We drink it to celebrate everything from sporting events to the birth of a baby. We launch ships with it, ring in the New Year with it and fall in love while sipping it. In fact, the very word "champagne" suggests celebration. Cooking with champagne left over after New Year's parties is a fine way to perpetuate a celebratory feeling and put the last bit to good use.
Serena Sutcliffe, an English wine master and author of "Champagne: The History and Character of the World's Most Celebrated Wine" (Simon & Schuster, $29.95), says champagne is "extremely eclectic."
"It is a mistake to think you have to stay with classic French cooking when serving champagne."
The trick, wine experts say, is to select the correct champagne for the foods you are eating.
"As people learn more about how champagne is made, they'll have an easier time matching it to different foods," says Tony LaBarba, president of American Wine & Importing Co.
The novice should remember a few basic concepts.
First, champagne is categorized according to the amount of sugar in the finished bottle. Natural is the driest possible classification, with no sugar added. Brut has about 1.5 percent sugar to give it a dry, crisp, delicate taste. These drier champagnes are best served as aperitifs and with food.
Extra dry has 1.5 to 2 percent sugar added, making it a highly recommended champagne for cooking. Dry (or sec) has between 2 and 4 percent and is sometimes referred to as "American taste." Demi sec has 4 to 6 percent sugar, making it a good dessert wine.
Second, the type of grapes determines flavor. A rose champagne, made from red grapes, has a fruitier taste and goes better with heavier food. Champagne made primarily from white grapes goes best with first courses and lighter foods.
Rich and salty flavors are set off by the bubbles and acidity of champagne.
Third, the only true test is to experiment with favorite champagnes and favorite foods. For instance, champagne often is overwhelmed by garlic, blue cheese, strong curries and very hot peppers. While the bubbly texture is ideal for creamy foods such as shellfish, pate and light sauces, it mixes less successfully with heavily textured foods such as layered desserts or dishes with nuts.
Champagne chops Makes 4 servings.
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 (2-ounce) boneless center cut pork loin chops, about 1/2 inch thick
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 cup champagne
1/4 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
1/2 cup heavy cream
Combine flour, salt and pepper. Lightly dredge chops in flour mixture. Heat oil and butter in large skillet; add chops and saute about 2 minutes on each side. Add champagne and cook over medium heat about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove chops, set aside and keep warm. Add mushrooms and cream to skillet. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, just until thickened. Return chops to pan, cook just to reheat and serve immediately. Champagne recommendation: Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noir.
Orange creme caramel Makes 4 servings.
In this recipe the caramel is made with sugar and champagne instead of the more usual sugar and water.
1 1/2 cups sugar (divided)
1/4 cup champagne
2 cups milk
contents of 1 vanilla bean (tiny seeds), 3 to 4 inches long, slit open
2 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
grated peel of 1 orange
In a small saucepan or skillet, heat 1 cup sugar and champagne over medium-high heat until mixture turns a caramel color. Divide the caramel among 4 individual custard cups.
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Bring the milk and vanilla seeds to a boil. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks and remaining sugar. Slowly add the hot milk to the eggs, stirring constantly, but not whisking air into the mixture. Add the grated orange peel and pour into the custard cups.
Place the custard cups in a baking pan and add water up to half the height of the custard cups. Bake in the water bath in oven for 40 to 50 minutes or until the custard is round on top and a small knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove the baking pan from the oven and let the custard cups cool in the water bath. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.
To remove the custard, run a knife around the inside of the cup, then invert it onto the serving dish. With a short snap forward, the custard should come out. Champagne recommendation: S. Anderson Brut.
Marty Primeau is a Dallas free-lance writer.