The last time I watched a football game all the way through, I lived in Baltimore, wore a Brownie uniform on Thursdays, and rooted for the local team -- the Colts. In those days we marked the Super Bowl with Chinese carry-out and Coke and liked it.
These days, Super Bowl Sunday usually finds me shuttered in my office while shouts emanate from the den where my husband and stepkids seem to believe they are helping some halfback with a pigskin tango his way through a thicket of linebackers. If I enter at all, it’s to watch the ads, which last year featured a man seducing a woman with his “Crunch Wrap Supreme” from Taco Bell and a teenager fainting from excitement when Jessica Simpson sticks a “Cheesy Bite” from Pizza Hut in his mouth. My own brood, munching on Domino’s pizza, seemed untroubled by the improbability of these scenarios.
This year, I felt I should intervene, I mean participate, which, for me, means planning and executing a menu (or, as my husband calls it, being a complete control freak). If the fast-food chains in this country haven’t changed much since the ‘70s, the wider food and wine culture certainly has. I took this year’s choice of halftime entertainment -- Prince -- as a sign (or a symbol, if you will) that one could introduce something a little sophisticated into Super Bowl Sunday.
First of all, I decided there was to be no beer. I hate beer. I hate all beer. Given that there are so many wonderful new wine bars in the city, I thought I might ask some of the local proprietors about setting up an at-home wine bar. I mean, who could object to a long table of delicious small dishes, hunks of cheese and sausages and cured meats, olives in orange zest and herbs, and crusty breads?
To test the waters, and I was especially nervous about the beer part, I ran the idea by my husband. “As long as there are no green salads,” he said firmly. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s the Super Bowl,” he answered quickly, and his tone suggested I pursue the issue no further.
Not surprisingly, the local wine bar guys all thought this was a superb idea, an idea whose time had come -- perhaps about six years ago. “That’s when wine bars starting proliferating all over the country, people began trying many wines by the glass, and the curiosity about wine exploded,” says Mike Farwell, co-owner of Vertical Wine Bistro in Pasadena. He’ll be pouring at his place in Pasadena on Super Bowl Sunday.
I envisioned a spread with enough variety to remain interesting and surprising through five or so hours of continual face-feeding for 10 people. The star feature, I decided, would be charcuterie -- a fine big plate of sliced cured meats and dried sausages, which these days is easier than ever to assemble in impressive pedigrees. Look at your meat plate like an artist’s palette -- you want to vary the flavors and the textures and give each meat enough room to inspire experimentation.
Classy cold cuts
Have the deli slice some prosciutto, so silky it curls up like a pencil shaving, and a mortadella, spotted with circles of flavorful fat (you can find good ones at Bay Cities in Santa Monica, Mario’s Italian Deli in Glendale and a brand-new small deli in Silver Lake called Cardone’s, and artisanal versions at Cube in Los Angeles). Next to that I would place some denser meats, such as a coppa and a spicy sopressata for a little kick. You also want some uncut sausages that ask to be eaten in chunks on their own terms: a whole pepperoni or a nice hard chorizo, sitting suggestively next to a knife. I would steer away from a big side of ham and sliced bread because those things encourage the indelicate art of sandwich-making, and I want my guests to taste the flavors of the meats, as we are not talking Oscar Meyer baloney here.
If you want to do something patriotic for the afternoon, you could collect only American-made artisan meats: This isn’t the World Cup, for goodness sake. Fra’ Mani, which comes from Paul Bertolli in the Bay Area, is suddenly widely available; you can find it at Surfas in Culver City, Cube and many Italian delis and gourmet shops.
How much meat is always a question. After consulting with two experienced deli hands, Jim Tribuzi from Mario’s and Fred Heinemann at the Artisan Cheese Gallery in Studio City, I settled on a formula: one-third pound each of five or six meats. This should keep 10 happily tasting throughout the long afternoon.
As for cheese, I would pick three or four unfussy and/or rustic beauties, one-third pound each. For me, nothing enhances salty meats more than fresh mozzarella, and as Gioia Cheese Co. makes it right here in El Monte, you can get it really fresh. My local store has an organic sheep’s cheese called Lamb Chopper that I’m currently crazy about for its mysterious and subtle nuttiness. It comes from Cypress Grove Chevre in Northern California. Of course you can only take the patriotism thing so far. I would go out of the country, to Italy, for a slightly harder Piave, and to France for a lovely Comte.
This spread is too nice for crackers; as a delivery system I suggest baguettes or other crusty breads. I’d avoid anything that has olive or rosemary; the breads need to be canvases on which to really taste the meats. It’s the only ingredient you must buy day-of.
Because man cannot live by bread and meat and cheese alone, or if he can, he likes some cornichons and olives with that, I rounded out the menu with some savory dishes from local wine bars; these places know how to keep people nibbling and sipping happily for hours. I borrowed four for my ensemble. They’re homey bites that complement each other and a variety of wines without ever demanding top billing: duck rillettes from Sara Levine, chef at Vertical Wine Bar; a lemon-dill potato salad from Todd Barrie, chef at Upstairs 2 (the wine bar attached to Wine House in West L.A.); Suzanne Goin’s mushroom persillade from A.O.C.; and a yellowfin tuna confit salad (with emphatically no greens) from D.J. Olsen, the chef at Lou Amdur’s wine bar, Lou.
Amdur also suggests “a whole lot of different olives each with its own schmutz.” Barrie is more of a Spanish white butter bean man; he briefly sautes the beans with a dash of lemon juice and a drop of chili sauce, a little chopped parsley and garlic and some sliced cherry tomatoes.
And to drink ...
It should come as no surprise that the wine guys were eager to match grape juice to this smorgasbord. Amdur immediately took the big picture view. “For an event like the Super Bowl,” he says, “you do not want what the Italians call a wine of meditation or a wine of contemplation.” (I’m pretty sure he meant no insult to sports fans ... but he may have.) His first thought was to open an organic French hard cider from Normandy, which “functions more like a beer” (I kept my mouth shut), but is “more complex and adult.” Amdur would keep the day moving with two inexpensive sparkling wines, a Cremant de Bourgogne rose and a fizzy Italian red -- he loves a 2002 Picchione Sangue di Giuda. A Sangue di Giuda was also the first thought of David Haskell, owner of Bin 8945 in West Hollywood; he recommends one from Bruno Verdi.
Amdur would then move onto two more light-bodied wines that will counteract the fattiness of the meat: a Pinot Gris from Slovenia and a Beaujolais. At this point, when guests are going back for thirds, Amdur would open something “with a little meat on its bones,” a Valpolicella. Finally, he would finish with no dessert but a dessert wine, an inexpensive Sauternes. For 10 people he would serve at least 10 wines because, he says, “My friends have superior livers.”
Upstairs 2’s Barrie immediately thought of a Tyronia Albarino from Spain. “It’s light and crisp,” he explained, “and would please both Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc fans.”
Miguel Garza of the brand new Culver City wine bar Vinum Populi (“wine of the people”) thought of “wines that are approachable and can handle a variety of different flavors.” His enthusiasm for the 2004 Dominio de Eguren Protocolo from La Mancha, Spain, at $6, was palpable. “For the money it’s out of this world,” he said, before challenging me to find a lower-end wine that is more complex (I demurred). He lingered in Spain, picking a white Basa from Rueda, “which is very easy to drink, with just a little sweetness,” and a red from Campo de Borja, which “just blossoms in your mouth.”
As for dessert, Vertical’s Farwell goes for the so-simple-it’s-painful approach: “I love to eat a handful of grapes and a glass of Riesling.” After five hours of eating and watching and yelling, that might be just the thing.