Ageless companions

A Central Market class elicits beautiful music from wine & cheese

When you need to add something fresh to your regular repertoire of meals, or you want to delve deeper into something you already love, cooking classes beckon. This home cook experienced that yearning a few nights ago and grabbed one of the last seats for Central Market's "Perfect Pairings," class hosted by Paula Lambert of the Mozzarella Company, Dallas, and Susan Auler, owner of Fall Creek Vineyards in the Hill Country. I snatched a seat in the front, which bodes well for first dibs on the yummies. The mingling aromas of fresh herbs and garlic combined with the warmth from something exciting in the oven provided a comforting environment, while the curved tables invited us into the kitchen, which rivaled all those we've seen on PBS and Food Network cooking shows.

Fromage a trios: The Fall Creek Sauvignon Blanc (NV), sturdy and sippable, pairs well with mozzarella and Texas Goat Cheese. (Photo by Julie Barnett)

"Perfect Pairings" explored the relationship of food and wine. Lambert experienced the old tradition of cheesemaking during long stays in Italy, France, and Greece where she learned the recipes and techniques necessary for producing the three tasty cheeses we sampled: a mozzarella roll filled with basil pesto, fresh Texas goat cheese topped with Herbs de Provence and rolled in black pepper, and Caciotta seasoned with fresh herbs from Texas. She placed each on a dark platter noting proper presentation styles while relating that cheeses should be served at room temperature because warming softens texture and reveals true flavor. Traditionally, red wine is served with cheese, but Auler poured a Fall Creek Sauvignon Blanc (non-vintage), a sturdy, sippable wine, that stood up suprisingly well. Soft, subtle herbs balanced the nutty mozzarella, while the Texas goat cheese alternated between a smooth and crunch, with its outer pepper coating. The Caciotta, similar to Monterey Jack, showed a soft texture and bouquet of fresh herbs.

Meanwhile, Lambert zipped around the kitchen, chopping and dicing in preparation for our next course: tuscan white bean and escarole soup with parmigiano. When purchasing Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, she noted, one should look for little white marks and subtle crystallization. Parmagiano is a great neutralizer in food, and can be served with either red or white wine. The taste of the soup rendered a slight and lovely bitterness from the escarole, which was balanced by the earthiness of the beans and cheese. Auler served a Perfect 10 Monterey Chardonnay with just a kiss of oak. The soup and wine married well and, while the chardonnay remained lively on the palate, neither flavor upstaged the other.

No meal is complete without the perennial salad. Lambert created a standard recipe, with green apples, toasted pecans and goat cheese from her 2000 book The Cheese Lover's Cookbook. The most important footnote for this salad is making sure the pecans are indeed toasted and not using straight vinegar, which could be overly acidic. Instead, make the vinaigrette from balsamic and lemons, which provide a rich, smooth flavor. The Fall Creek Sauvignon Blanc (non-vintage) reappeared here, and while it at first seemed too sugary a companion, it actually paired nicely with the salad as the acidity from the dressing absorbed the sweetness.

Next, the main attraction: cornish game hens delivered in flights by the snappy CM kitchen staff. The kitchen is operated by Mary Martini, and it should be noted that the International Association of Culinary Professionals recently voted Central Market one of the top three cooking schools in the US. True to these high praises, the game hens, resting on a creamy pool of polenta laced with gorgonzola and paired with Auler's Fall Creek Vineyard Merlot 2001, didn't disappoint; the entire room fell silent but for the sounds of focused quaffing and clinking silverware. The merlot, seemingly sidelined by its admonishment in the film Sideways, engaged the herbed hens and robust gorgonzola with nice spice.

Inspired by the prowess of Lambert and Auler's pairings, I made my way down to the cheese and wine sections, happy to wander while my meal digested. And what better place to take a class than surrounded by all the items one needs to practice the lesson? The CM staff are very knowledgeable, and listened carefully to my questions, offering guidance and suggestions as I searched for dessert.

Noshing on a cheese plate before the entreé is delightful, but predictable: Why not pair it with a digestif and call it dessert? The rule is to find wines that are sweeter than the fromage. I picked up several blue cheeses - a Roquefort, Stilton and Cabrales - and, for good measure, an aged gouda. I found a few dessert wines, which come in half bottles, and a late harvest Riesling. The big blues' duet with Lindemans Griffith Botrytis from Australia served as a counterpoint to the saltiness of the cheese. The Bonny Doon ice wine known as Muscat Vin de Glaciere displayed vibrancy and exaggerated notes of apricot in its zeal to play host to the English Stilton. Our Joseph Phelps Late Harvest Riesling 2002, slightly sweet, extracted the creamy, butterscotch flavor of the gouda. Overall, a delicious end to a pleasant evening.

Central Market classes are listed in a catalogue available in-store. A word of warning: CM's cooking classes sell out quickly, so it's good to call ahead for reservations, 368-8617. As the wildflowers bloom around our lovely state, let this be a reminder: as the seasons change, so should the home cook.

By Melissa Sutherland-Amado

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