up, feeling relaxed and happy. It was a memorable meal and the kind of evening we should enjoy more often.

Why don’t we, we wondered, have more evenings like this? And who says the weekend is the only time for opening good bottles? Maybe another Thursday evening will unfold in the same way, a surprise born of a mistake of sorts. Or maybe we should just make it a habit to grab a bottle and open it without looking at the label on a plain old weeknight.

Coincidentally, we were invited to a dinner the following week that was based on just this problem — the wine that’s too good to open — and a suggestion from those same Wall Street Journal writers that people simply get together and uncork some of those precious bottles. They call this Open That Bottle Night. We were a few weeks late for the official OTBN date of February 23, but that hardly mattered.

There were four couples at that dinner. We were each to bring a dish and a bottle, and we did. All of the wines were superb and the food was, too. But nothing had been paired since the wines weren’t known in advance. 

I suspect that some wine expert might judge that the pairings could have been better. But it wasn’t just wine that came out of those bottles. With each pull of the cork flowed the stories of why that wine had been chosen and what it meant to the couple who brought it. These stories, of course, led to more stories, so in the end, it was an evening filled with the special warmth that comes with good talk as well as good wine and food. Like our Pomerol-and-polenta evening, it was an night well worth repeating.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

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