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Matthew Abdoo of Pig Beach’s Foolproof Chardonnay Pairing

In the kitchen with the chef as he cooks an upstate New York classic.

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Certain oaked chardonnays, bogged down and unbalanced due to their thick vanilla, butter, and baking spices, have given the grape a bad rep. But there’s a reason why chardonnay is the most planted grape variety in the U.S. Great oaked chardonnay brings a lot to the table — its full body, unique tasting notes, and signature warmth set it apart from other whites.

Image by Ashlie Juarbe

Harken is not what you assume an oaked California chardonnay to be. It’s crisp and acidic, yet creamy on the palate with notes of pear and pineapple, and finishes with just a hint of vanilla and toast. It brings together the nuance and spice of French oak with the robust coconut and vanilla flavors of American oak, thanks to barrel fermentation and eight months of aging in a fusion of French and American barrels. “With every Harken Chardonnay vintage the goal is the perfect balance of the acid, sweetness, oak, and aromatic intensity of the fruit,” Adam Popp, a Lead Winemaker at Harken, says. “This is accomplished by repeatedly blending and choosing different barrel lots to ensure each of these components exist in harmony. When this harmony exists the complexity and experience of the wine is greatly enhanced.” This process respects the oak without letting it overpower the beauty of the grape itself, and its balance of creaminess and acidity makes it a great pairing for foods from lobster to popcorn.

That’s why we teamed up with Matthew Abdoo — famous for leading the kitchen at awarded Italian restaurant Del Posto, and now the mind behind barbecue destination Pig Beach — to share a recipe that will get people excited about drinking and cooking with chardonnay again.

To find a dish that enhanced the warm flavors of the wine and matched its intensity, Abdoo went back to his Upstate New York roots. Chicken Riggies is an Italian-American pasta dish (“riggies” is short for rigatoni), smothered in a tomato cream sauce, packed with flavor from red peppers and mushrooms, and finished with hot vinegar peppers, basil, and Parmesan. Where Abdoo grew up in Utica, Chicken Riggies is a deeply ingrained regional classic. “Like bolognese in Bologna, every single restaurant and home you go to has a version of this dish,” he says. “Growing up, one of my friends’ mothers would make one of the best Chicken Riggies. She taught my mother the recipe, and this is a variation of that.”

Abdoo practices the bridging technique, or cooking and pairing with the same wine, to make a foolproof pairing that enhances the wine’s rich, buttery, and fruity flavors in the dish and the glass. “Bridging compounds the flavor,” Abdoo says. “It pairs incredibly well, and you can have a glass of wine as you’re cooking,” he laughs. While Chicken Riggies is all about the play between textures, and a balance of cream and spice, pairing it with a glass of Harken cuts through its richness and makes it even more complex.

For this dish, you can’t cook with just any wine: “The general rule of thumb is, always cook with wine you want to drink,” he says. “The better the wine, the better the flavor of the overall dish.” After all, wine brings something to the pasta that Abdoo would never be able to replicate.

“Wine has this ridiculous way to mimic flavor notes,” Abdoo says. “Why does something that is made from a grape taste like vanilla, peach, or pineapple? And whether that’s because of the grape itself or whether that’s because of the barrel it’s aged in, it can mimic those flavors in a way that other ingredients don’t. For a lack of a better word, it’s just really cool,” he laughs.

Once you learn this dish, it becomes a part of your repertoire, and you can endlessly customize it and make it your own. “Have fun with it,” Abdoo says. “It’s comfort food. It’s not supposed to be too serious.” In the first restaurant Abdoo worked in, they served Chicken Riggies with lobster. He’s also seen the sauce served without pasta and spooned over a bone-in, skin-on, and perfectly frenched chicken breast. The variations are endless. If you want to add more wine or more hot pepper, do so. The basic core flavors of the wine, the chicken, the tomato, and the cream are what’s important.

Like many Italian-American dishes, Chicken Riggies is meant to feed your soul, your entire family, and the neighbors next door. The dish “brings people together,” Abdoo says. “My favorite memories are waking up in the morning and my Italian grandmother …. cooking a recipe like this.

“My entire life is about food. Every milestone, every happy memory, every sad memory…food was at the epicenter of it all,” he says.”

So invite a few people over, fill your home with the rich scent of garlic and onions, tomatoes and butter, and get a bottle of two of Harken handy — you’ve just found your new favorite wine pairing.

Abdoo’s Chicken Riggies Recipe
Image by Ashlie Juarbe

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