Experiments in the Vegetarian Kitchen with Beaujolais and Butternut Mac & CheeseKaren Ulrich
IMBIBE NEW YORK
Tucked away just south of Mâcon, at the tail end of Burgundy, sits Beaujolais—the oft neglected, yet vigorous region devoted to the red grape Gamay. Capable of producing as much wine a year as the entire region of Burgundy, Beaujolais is typically associated with the November release of its potentially reputation-scaring Beaujolais Nouveau—a light and fruity simple red wine that’s meant to be drunk just months after it’s bottled. But if this isn’t to one’s liking, one should continue north, with her eyes on the horizon beyond the practices of carbonic maceration, chaptalization (the addition of sugar to increase the alcohol level or abv) and short fermentation; past the rich, cool limestone and clay of Bas Beaujolais, and across the Nizerand River where the soil, landscape, and wine, undergo great change.
Here, one will see the flat plains of the south give way to rolling hills of granite schist, where the vines receive more singular attention, and Burgundian-like wine making is practiced. There are 38 communes classified as Beaujolais-Villages, and ten crus, including—Julienas, Moulin-a-Vent, Morgon, Brouilly and Fleurie. And while some age-worthy wines are produced in these appellations, these are not the wines around which I created my vegetarian recipes this month. Since most meatless dishes stem from healthy peasant stock, I chose to harness this spirit by choosing affordable wines ($15 or less) that are suitable to drink and pair with the everyday meal.
Why Beaujolais? It’s a wine that many Americans bring to the Thanksgiving table, just a heartbeat away. And while the traditional turkey fare of this meal doesn’t interest me, a light bodied, red wine with low tannins and high acidity is a dream to pair in the Vegetarian kitchen.
For the recipes I began with a list of vegetarian ingredients that are known to pair well with Beaujolais or Gamay—fennel, onion, leeks, potato, eggs, capers, bell peppers, nuts, pumpkin, salad and cheeses that include cheddar, feta, and Swiss. And then I uncorked a bottle of 2008 Beaujolais L’Ancien Jean-Paul Brun Terres Dorees. It’s an exception from Sud Beaujolais, because Jean-Paul uses natural yeasts, minimal or no chaptalization or filtering, and little sulfites.
When poured, subtle aromas of red cherry—slightly candied—and earth rise from the glass, and when sipped, the red fruits (cherry and cranberry) are wholly integrated with the other elements. The finish is dry and earthy, and the acidity lingers straight through to the end. It’s super refreshing, especially when served slightly chilled, at 54-59 degrees.
For this bottle I created a dish of roasted green beans, red onion, feta, and hardboiled eggs, with a dressing of olive oil, lemon, garlic, and coriander and cumin. It’s a perfect match. The wine retains its bright fruit and acidity without biting back, while the lemon compliments the wine’s acidity. And though the pairing is harmonious, there’s a silent display of fireworks that illuminates both fruit and acidity, like a torch in a cave. On the finish, the wine follows in the footsteps of the suggestive dressing, developing notes of spice.
My second pairing failed miserably, both as a recipe and with the wine. I’ll only mention that it included capers, feta, roasted red peppers, broccoli, and toasted walnuts; and that it didn’t work—it’s a tinny combination that turns the Beaujolais tangy and astringent, like under-ripe fruit.
Thankfully, recipe number three—Butternut Mac and Cheese—is delightful, though it took a few attempts to get the oven times, textures, and temperatures right.
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Butternut Mac and Cheese
- 1 medium butternut squash (3 lbs.)
- 3 tbs. olive oil
- 2 cups of chopped onions
- 1 lb. pasta, cooked al dente
- 2 tbs. butter
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 4 cups grated cheese (I used 3 cheddar and 1 cup brought from Amsterdam by Lee)
- 1/8 tsp. nutmeg
- 1 1/2 tbs. salt
- pepper to taste
- grated Parmesan cheese
In a pan, heat 2 tbs. of oil, and cook the onions until they’re sweaty—still a bit firm and crunchy—approximately 5 minutes.
Mix the onions in a bowl together with the reserved squash, milk and cream, grated cheese, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
Toss the al dente pasta with 2 tbs. of butter and combine this with the mix.
Pour into an ungreased 9x11 (or 9x13) pan and bake uncovered for 15 minutes at 400˚.
The end result is creamy with contrasting flavors—the sweet and salty earth of the squash; the onions, slightly firm and candied, pop against a background of creamy savory cheese—it’s hearty and healthy, whether eaten alone or with a salad of baby greens and mustard vinaigrette dressing.
The first time I prepared this dish, I paired it with 2008 Beaujolais-Villages La Lutine Domaine Des Terres Vivantes—a wine with smoky minerality and a petticoat of cherry. It’s silky, and slightly floral with fruit that lingers on the finish; and as the wind blew through my window, wafts of fruit rose from the glass that sat on the table beside me. I love the minerality on the nose, and when paired with the first round of Butternut Mac and Cheese, La Lutine compliments the squash, rendering it sweet and fruity. The sweaty onions are lively and the cherry flavors in the wine are highlighted against a backdrop of cheddar cheese. The pairing is like two new lovers walking hand in hand beneath a canopy of fall colored leaves; the couple not yet wholly integrated after years in each other’s company—each maintaining harmonious but separate identities.
For the second round, I opened a bottle of 2007 Château du Chatelard Beaujolais-Villages Vielles Vignes—a more mature Beaujolais, both in age and texture. Here, one finds dark cherries sprinkled on a damp forest floor. While the acidity is not electric, it’s enough to keep the rustic tannins in check. Near the finish, the fruit goes back in time, to appear—if only for a moment—once again young. And while I enjoy but do not love the wine on it’s own, it pairs perfectly with the Butternut Mac and Cheese.
As with the last bottle, the wine accentuates the sweetness of the dish. The tannins that once seemed somewhat out of place, are replaced with clove spice; and the earthy elements of the wine now have a role with purpose. The onions, squash, and nutmeg are earthy and sweet, and the wine compliments these notes returning in kind, a love letter stamped with earth and fruit.