Dinner Gang 21, Vegetarian and Bordeaux, demonstrated that you don’t need meat to make a top-shelf dinner. We had Bordeaux as a theme in mind for a while, but we wanted to up the ante a little, make it a bit more challenging for everyone involved. As normally happens, the combination of drinking a bourbon and ginger beer while soaking in the hot tub yielded answers. We had also been considering vegetarian for quite some time, so marrying the two seemed inspired.
I wasn’t worried about being able to pair Bordeuax with vegetarian dishes; the Bordelaise have been doing it for a long time. I was a little concerned with pouring a big, tannic monster without the dish having a significant fat profile, but those fears were laid to rest as we got into our experimentations.
FIRST COURSE: Homemade Gnocchi with Sautéed Mushroom and Bordeaux Reduction
As the hosts of the last Dinner Gang, Kathryn and David drew the first course this time. They got us started in spectacular fashion with fresh gnocchi. The mushroom and wine reduction was set off perfectly with the smoky mushroom and pencil lead aromas of the first wine, 2009 Château Poujeaux Moulis en Medoc. Strong tannins and structure came from the 50% Cab and 40% Merlot; the deep color and expressive flavors from the rest of the blend being Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. They took it to the next level by going over to the Right Bank with 2010 Château Barde-Haut, a blend of 90% Merlot and 10% Cab Franc. Big blueberry and cherry fruit gave it a sweetness that touched off the mushrooms into an explosion of flavors. After saving the last few bites of the dish to taste with the second wine, we enjoyed finishing the rest of the bottle on its own.
SECOND COURSE: Curried Squash and Mushroom Soup
What’s better than delicious curried soup? Delicious soup made with Jim and Neal’s homemade curry, topped with just a spoonful of plain yoghurt for some tang. It was a cool night (cool by Florida standards—it had plunged into the 50s), so this course warmed us up. Or maybe it was the wine, which we got into before serving the course. We started with the fresh and lively 2012 Château Dalem Fronsac, which expressed great minerality on the nose (I called it a salt lick) along with great floral aromatics. Up front and ripe fruits made it a nice bridge between courses. Along with the soup, we had 2010 Château La Rose Perrière from Lussac-St.-Emilion, its fleshy fruit marrying with both the flavor and texture of the soup.
MAIN COURSE: Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie
The idea for our main course was similarly hot tub-and-bourbon fueled. We started with the wine. Not specifically knowing what we wanted to pour out of the cellar, we focused on the beautiful rusticity of Bordeaux wines. We knew we’d be getting into all those earthy, loamy flavors, so stew of some kind jumped right to mind. The problem would be not having the fat of any meat to render down into the dish. I’m not 100% sure how we landed on shepherd’s pie, but it was definitely an “Ooh!” moment. We worked out general ideas on how to instantiate it, then experimented. We knew we wanted a “meaty” bottom layer with a sautéed vegetable of some kind in between and naturally topped with mashed potatoes. We used mushrooms and lentils to give the bottom layer heft, replacing the texture that the meat would normally have. We settled on parsnips and fennel in the middle to pick up the fruit and aromatics of the wine, then left the butter and cream in the potatoes to carry the dish’s fat content. Here’s the final version:
Meaty Layer (inspired by a ragu from The Simple Veganista)
2 cups lentils
8 oz. mushrooms, diced
2 large carrots, diced
3 shallots, diced
1 tsp garlic powder
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 tbl extra virgin olive oil
1 tbl dried Herbs de Provence
2 cups vegetable broth
1 pinch red pepper flakes
1/2 cup full-bodied red wine
2 tbl soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 tbl cornstarch
1 bay leaf
black pepper to taste
We simply sautéed the shallots in the olive oil then added the other ingredients, cooking them long, low, and slow. It took a few hours until the lentils had the right texture. We wanted them meaty without being mushy. After the dish got to the right consistency, we cooled it and put it in the fridge for three days, letting all those flavors soak in.
The red wine we used was 2011 Martinelli Zinfandel Giuseppe & Luisa because it happened to be the day we ordered the spring allocation of the 2012. We have a “rule” that we drink an earlier vintage of something on the day we order the new release, so this was serendipitous.
2 small fennel heads, diced
2 medium parsnips, peeled and diced
2 tbl extra virgin olive oil
1+ cup parm broth (vegetable broth is a fine substitute)
We sautéed the vegetables in the olive oil for about five minutes, just melting the fennel a little. We added the broth, covered, and simmered until the vegetables were soft but not mushy. We then removed the lid to cook off most of the liquid.
When we were considering what liquid to use, we discarded the idea of white wine because we felt it would clash with the red wine in the other layer. We were going to use vegetable broth until Gretchyn remembered that she had made a batch of parmigiano reggiano broth the previous week (it’s pretty simple to turn parm rinds into delicious broth—we’ll write it up eventually). It lent another layer of great flavor to an already-flavorful dish.
6 medium Russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 to 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
6-8 tbl butter
salt and pepper to taste
We boiled the potatoes until tender, ran them through the food mill, then added the cream and butter, just like we would with normal mashed potatoes.
While it would be easy to simply use the pot that the meat layer is already in, we chose to make individual servings because we happen to have cool pedestal bowls that are just the right size. Using a large scoop, we layered in the “meat” mixture, then the vegetables, then the potatoes. We used an icing knife to flatten out the potatoes, then sprinkled some smoked paprika on top. We put the bowls on a tray in the oven at 250F, intending on keeping them warm until serving time, then crisping the top under the broiler. Two hours later, the top was perfectly crispy on its own, so we went right to the table.
The dish was an absolute winner. The flavors and textures came together exactly as we had hoped they would. The bottom layer was strongly reminiscent of beef stew (the Herbs de Provence and bay leaf were big factors there). There wasn’t much mushroom flavor, but they provided a major part of the texture for that layer. The tomatoes in it provided acidity; the vegetable layer’s sweetness then gave way to the creaminess of the potato layer. It had great aromatics all around, and stood up to an insistent wine.
I pared down our wine selections to three strong candidates before settling on 2003 Sociando-Mallet (the others in consideration were 2003 Clerc-Milon, which I thought might still be too young, and 2005 Chasse-Spleen, which didn’t quite match the flavor profile of the dish as well). It’s still a wine just coming into its maturity. We opened it three hours before we were going to serve it, with the intention of decanting it at about the one hour point. One taste of the grippy tannins told us to get it into the decanter right away. Even being careful pouring it, it threw as much sediment as I’ve seen in a long time. I poured into a second decanter (still more sludge), washed out the first, then poured it back in through a strainer (which picked up even more). It wasn’t until nearly the four hour point that we got to it, and it was singing: graphite and barnyard on the nose, dark black fruits, bracing minerality, low acidity, and excellent balance.
I believe in having a little cheese before dessert. We made individual plates with a wedges of Cambazola, Mimolette, and Noce Del Piave, plus a little quince paste and fresh honeycomb. Keeping it in the region, we served the plate with 2010 Château Doisy-Daëne Barsac. It was a nice intermezzo.
DESSERT: Dark Chocolate Pate with Crème Anglaise and Cocoa Nibs
We had experimented with the (relatively easy) recipes for the pate and crème the week before. This time, we used Scharffenberger 81% Dark instead of the Tcho 66% of the previous week. Gretchyn said she was happier with the consistency of the crème anglaise the second time. We went with cocoa nibs instead of a nut because we thought a nut would be too oily. The dark bitterness of the chocolate contrasted with the sweetness of the crème and provided a rich accompaniment to coffee and espresso (Stumptown Coffee French Roast if you’re curious). It was the exclamation point the evening wanted. Just under six hours after we pulled the cork on the first bottle, we were done.
Everyone brought their A game to a very challenging and rewarding theme. We reflected on how much we had each learned about both cooking and pairing wines over the previous 20 iterations and wondered what we might learn over the course of the next 20.