PAIRINGS June 2001

PAIRINGS June 2001

Veggies & Vino

With more and more diners choosing vegetarianism – or at least eating more meatless meals – savvy pairing of wine with greens, beans, grains and tubers is taking on new urgency at dinnertime.

Wherever I teach, from the diminutive Cooking School of Aspen in Colorado to Ramekins in Sonoma Valley or Central Market in Austin, Texas, I am always asked how to select wines that go with vegetarian dishes.

At first the frequency of the questions puzzled me, but I’ve come to believe that the queries stem not so much from the difficulty of such pairings as the fact that most vegetarians, as a group anyway, are newer to wine than your average urban omnivore. Wine geeks and foodies may have no problem selecting a varietal to merge seamlessly with, say, winter squash in green curry (Gewürztraminer, Riesling or Syrah) or a creamy eggplant gratin (dry Rosé), but many vegetarians are wary of alcoholic beverages. They have grown increasingly curious since the early ’90s, when the health benefits of wine were discovered. And there’s plenty of cross-pollination, too. Carnivores are eating more vegetables, and without a slab of protein in the center of the plate, are often at a loss when perusing the cellar.

The Rules are the Same
When it comes to vegetarian menus, selecting complementary wines is actually not that much different than it is for menus that focus on seafood, meat and poultry. Grilled fish wants a different wine than poached; steak au poivre blanc, with its creamy sauce, needs a different vinous companion than steak au poivre rouge, with its dark reduction sauce. You consider the flavors of the grill, the delicacy of poaching, the texture and flavor of the sauces. And what about chicken, duck or turkey? Generally, the darker the meat, the redder the wine, but seasonings and techniques will determine your exact choice. The same approach applies to vegetarian dishes.

When vegetables (or grains or legumes) are the main dish rather than a side, you need to consider three things: the characteristics of the ingredient itself, the method of preparation and the sauce or seasonings. Raw summer tomatoes might be best with Sherry, sparkling wine, or Sauvignon Blanc, but if they’re cooked into a tomato custard tart or a garlicky sauce, a Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley is an excellent choice. Raw or steamed zucchini in salads and sandwiches is particularly good with Sauvignon Blanc, but season it with cumin and put it on the grill, and you’ll be better off reaching for a Rhône-style red.

Just Do It
The best way to learn the grammar of pairing wine with vegetable dishes is to do it, again and again and again, until you’ve built up a core of intuitive knowledge—an instinct that will lead you to the best wines no matter what the meal. Explore the wine lists at high-end vegetarian restaurants, such as the famed Greens in San Francisco’s Marina District, and if you’re at sea when it’s time to make a choice, ask your server for suggestions.

I find all but my most adventurous students are comfortable with just a few wines, and rely on them for almost everything. Yet Chardonnay, white Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon flatter a very limited number of vegetarian creations. I encourage my students to be bold, to take a vow of abstinence when it comes to those wines, and to drink nothing but unfamiliar ones for a month. I often hear back that the explorations have been remarkably successful, and now and then, a student tells me they have never enjoyed wine more. Before I send them off, I offer specific suggestions for some of my favorite pairings, as I do here.


Roasted Beets with Walnuts and Feta

The earthy sweetness of beets, the salty tang of feta and the toasty crunch of walnuts go well with a Pinot Noir’s pleasing acidity and silky texture.

Wine recommendations: If you use red beets, consider a wine from California’s Carneros region, such as Saintsbury, Acacia or Gloria Ferrer. With golden or Chioggia beets, which are milder and more delicate than red ones, choose a Pinot Noir from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley (such as Gary Farrell, J. Rochioli, or Lynmar), or from Santa Maria Valley (such as Byron or Au Bon Climat).

  • 2 bunches medium beets, trimmed
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted
  • 3 ounces feta cheese, drained and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
  • Zest of 1 lemon, minced or grated
  • Ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375F. Arrange beets in shallow baking dish and toss with about 1 teaspoon olive oil, season lightly with salt and roast until beets are tender when pierced with a fork, 35 to 50 minutes, depending on the size of the beets. Let beets cool slightly, then peel with your fingers. Cut beets into wedges and place into medium serving bowl. Add walnuts, feta and lemon zest, and toss gently. Drizzle with remaining oil, season generously with black pepper and serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.


Olive Risotto with Basil

The signal ingredient in this seductive risotto is not the rice; rather, it is dark, sensual olives, the richness of which is softened by both rice and cheese. The tomato concassé topping adds flavor, and the addition of a small amount of red wine enhances the final pairing by adding a layer of flavor that is tied directly to the wine. Use a mix of olives, such as 3 ounces California black olives, 3 ounces Kalamata or Niçoise olives and 2 ounces oil-cured black olives.

Wine recommendations: For a flawless match, consider a Côte du Rhône, Dolcetto d’Alba, or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

  • Tomato Concassé:

    • 1 pound ripe red tomatoes
    • Kosher salt
    • 1 teaspoon minced fresh basil
    • Ground black pepper

    Peel tomatoes by placing them, one at a time, on the tines of a long fork and holding them over a gas flame or hot electric burner, rotating fork constantly so that skins sear evenly. Each tomato will need just 5 to 15 seconds over heat. Let tomatoes cool until you can handle them easily. Use your fingers to remove skins. Cut out stem core, cut each tomato in half horizontally and squeeze out seeds and gel. Chop tomatoes until nearly reduced to pulp and transfer pulp to a strainer lined with cheesecloth and let drain for 20 minutes. Reserve liquid for another use; spoon tomato pulp into small bowl, stir in basil and season with salt and pepper. Set aside, covered, until ready to use. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.


    • 2 thyme sprigs
    • 4 to 6 cups hot vegetable stock
    • 1/4 cup olive oil
    • 3 shallots, minced
    • 4 garlic cloves, minced
    • 1 1/2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
    • Kosher salt
    • Ground black pepper
    • 1/2 cup medium-bodied red wine
    • 8 ounces pitted olives, minced
    • 3/4 cup (about 3 ounces) grated dry Jack or Parmigiano cheese
    • 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
    • 2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley
    • Fresh basil sprigs, for garnish

    Add thyme sprigs to the stock and keep warm over low heat.

    Heat olive oil in large sauté pan set over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and sauté until soft and fragrant, 6 to 7 minutes. Add garlic and sauté 2 minutes more. Increase heat to medium. Add rice and stir with wooden spoon until grains begin to turn milky white, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

    Add wine and stir until it is completely absorbed. Add stock, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition until liquid is nearly absorbed. Continue adding stock and stirring until rice is almost done, about 15 minutes. Stir in olives and cheese and continue adding stock and stirring until rice is tender, 3 to 5 minutes more. Add minced basil and parsley and remove from heat. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

    Divide among individual soup plates, spoon a little concassé over each portion and garnish with basil sprigs. Serves 4


Regarding the Artichoke
Although in general you should ask the same questions about vegetable dishes that you do about those with animal protein (How is the method of preparation influencing flavor? What are the seasonings? How much fat or acid is in the sauce?) certain vegetables contain chemical compounds that influence our taste buds, briefly altering our perception of everything we put in our mouths. Artichokes are notorious, but that doesn’t mean you have to eschew wine when you enjoy everybody’s favorite thistle.

The Impossible Match
Some references suggest leaving wine out when serving artichokes. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Sometimes I just reach for a beer,” Debbie Zachareas, co-owner and wine director at Bacar Restaurant and Wine Salon in San Francisco says as we discuss artichokes. Yet her first choice is Champagne, a safe and oh-so-delicious bet with artichokes no matter how they are prepared. With a simple steamed artichoke, served at Bacar with lemon aioli and sea salt, Zachareas recommends Chenin Blanc, with its brightness, acidity and complexity.

When it comes to wine, artichokes need special consideration because they contain cynarin, an organic acid. According to food scientist Harold McGee, cynarin stimulates certain receptors in our taste buds, making everything, including wine, taste sweeter for a short time. Because of this characteristic, popular wisdom once held that artichokes simply should not be served with wine, but there’s no reason to abstain when finding a good match is so rewarding.

Certainly, an artichoke will throw a buttery Chardonnay, fruity Merlot, or bold Cabernet Sauvignon out of balance, but there are countless pairings that will flatter both the wine and the artichoke. Mark Lusardi, chef and owner of Emma in San Francisco’s North Beach, recommends Arneis, a white Italian variety (Ponzi in Oregon makes a good one), or a young Vouvray. An artichoke dressed in vinaigrette almost begs for a lean, flinty Sancerre or Sauvignon Blanc. Throw it on the grill, roast it in the oven, or fold it into a tomatoey sauce, and that artichoke will charm a light Pinot Noir or a soft Dolcetto.


Artichokes Mimosa

Wine recommendations: Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, Reverdy Sancerre, Domaine Carneros Blanc de Blanc.

  • 4 large artichokes, preferably Green Globe variety
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • 2 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and chilled
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh Italian parsley

Fill a large pot about two-thirds full with water, add salt and artichokes and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, cover and boil until the artichokes are just tender, 15 to 30 minutes (depending on the size and variety of the artichokes). To test for doneness, use tongs to remove one artichoke from the water. Turn upside down and push a wooden skewer or fork through stem end. If it slips in with just a little resistance, artichoke is done. Drain, rinse in cool water and set aside until easy to handle. Remove and discard tough outer leaves from cooked artichokes. Pull off remaining tender leaves and set them aside. Cut choke from each heart, trim stem so that it’s no more than 1/8 inch long, and cut hearts from each artichoke in quarters.

Pour 2 tablespoons oil into medium sauté pan set over medium-low heat, add shallot and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 7 minutes. Do not let it brown. Add garlic, sauté 1 minute more, add lemon juice and artichoke hearts, toss quickly and heat through. Add remaining olive oil, season with salt and several turns of black pepper, remove from heat and keep warm.

Arrange artichoke leaves in a circle on a serving plate, leaving room in center for hearts. Place artichoke hearts in center of plate and drizzle vinaigrette over hearts and fleshy part of leaves. Press eggs through medium-sized sieve (or grate them on the smallest blade of a cheese grater), and scatter the pieces over the artichoke hearts. Sprinkle with black pepper and parsley and serve immediately. Serves 4.


Published on June 1, 2001

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