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With the nights drawing in, it’s time to seek comfort in great food matched with rich but elegant wines. Natasha Hughes suggests three dishes to cook at home and recommends some ideal California wine styles to drink with them
It’s tempting to think of California as a land of endless sunshine, but the truth is that they have winter there too. Those living in the north of the state in particular experience grey skies and rainy days just as we do here in the UK – even if it’s only for a couple of months. But winter doesn’t seem to stem the perennial Californian cheerfulness. In fact, some people look forward to the annual dip in temperature. Why? Partly because it affords them the opportunity to spend evenings sipping a warming glass of red wine in front of a blazing log fire, and partly because it gives them the perfect opportunity to indulge in hearty winter dishes with earthy, full flavours.
Naturally, California has wines aplenty to suit those short, brisk winter days. Just think of the state’s world-renowned Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends, with their ripe tannins cloaked in intense black fruit flavours; the pepper-tinged Syrahs and earthy, savoury red Rhône blends; the silk-textured Pinot Noirs, with their balance of red fruit and spice; the richly oaked Chardonnays, famous for their toasty, nutty flavours, creamy texture and zesty acidity; and the white Rhône blends, which combine subtle, intriguing flavours of stone fruits with hints of herbs and almonds. All of these – and many more besides – make the taste of Californian winter a thoroughly enjoyable experience. So why not try one of the following seasonal recipes and follow our wine suggestions too?
Peel and coarsely grate 2 large floury potatoes (such as King Edwards). Parboil for 2 minutes, then drain and dry thoroughly. Finely chop 3-4 juniper berries and mix into the potatoes. Season generously. Melt a small knob of butter and 1 tbsp of olive oil in a pan. Divide the potato mixture into four balls, then place each in the pan and pat them flat. Cook on each side until golden brown. Meanwhile, sear 2 duck breasts on each side until cooked through, then leave them to rest. Clean and slice a generous handful of wild mushrooms, then sauté in a mixture of olive oil and melted butter, as above. Place 3-4 slices of duck breast on top of each potato rosti, then garnish with mushrooms. (Serves 4)
Buttery potato rosti, spiked with the aromatic fruitiness of juniper berries, provides a rich foil for duck breast, cooked until pink in the middle and crisp outside. A garnish of earthy wild mushrooms is all that’s required to turn this dish into a sublime mix of autumnal flavours. This is a rich dish, and it needs a wine with a strong personality to stand up to it – anything too gentle would be overwhelmed and anything too ripe and fruity would jar with its earthy flavours. One option would be to pair the dish with a Pinot Noir, preferably one with a bit of bottle age, which would allow it to develop gamey, earthy flavours. Rhône-style blends – a speciality of California – are another source of inspiration. Syrah from a cooler climate, such as the ocean-cooled Carneros region, will have the savoury characters and peppery spice that would contrast beautifully with the dish. Or why not look to southern Rhône-style red blends? A wine with a blend of herb-tinged Grenache, spicy Syrah and growly, meaty Mourvèdre would be a gutsy sidekick for all those savoury flavours. California offers a rich range of such styles.
We matched this dish to Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2006 (£14.99, www.everywine.co.uk) and Bonny Doon’s Cigare Volant 2004 (£19.99, Noel Young Wines).
Fry 1 chopped onion in olive oil until soft, then add 2 chopped cloves of garlic. Add 2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks. Sauté for 3 minutes, then pour in ½ litre chicken stock and a 400g can of chopped tomatoes. Bring to the boil, then add 300g Puy lentils, 2 star anise, 2 bay leaves and 1 tsp chopped thyme. Simmer gently until the lentils are just tender, topping up with water if necessary. Season generously. Preheat the oven to 220ºC. Take 4 monkfish fillets (skinned and boned), season with freshly ground black pepper and wrap each in 2 slices of prosciutto. Sauté briefly until the ham is golden brown and crisp. Place in oven for 8-10 minutes, then serve on top of a mound of lentils. (Serves 4)
Monkfish wrapped in prosciutto offers a contrast between the sweet fish and the salty ham. Factor in nutty lentils, made tangy with chopped tomatoes then layered with the dark spice of star anise and herbal bay leaves and thyme, and you end up with a dish that offers satisfyingly cosy, warm winter flavours. When it comes to finding a wine to match, consider both reds and whites. Reds shouldn’t be too heavy, of course – a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon would dominate all those subtle flavours – so try a Pinot Noir. Nothing too sweet and fruity, mind: you’re looking for a wine with its own hints of herbs and spices to match those of the dish. The right white will be one with a bit of weight of its own – you’re not looking for crisp acidity or punchy aromatics. Instead, find yourself a classy Californian Chardonnay – you’ll want one with enough oak to add texture to the wine, but not so much that it dominates it completely. And it’s always worth bearing in mind California’s white Rhône grapes, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier – they offer complexity of flavour and a voluptuously creamy texture.
We matched this dish to Qupé’s Bien Nacido Hillside Estate Roussanne, Santa Maria Valley 2006 (£150.90 for a six-bottle case, www.everywine.co.uk) and Saintsbury’s Chardonnay, Carneros 2006 (£15.99, Majestic).
Peel and boil 4 large potatoes, drain and mash until soft and creamy. Stir in 100ml of good-quality olive oil, the juice of 1 lemon and 4 minced garlic cloves. Season generously. Preheat the oven to 220ºC. In a pan sear 2 racks of lamb in a little olive oil until golden brown on both sides. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place the lamb in the oven and cook for 5-15 minutes, depending on whether you like your meat pink or well done. Allow the lamb to rest for 3 minutes, then carve it into individual cutlets. Serve on top of a portion of mash with either green vegetables or ratatouille. (Serves 4)
There’s no point in beating about the bush: full-bodied red meat, like lamb, requires a full-bodied red wine. Luckily, there areCalifornia, from the cult Cabernets of Napa Valley and the spicy Rhône grapes of the Central Coast to the opulently fruited Zinfandels of Amador County. Although these lamb cutlets are simply cooked, the strong Mediterranean flavours of the mash suggest a wine with its own Mediterranean influences, such as a Grenache or a Tempranillo from the Sierra Foothills – particularly if you’re going to accompany the dish with a ratatouille. On the other hand, lamb loves Bordeaux grapes – especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot or, even better, a blend of the two – there’s something about the combination of structure and savoury fruit that creates a magical match. And it’s worth considering a Syrah, which will have the acidity you need to cut through the rich, fatty meat of lamb. Either way, California spoils you for choice if you’re looking for a rich, savoury red for a rich, savoury dish.
We matched this dish to Fog Head Blow Sands Syrah, Monterey 2005 (£14.99, Bibendum Wine; only available in limited quantities) and Hahn Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Coast 2006 (£146.00 for a 12-bottle case, Patriarche Wine Agencies).
Photographs ROB LAWSON