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It’s the season for fresh flavours and minimal time in the kitchen. Natasha Hughes comes up with some simple summer dishes and suggests the perfect Californian wines to drink with them
What does the word California mean to you? The chances are that those five syllables bring to mind Hollywood, film stars and a relaxed life spent lounging by the pool or catching a wave on the beach. Arguably, for those of us in the UK, where sunshine is rarely guaranteed even at the height of summer, that easy-going, sun-drenched Californian lifestyle is even more of a draw than the celebrities and movie-making.
Good food and good wine have always been an integral part of Californian life too. The state’s open-minded attitude seems to extend to ingredients almost as much as it does to its population. As a result, typical dishes fuse top-quality local produce with culinary influences from the Mediterranean, Mexico and Asia.
The state’s wine offering is just as diverse. Well-known ‘international’ grapes such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are planted alongside more exotic offerings, such as Zinfandel, Marsanne and Viognier. You’ll find light, zesty wines to refresh your palate on a hot summer’s day as well as opulent, complex wines that deserve to be taken just that little bit more seriously – and between the two extremes, there’s a rich diversity of styles to please even the most demanding of palates. In short, there’s a Californian wine to match almost every dish under the sun. So why not try one of the following recipes and follow our wine suggestions too?
Heat 2 tbsp peanut oil in a hot wok and stir in 1 whole dried Kashmiri chilli, 1 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns, 1 sliced mild red chilli and 1 thinly sliced garlic clove. Fry for 30 seconds, then add 200g each, or two handfuls each, of green beans, asparagus spears and spring onions, all cut into 4-cm lengths. Stir over heat until vegetables begin to soften. Stir in 300g or 16-20, de-shelled large raw prawns and 2 tbsp light soy sauce and fry until the prawns turn pink. Finish with juice of 1 lime and a sprinkling of coriander. Serve with rice. (Serves 4)
With its combination of tongue-tingling Szechuan peppercorns, mild chilli heat and herbaceous green vegetables, this dish presents a challenge for many wine styles. The solution is to opt for light, zesty whites with enough punchy aromatics of their own to allow them to take on the stir-fry. Unoaked (or very lightly oaked) Sauvignon Blanc is a good place to start. Most Sauvignon Blancs tend either towards bright herbaceous flavours of their own (which will complement the vegetables in the dish) or veer towards richer tropical fruit aromas (an ace match for the richness of the prawns and the zesty streak of lime). Another option would be to look for a wine with just a trace of residual sugar – off-dry styles are wonderful partners for dishes with a little bit of chilli heat. Pinot Grigio from, say, Monterey or the Central Coast fits the bill to a T – especially the richer styles (sometimes labelled as Pinot Gris). They often have not only a little bit of sweetness, but also an underlying spiciness that brings the rich aromatics of the dish to the fore.
‘Off-dry styles are wonderful partners for dishes with a bit of chilli heat'
We matched this dish to Beringer’s Napa Valley Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley 2007 (£9.99, Majestic Wines) and Loredona Pinot Grigio, Monterey 2007 (£8.99, Bibendum Wine).
Pre-cook 120g (dry weight) or two handfuls of pearl barley and allow to cool. Slow-roast 300g or 1-2 punnets of cherry tomatoes at 100˚C until shrivelled and caramelised, but not burnt. Pour boiling water over a chipotle chilli and allow to rehydrate for 30 minutes, then chop finely. Finely slice half a red onion, roughly chop a large bunch of coriander and thickly slice 1 or 2 ripe avocados. Mix all ingredients together then dress with the juice of 1 lime and 3 tbsp olive oil. Season generously. Sear 4 tuna steaks on a hot griddle and serve with the salad. (Serves 4)
Forget old-fashioned rules about white wines being the ideal match for fish. Meaty tuna steaks can be paired with a range of wines, from rich whites to light reds – and don’t forget rosés. In fact, for a seared tuna steak, rosé could be your wine of choice. California has made a splash in recent years with its blush wines, but drier styles are increasingly popular. They are often made from Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon, but you’ll also find grapes such as Sangiovese or Merlot being used too. These wines often have a touch of sweetness, but more importantly they’re full of the vibrant berry fruit and refreshing acidity that make them such versatile food wines, allowing them to partner both the fish and the accompanying salad. Full-bodied whites also work – try one of California’s citrus-tinged Chardonnays for example. As long as the winemaker hasn’t been too heavy-handed with the oak, the crisp, lemony fruit should square up nicely to the salad, while the wine’s weight means it won’t fade into invisibility when teamed with the tuna.
‘The drier styles of rosé are full of the vibrant berry fruit and refreshing acidity that make them such versatile food wines’
We matched this dish to Fetzer Vineyards Valley Oaks Syrah Rosé 2007 (£6.99, Budgens, Co-Op, Londis, Thresher, Waitrose) and Bogle Vineyards Chardonnay 2007 (£9.95, Great Western Wine).
Boil or roast 200g or 6-8 small beetroots until cooked. Allow to cool, then peel and cut each one into eighths. Crush 2 tbsp coriander seeds, 1 tbsp black peppercorns, 1 tbsp sea salt and a few sprigs of thyme, leaves stripped, in a pestle and mortar. Rub the mixture over a 1kg piece of fillet steak. Sear on a hot griddle for a minute or two (no more) on each side, leaving the middle raw. When cool, slice thinly and serve with the beetroot and some watercress leaves (1-2 bags). Dress with a mixture of vinaigrette, crème fraîche and grated horseradish. (Serves 4)
There’s no doubt about it – you’ll never find a good steak that isn’t crying out for a glass of red wine. California has red wines aplenty, from the serious, structured Cabernet Sauvignons of the Napa Valley to juicy Zinfandels from the Central Valley. In this case, however, the best matches might be found in wines with a lighter touch. The steak comes encrusted with spices and is accompanied by peppery horseradish and watercress – a spice-tinged Shiraz, especially one from the cooler zones of Monterey and the Central Coast, would do a great job of picking up on the dish’s spice, while the ripeness of the fruit would chime nicely with the sweet earthiness of the beetroot. Another grape that always seems to work brilliantly with beetroot is Pinot Noir. Try one from the Carneros or Russian River region: their bold fruit flavours are a great match for those of the dish, but it’s their restrained tannins, lively acidity and silky texture that bring that all-important extra dimension to the pairing.
We matched this dish to Fog Head Blow Sands Syrah, Monterey 2005 (£14.99, Bibendum Wine) and Saintsbury Garnet Pinot Noir, Carneros 2007 (£14.99, or buy two and save £6 until 31 August, Majestic Wine).