Experiments in the Vegetarian Kitchen: Green Beans & Pinot Noir
Pairing vegetarian dishes with red wines is often like being dropped at a random lot in Tbilisi (true story). Wine writers, tasters, and critics always scream, Meat! as the first red drop hits their tongues, leaving me and nearly ten million other vegetarians in the US, with nowhere to turn. And while I get the bits about tannins and proteins and fat, as a vegetarian, I see no reason to condemn myself to a life of white grape imprisonment.
As the temperature drops, the contents of my glass evolves from white and pink to red, while I reach for my Russian and Georgian cookbooks, in search of something transitional, that’ll lead me through the change. And though not oft associated with vegetarian fare, these regions, along with the Mediterranean and Middle East, inspire the meatless meals that set our dining room table throughout the year.
With Georgia on my mind, I walk through the farmer’s market and stop before a display of green beans--dark in color, glistening, and piled high. It’s been almost a year since I last cooked “Georgian Green Beans”, a dish that includes cilantro, onions, garlic and eggs, and so I buy a pound or so and take it home.
Before cooking or uncorking a bottle, I thumb through What to Drink with What you Eat, a brilliant tome by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, curious to see their suggested pairings for green beans and cilantro. Locating my ingredients, I am not surprised to find only white wines. And since I have none in my fridge and starving is not an option—nor is dinner without wine—I have to think quick and experiment with what I’ve got.
Georgians traditionally use a lot of walnuts in their dishes, and walnuts, with their oily proteins and bitter finish, tend to pair well with the tannins in red wine. And so, I turn to Please to the Table—the Russian Cookbook by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman, in search of some inspiration and find it in a recipe for a green bean and walnut salad.
Sifting through a lifetime of pairings, I consider the fact that green beans are often served at Thanksgiving, as are sometimes walnuts. With this in mind, I pull a bottle that had just arrived in the mail (courtesy of the winery itself)—Sokol Blosser Pinot Noir Dundee Hills 2007, because I think it might work, with the wine assuming the role of a mouth-watering enhancer, like Thanksgiving dinner’s cranberry sauce. Light red fruit, tangy, and slightly sweet—the flavors I expect from a Pinot from Oregon—fruity but not as ripe as one from California, where the warmer climate yields riper grapes and wines with big fruit.
I pop the cork and pour a glass and sure enough, there it is—tart fruit on the nose, red cherry, raspberry, and cranberry; a little earth and spice. At 14.5% abv, there is a slight burn at the back of the throat, but not the full-on-blaze that I’d expected. The finish is slightly bitter and astringent, like cranberry sauce, and after a few sips, I bite into a walnut, roll the flavors around my mouth, and…Yes. The wine’s fruit and acidity tempers the walnut’s bitter finish…but cilantro? I pull a few leaves from a sprig, take a sip, and tear into the herb with my teeth. Suddenly two great waves rise in the midst of my kitchen, one cresting cilantro, and the other bright red fruit. Opposite one another, the waves peak, fall into each other and crash—leaving a sopping wet mess on my floor.
Cilantro is out.
Snapping a raw bean in two, I sense earth and herbal spice. Raw, it is not a perfect match with the wine, but perhaps cooking might temper the flavors, or in the end, they might just pair better with an Old World Syrah. Finally, since garlic=acidity, of which the wine has plenty, the recipe is adapted and I am ready to cook.
1/2 cup ground walnuts
2 medium garlic cloves crushed
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound of trimmed green beans, cut in half
1/4 medium-sized red onion, sliced thin
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
--Combine walnuts, garlic, vinegar, lemon juice, water, and oil. Mix thoroughly and let stand for 30 minutes.
--Boil enough salted water to cover the beans when added; then boil for as long as you like, no longer than 7 minutes. Drain and cool in ice water. Drain and pat dry.
--Toss beans with onion and add the dressing. Season with salt and pepper, and toss again.
(Adapted from Please to the Table—the Russian Cookbook by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman.)
Pairing is a two-way street. One route reflects how the wine affects the food and the other how the food alters, enhances, or neutralizes the wine. My immediate reaction to this particular pairing is Yes. I love how the Pinot coaxes the acidity of the red wine vinegar from the dish, encouraging the salad to shine, until it’s so full of life that flavors are popping like fireworks in my mouth. The green bean salad is suddenly illuminated, but in reverse, the walnut dressing coats the tongue, like a pair of shades on a sun-dazzle day. It somehow reduces the wine’s fruit and acidity, which works if you, like me, are one who prefers your fruit with the volume turned down. In this particular pairing, the sweet fruit of the wine is transferred to the dish, which establishes a relationship that involves a little sacrifice. It’s an interesting and fun experiment that anyone with a little time on his or her hands can conduct at home. It’s a pairing that serves to strengthen my resolve—this commitment to keep searching through ingredients, aromas, textures, and flavors until I find pairings that enhance both vegetarian dishes and red wines.
By: Karen Ulrich
Imbibe New York