Pumbaa: “Hey, kid, what's eatin' ya?”
Timon: “Nothin'. He's on top of the food chain!”
-The Lion King
Astute observers of the Vine know that I love me some meat. Well, I love most food in general, but I'm not sure that I could ever be a vegetarian. I tried removing animals from the ol' diet during a brief, dark once-upon-a-time down Florida way, but it didn't take. I've got too much of the "how do you know you don't like it if you've never even tried it" hardwired into my palate, I guess.
I try my best to include potential food pairings with my reviews – pairings which often involve some suggestion of a meat dish. I do realize not everyone shares my particular omnivorous eating pattern. There are lots of folks, like my friends opening Kitchen 452 in Cincinnati, who choose to be more kind to our web-footed friends (and their hoofed, finned, & clawed compatriots), sparing these critters a quick trip to Dinnersville.
One of the better dinner parties we've thrown here at Vine HQ involved an entirely meatless menu, so I've seen firsthand not only how much wine my vegetarian friends can throw down, but also how well vegetarian dishes go with well-paired wine.
In the interests of egalitarian dining, or if you’re considering doing some more meatless meals for health purposes or new year’s resolutions, here are some general wine recommendations to go with whatever meat substitute you’re planning to plate up for the evening.
All these recommendations should be viewed through the prism of one of the Vine’s universal truths: "People make wine to go with what they're eating.” For example, if you’re making an Italian-based recipe, Italian wine is your best bet. Tapas will work with Spanish wine. Also, if you’re making spicy curries or other Asian flavors, the classic pairings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer will likely be winners.
Tofu: The Swiss Army knife of vegetarian cooking, tofu is made by taking soy milk and adding a coagulant of some sort to curdle the milk. The resulting curds are then pressed into the blocks you see in the grocery store. The type of coagulant used determines the texture of the tofu, so combinations are often used. Acid-coagulated tofu creates softer, “silken” tofu while salts and/or enzymes create a firmer texture.
As for what wine to pair with your tofu dish? There’s not an answer to that question. Tofu in and of itself barely has any flavor, as you probably know. It does, however, absorb the flavor of whatever else is in the pot, wok, skillet, or other cooking implement. Your wine pairing reflect the dominant flavor of the sauce. For Asian preparations, a dry Riesling or a very light red like a Beaujolais would be fine. For grilled tofu, especially if marinated, a fruity wine like a merlot would go well. For flavored tofu preparations like “soyrizo” or “tofurkey” use the corresponding pairing for the meat. I’d go with Rioja and either a pinot noir or a chardonnay, respectively, in those cases.
The same sort of pairing suggestions guide also works with tofu’s first cousin Tempeh, which is made from soybeans fermented and pressed into blocks. This has a much firmer texture and can be used for kabobs, broken up for a ground meat substitute in something like vegetarian chili, etc. It has a slightly nutty flavor, but is generally pretty neutral.
Roasted Vegetables: When you roast almost anything, the heat causes the sugars in whatever you have in the oven to caramelize, bringing out the sweetness and deepening the flavors as the cooking process proceeds. Sweet potatoes, zucchini, squash, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes – you name it. Toss them in olive oil and sliding them into a 425˚ oven for an appropriate amount of time yields a scrumptious base for any number of dishes. Smoky, bright, and slightly sweet works well next to a chardonnay that’s got body and a little oakiness. California chardonnays make an excellent choice with almost any roasted vegetarian preparation, as do most white Burgundies other than Chablis. Chablis’ delicacy gets run over a bit by roasted flavors. In my kitchen, there are two major exceptions to the chardonnay rule, which are…
Eggplant and Mushrooms: Two of my favorite foods of all time. I use eggplant in any number of dishes – my favorites being eggplant parmesan where I grill the eggplant slices and a roasted eggplant and tomato dish served over couscous. Eggplant gets a very smoky, savory flavor when roasted or grilled. The chemical composition that can give eggplant a bitter flavor is actually countered nicely by tannic wine, so think big. For the Parmesan, I’ll break out a Barbera, or Super Tuscan Italian wine. For the roasted dish, I look to the Rhone region. If you’re feeling like splurging, roasted eggplant and Chateauneuf-de-Pape is a gorgeous side-by-side, but Cotes du Rhone works well, too. Young California cabernet is also a good match with almost any eggplant dish.
As for the tasty, tasty fungus – mushrooms add, unsurprisingly, an earthy flavor to any dish. On their own, whether grilled or sautéed, they’ll have a flavor that you want to keep far from almost any white wine. You want something with an earthy backbone, yet not too heavy. Either of the French “B’s” – Bordeaux or Burgundy – work well. I personally think grilled Portabella mushroom caps and an Oregon pinot is a little slice of heaven.
Quinoa – America is finally catching on to this wonderful, nutty-flavored South American grain, which is one of the best meat substitutes our there as far as nutritional content goes. Quinoa (pronounced KEE-nwah) has a complete spread of amino acids, lots of iron, and cooks faster than rice in most preparations. Often used as a side, much like brown rice would be, I find it’s also an excellent base for a Latin-flavored salad, tossed with bell peppers, black beans, lime juice, cilantro and such. The “regional” pairing works nicely here, so look for a red from South America. You can’t go wrong with either Malbec or Carmenere. And speaking of beans:
Beans, Chickpeas, and other Legumes – Ah, the musical fruit. Beans and their various cousins are also very high in protein, fiber, B-vitamins, and all sorts of other goodnesses. The basic pairing rule is “the darker the berry, the darker the juice.” White beans like cannellini and cranberry beans, as well as chickpeas, like to go next to lighter whites. Sauvignon blanc and Chablis are good choices. For lentils, peas and the like – go with dry rosé or lighter reds like Chianti and Beaujolais. With kidney beans, black beans, and other dark ones, go bold! Zinfandel and earthy French reds like Cotes du Rhone and Bandol will pair nicely.