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Chef James Rigato on Pairing Cider with Food

Unlike many chefs who lean toward wine or beer to complement their cooking, Mabel Gray chef James Rigato is a big believer in pairing cider with food. “When you start talking about ciders made with heirloom apples and estate-grown fruit, it becomes extremely exciting,” says the Michigan native and the former Top Chef contestant.

At Mabel Gray, located just outside of Detroit, Rigato regularly pairs hard cider with his dishes, and he credits Angry Orchard head cider maker Ryan Burk with opening his eyes to the diversity and quality of American ciders. The two have teamed up for several cider pairing dinners—one at the James Beard House last fall, and a more recent one at the cidery’s orchard in Walden, New York. “We picked eight different ciders to go with each course,” says Rigato. “Ryan picked out different kinds of glassware for each cider and we were very specific about everything down to the level of carbonation in each bottle.”

Rigato made dishes like savory pork belly and fresh apple kimchi to match ciders from Burk’s collection. For a green curry made with clams and coconut milk, Angry Orchards’s Oval Nouveau—a light, dry cider with a vinegary tartness and slightly funky finish—helped build a flavor bridge between the dish and the drink. And the Champagne-style Newtown Pippin paired perfectly with oysters. “We served it with grilled Little Harbor oysters with miso butter and scallion. The warm miso and cold cider combination was fantastic,” Rigato says.

For pairing cider and food at home, Rigato suggests thinking about cider in the context of an entire meal. “I treat cider almost like an ingredient,” he says. “If someone says endive, you’re not going to pair it with anything bitter. You have to find out where’s the acid, the fat, the smoke and how to balance it out.” Rich, fatty foods pair well with dry ciders, particularly those from the Spain’s Basque region. Rigato says pork belly, cured ham, roast chicken, octopus, potatoes and cheese all pair well with Sidra Trabanco, and he also recommends the wild fruit releases from Whaleback Cider in Maine.

When your food lands on the dry side, Rigato suggests reaching for a cider with more fruit-forward qualities. “I don’t prefer sweeter ciders by themselves, but with spicy food, bitter greens, funky cheeses and certain charcuterie, sweet cider can be really enjoyable,” he says. “My local favorite in Michigan is Spicer’s Orchard Original. It’s medium dry, but it leans sweet.”

For dessert? Reach for an ice cider like the ones made at Eden Cider in Vermont. The style is made with juice that’s naturally cold-concentrated outdoors during the winter. The ABV is higher than your average hard cider, and the higher sweetness makes it read more like a dessert wine than a fizzy fresh cider. “Eden Ice cider snuggles up to poached fruit, custards and pastries very well,” Rigato says.

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