A recent challenge presented to me was to cook a four-course Italian meal, with wine pairings, for a vegetarian group. It's not often that I'm asked to prepare a vegetarian dinner. Even being a recovering vegetarian myself, I still find it difficult to wrap my brain around a meal that excludes meat in all forms. Also, we often don't realize how many dishes contain meat as a secondary ingredient, such as a chicken stock added to a risotto or pancetta in any number of Italian sauces. Outside of the Vegetarian Italian theme, the cuisine itself was left entirely up to me.
I decided to go to my favorite region in Italy, Piedmont. A trick to pairing food and wine is to match a traditional wine from one region with a traditional food from the same region. Also, cooking vegetarian is easy with Italian foods since so many of them are truly simple preparations that rely entirely on the quality of a small number of ingredients prepared just right. If you know the profile of an ingredient, namely its flavor, aroma and texture, then you can usually substitute it for something similar. In the end, experimentation can yield amazing results, but I would recommend experimenting on yourself or friends before getting too creative.
First Course: Bagna CaudaIf you love roasted garlic and olive oil then you haven’t lived until you’ve tried bagna cauda. However, creating bagna cauda for a vegetarian party presented a bit of a challenge since a key ingredient to this traditional Piedmont preparation is anchovies. The goal was to create a similar flavor profile that the anchovies would lend to the dish. This was accomplished through the addition of finely chopped capers, rosemary, and a small amount of red pepper flakes. The end result was so close that I could hardly notice the difference. The bagna cauda was presented with a selection of items to dip consisting of raw carrots, Belgian endive, cauliflower, sweet peppers, fennel, and cooked beets.
Wine Pairing: Bartolo Mascarello, Freisa Nebbiolata 2005The wine was a bit of a wildcard, being that this was the first time that I had ever tasted a Freisa, and I was honestly quite worried that the pairing may not work. So much so that an Arneis was kept in private reserve, just in case. However, my worries were for nothing. The wine played the perfect partner with its zippy acidity and bitterness that cut through the rich oil and roasted garlic flavors of the bagna cauda. So you think, wait a second, red wine against raw vegetables? And you’re right, if these veggies were on their own then this would never have worked. However, with the combination of the velvety, rich, sweet garlic flavors of the bagna cauda, it was a perfect match. The Freisa was a dark ruby red wine with a nose of vibrant strawberry, cherries, olives, and fall leaves. On the palate, it was full of cherry and cranberry fruit with earthy oak and a gorgeous bitter finish that begged you to take another sip.
Second Course: Risotto ai tre pomodori (Three Tomato Risotto)A new recipe in my collection, and sure to have many repeat performances, is the Three Tomato Risotto. This plate presents an intense flavor profile of sweet and sour caramelized tomato, which is obtained through the mixture of a strained tomato vegetable stock, roasted baby plum tomatoes, and sun-dried tomatoes. Each addition adds different complexities and is all brought together by a healthy addition of wine, preferably the same wine you plan to pair with the plate.
Wine Pairing: Giacomo Conterno, Barbera D’Alba 2006In my opinion, one of the best wines to pair with a risotto is Barbera for it’s lively, nearly electric fresh fruitiness that’s mixed with dark earthy notes. I also find that Barbera is the perfect accompaniment to anything tomato. It’s as if they were made to go together. This pairing was no different; the barbera’s juicy acidity cut through the rich layers of creamy tomato and added dark, woodsy nuances that you must taste to believe. The nose is almost smoky with plum, savory broth, mushrooms, and moist earth. On it’s own, the wine is full-bodied with raspberry, fig, more mushroom, and a sweet mid-palate of red fruit that carries this wine’s brisk acidity to the end. The finish is long and fresh with cherry and cedar. You cannot go wrong with this combination.
Third Course: Robiola Due Latte & Parmigiano-Reggiano with poached figs and Italian plums.This plate is all about contrasts that work together to create harmonious flavors. Each item on its own is delectable, but when placed together they form complexities and a unity of flavors that excite and please the senses. One of the greatest cheeses coming out of Northwest Italy is Robiola: a soft rind cheese that coats the palate with a lush tangy and mildly sour flavor that ends with roasted nuts and earthy forest notes. When plated with any semi-sweet accompaniment, it really comes to life and accentuates the sweetness of that item, in this case, poached figs, Italian plums, and a Nebbiolo wine from a very ripe vintage. The Parmigiano-Reggiano is a complete opposite with a sharper, saltier fruit and nut flavor profile. It’s dressed with just a drizzle of 25-year-old acceto balsamico, which lends sweet wood and dark fruit notes. As the tasters work their way around this plate, their palates are constantly engaged by the drastic changes in sweet, salty and, sour.
Wine Pairing: Aldo Conterno, Il Favot 2003As for the wine, it showed a dark red color in the glass with aromas wafting up into the room after pouring into decanter. Everyone sat around waiting to take the official sniff. This bottle was open for three hours before serving and showed aromas of raspberry jam, roses, forest floor, mulling spices, and new leather. This is one of those Nebbiolos that you can smell, never taste, and still feel satisfied. On the palate, the flavors consist of blackberries and licorice with raisin, earth, leather, cinnamon, and a bit of charred wood on the finish, which is long with a tannic kiss. The combination with the cheese plate keeps the austere finish in check as the creamy texture of the Robiola coats the mouth or the salty sweet flavors of the Parmigiano-Reggiano makes it water. .
Dessert: Torta di nocciole with Zabaglione al caffé nero.When left to my own devises I tend to stray from traditional dessert course, but in this case it was requested. So what better way to show off Piedmont than with a dessert made primarily from Hazelnuts. The flavor profile of this succulent dessert is a mix of hazelnut, citrus, and dark chocolate in a moist, not too sweet, cake. Paired with an Espresso Zabaglione and spiked with Marsala wine, this is not a dessert for the uninitiated. The two parts (amazing on their own) paired perfectly together to create a vibrant, powerful combination.
After a successful evening, it was time to sit back and enjoy a few glasses of wine myself. It was fulfilling to have created a fine dining vegetarian meal that managed to retain the rich complexities and satisfying flavors of Northern Italy. And so there I sat with a glass of the 2003 Il Favot, happy to do nothing more than enjoy its enticing aromas for minutes on end.
Risotto ai tre pomodori (Three Tomato Risotto)
Serves four as a main course.
2 c strained tomatoes (Go for Imported San Marzano)
8 – 10 Sundried tomatoes (not marinated) diced
12 baby plum tomatoes
¼ c Olive oil
4 c vegetable broth
8 tbls (unsalted) butter cut into 6 pieces
1 sweet onion (fine dice)
2 c vialone nano (risotto rice)
2/3 c Red Wine (use the same wine you plan to pair with the meal)
½ c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
½ c chiffonade of basil (cut at the very last moment)
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. In a bowl add the baby plum tomatoes, a healthy pinch of salt and cracked pepper. Pour ¼ cup of olive oil over the tomatoes and stir lightly to coat. Place tomatoes on the sheet pan making sure to leave space between them.
2. Pour the Strained tomatoes and 4 cups of vegetable stock into a pot and stir till they come together. Place over low heat.
3. Heat a sauté pan over medium heat. Add half the butter to this pan and allow it to melt and coat the bottom. Add the onion and sundried tomatoes. Season lightly with salt and stir to coat with the butter. Cook until onions turn translucent.
4. Place the Plum tomatoes into the oven and set a timer for 20 minuets.
5. Bring your attention back to the sauté pan. Add the rice to the pan and stir. Allow the rice to toast slightly but do not allow it to take on any color.
6. Add the wine and stir. Allow the wine to cook down and reduce.
7. Add a ladle full of warm stock and stir. (From this point an average risotto will take about 19 minutes.)
8. Continue to stir and add ladle after ladle of the stock each time the rice begins to dry out. I look for the point that trails begin to form when stirred to add more stock.
9. After about 10 minutes, season lightly with salt. You’re a little over half done.
10. When the timer goes off for the Plum tomatoes, pull them from the oven. This is also a good time to taste your risotto. The rice should be almost done, probably a bit too firm. Continue to add stock slowly and stir.
11. Once the rice has reach al dente, slight crunch to the rice, turn off the heat. Add half of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, and half of the remaining butter and a small amount of left over stock. Stir to bring the rice together.
12. Add half of the basil. Taste and season with salt and pepper. You can add the remaining butter if necessary to obtain the desired texture.
13. When you’re happy with the flavor, plate by splitting it up between four bowls. Place three of the baby plum tomatoes on top of each bowl of rice. Sprinkle with the remaining basil and then the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.