Braised Pork Shank with Soft Polenta & Horseradish Gremolata

After moving to the Bay Area from the Midwest in 1994, most weekends were spent fueling my wine passion in Napa or Sonoma.  Being single and new to the area, these were often solo trips, which meant I had to confer with no one about what wine to taste, where to eat, or how much to spend.  This freedom was greatly appreciated until it came time for dinner, when it would have been nice to share a meal with someone and rehash the events of our wine-soaked day.

But one solo dinner I recall fondly was eaten in a small restaurant called Girl & The Fig.  At the time, it was situated in Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon, and its warm glow rekindled memories of bistros enjoyed while biking through the Provencal wine country.  Every wine on their wine list was either from the Rhone valley or made from Rhone varietals, and their menu was crafted to match the warm and welcoming foods of Provence.

Sondra Bernstein and John Toulze at "the girl & the fig"
Sondra Bernstein, John Toulze at "the girl & the fig"

Although “French Bistro” is one of the most over-used restaurant concepts, this one was different. Owned by the very special Sondra Bernstein, Girl & The Fig was infused with the spirit of the Rhone and  I was smitten.  The Bistro became my preferred dining spot for many future trips – and I became something of an evangelist for it.

I watched with pleasure as Sondra tirelessly added successful venture after successful venture – cook books, an iPhone app, a line of packaged food products, a line of body products, two restaurants, bio-dynamic farms behind each of her restaurants, a catering company and probably several more things I’m forgetting.

I’ve become casually acquainted with Sondra and her business partner over the years, and was most pleased that she agreed to provide a recipe to pair with domestic Syrah-based wines.  I think this dish would work well with a broad range of red wines such as Cabernet, Zinfandel and any red Rhone blend.  This dish can be made year-round, but it resonates for me during the cold Fall and Winter months, when oven braising fills the home with warmth and aromas that beat back Winter’s chill.

Ingredients for Pork Shanks (Serves six)

  • 6 Pork Hind Shanks (we prefer Niman Ranch)
  • Salt & black pepper
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, quartered
  • 2 stalk celery, rough chop
  • 1 small carrot, peeled, chopped
  • 4 crushed cloves of garlic
  • 1 bottle white wine (unoaked, preferably)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 2 quarts pork or chicken stock

Procedure for Braised Pork Shanks

Preheat oven to 350’.  Season the pork shanks heavily with salt and black pepper. Over medium heat, add the oil to a hot sauté pan and then sear the shanks until browned on all sides.  Remove from pan and keep warm.

Meanwhile, heat a braising pan (deep-sided roaster) over medium heat and then add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic and half the bottle of white wine.  Bring to a boil and reduce until almost dry.  Add the seared shanks to the braising pan along with the bayleaf, peppercorns, thyme and enough stock to just cover the shanks and vegetables.  Cover the pan with aluminum foil and move to the heated oven for 1-1.5 hours or until the shanks are just tender.

Remove from oven and when sufficiently cool, remove the shanks from the braising liquid and set aside keeping warm. With a fine mesh sieve, strain the braising liquid and skim any remaining fat from the top.  Add the remaining half bottle of white wine to a large saucepan, bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and continue reducing the wine until almost dry. Add the braising liquid and simmer while continuing to skim off any fat that forms on the top.  Reduce to a thickened consistency.

Ingredients for Soft Polenta

  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups milk
  • Salt
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup polenta
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • White pepper

Procedure for Soft Polenta

Add the water, milk, olive oil and butter to a medium saucepan, season with the salt and bring to a simmer. While stirring with a wire whisk, slowly add the polenta and beat into the liquid. Simmer and continue to stir for 10 minutes. Add the Parmesan cheese, adjust the seasoning, continuing to stir, cover and keep warm.

Ingredients for Broccolini

  • 3 Bunches broccolini, tough stems removed
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • Salt and white pepper

Procedure for Broccolini

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Blanch the broccolini for no more than 60 seconds, then shock in an ice water bath until cool and drain. Heat the butter in a large sauté pan over medium low heat until melted; add the broccolini, season to taste and heat till warm.  Alternatively, roast the broccolini in the oven until just crispy, and once plated, top with a small amount of the Gremolata.

Horseradish Gremolata

  • 1 bunch Italian flat leaf parsley, cleaned from the stems
  • 3 tablespoons capers, chopped
  • 2 lemons, zested
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 horseradish root, peeled & grated
  • Sea salt

Mix the parsley, chopped capers, lemon zest, garlic, olive oil, and grated horseradish.  Season with sea salt.

To plate:

Spoon the warm polenta into the center of a warm bowl, place a sixth of the warm broccolini onto the polenta, top with a braised pork shank. Nap the shank with the white wine braising sauce and garnish with the gremolata.

“the girl & the fig” • 110 west spain street • sonoma, ca 95476

June, 2010 “Collectible Selections” Wine Notes

Increasing connectivity.  The richness of online media.  And your positive feedback.  All indicate it’s time to begin an electronic archive of my wine club notes.   Club members can now access my wine notes and recipes to answer your most frequently emailed questions, such as:

Q: “What’s the deal with that wine you featured in our club months ago?  We hid it under our bed and forgot about it.  Now we need to know what it cost, what to serve it with, and how to get more of it!”

A: Easy.  From my homepage (, click the “Blog” link and select the category “wine”.  Then use the search box (look!  I’ts hanging out up there in the top left corner right now!) to find the wine you’re after.   Just type the vintage and the producer and you should find what you’re after (ex. “2006 Arcadian”).

Q: “I keep a notebook with all your notes and recipes from each shipment, but I can’t find the ones that go with (this wine). Before I pull the cork, what should I pair with it?  Is there an easy recipe for it?”

A: Another easy one!  From my homepage, click the “Recipe” link and use the search box to find my recommended pairing.

Q: I just found these great _(insert seasonal ingredient here!) at the farmer’s market!  What can I make with them and what wine should I pair with it?

A: Same as above – go to my recipe blog and use the search box to type in your ingredient, or the season, or just about anything you can think of.  Go ahead – give it a try!

Do you like this new format?  Hate it??  I look forward to your comments, below!



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My Three Collectible Selections

June, 2010 (Summary Listing)

  1. Cain Cuvee (NV6), Napa Bordeaux Blend.  $34 (member price starts at $30.60) (Buy it/Rate it Here)
  2. Lang & Reed, 2008 Cabernet Franc, Lake County. $22 (member price starts at $19.80)  (Buy it/Rate it Here)
  3. Staete Landt, 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (Marlborough). $21.50 (member price starts at $19.35) Buy it/Rate it Here

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My First Collectible Selection

for June, 2010 (Join Here)

Cain Cuvee “NV6” Napa Valley

Buy It Here $34 (member price starts at $30.60)

A blend of Merlot, Cabernet and Cabernet Franc, this wine drinks well now, but will improve for another decade!

Some 15 years ago, I splurged on a bottle of wine from Cain Vineyard. I saved it for years, waiting for a special night to justify popping the cork on this well-aged treasure.  Being single at the time, I had visions of this wine being an irresistible instrument of seduction.  But it was eventually opened one night on my own, after a particularly difficult day at work. By then it was ten years old, and the pleasure it brought erased the day’s stress so effectively that I even called some wine-loving friend so we could marvel over the wine’s amazingness. It was even better the next night – an indication that the mountain fruit in this wine would have allowed it to improve for many more years in bottle.

Cain Vineyard produces three wines of note – Cain Five (using the five Bordeaux varietals – about $100), the Cain Concept (about $50 – $60) and the non-vintage Cain Cuvee (NV6 stands for Non-Vintage, sixth year) which is is a blend of Merlot (to provide a broad, smooth base) and mountain-side Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, which bring structure and aromatic complexity. 55% of the blend comes from the 2006 vintage, 45% from 2005. This wine will reward cellaring for another five years.

Food Pairings – This blend is more complex and softer than Napa Cabernets, this wine’s moderate alcohol and structure allows it to pair with a wide variety of foods.  But it also is delicious on its own, rewarding the curious palate with an evolving experience as the wine opens up over the course of hours.  A year-round wine, I think you’ll find it more attractive during the summer months if you serve it a bit cooler than during the winter months.

Buy It Here $34 (member price starts at $30.60)

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My Second Collectible Selection

June, 2010 “REDS ONLY” Members (Join Here)

Lang & Reed, 2008 Cabernet Franc, Lake County

Buy it Here at $22 (member prices start at $19.80)

Lang and Reed specializes in Cabernet Franc from California fruit.  Taking inspiration for the world’s best Cabernet Franc regions, their wines have one stylistic foot in Bordeaux and one in the Loire. Try one soon, you won’t be sorry!

Cabernet Franc is common in the Right Bank of Bordeaux, where it is blended with Merlot. It is also common in the Loire Valley, where it is the primary red varietal in my favorite wines from Chinon, Bourgueil and many smaller areas. But the wines of these two regions are entirely different, with those from the Right Bank being riper and more robust wines, those from the Loire being leaner and earthier.

John Skupny (Lang & Reed’s owner/Winemaker, who named the winery after their two sons) combines California’s ripe juiciness with Cabernet Franc’s natural tea-leaf characteristics. The result is a cherry-inflected red wine that seemingly pairs with almost everything.

At Left, Lang demonstrates how to get a brix sample, from shots of his recent visit to the Loire region with his charming new wife, Megan.  Back on this side of the pond, the 2008 Lang & Reed comes from four vineyards – one in the heart of Napa Valley and the other three from the northern reaches of Lake County:

1. Stanton Vineyard: Though only a small percent of the assemblage, this fruit provides the bright, crisp, cherry aroma and flavors in this wine.

2. The High Chaparral Vineyard: Located high up in the red hills of Lake County, just north of Kelseyville, it was planted to Cabernet Franc back in the 70’s. It is planted on its own roots, a true Franc de Pied, which bring deep structure and tannin to the wine.

3 & 4. Cross Springs Vineyard & La Sierra Vineyard: Both vineyards are found above the 2,000 ft elevation in the High Valley appellation of Lake County, rounding out the assemblage of this 100% Cabernet Franc wine.

By The Numbers
Varietal Composition: 100% Cabernet Franc (95% Lake County, 5% Napa Valley)
Alcohol Content: 13.9% by Volume
Total Acidity: 0.53gm/100ml, pH = 3.90
Cooperage: 9 months in 60-gallon French Oak
Production: 3,086 cases

Food Pairings – Another great summer wine, with slightly herbaceous notes that suggest pairing with vegetables, and a richness that suggest said veggies be grilled.  Less structured than its old world counterparts, with a broader appeal and a wider list of food pairing possibilities.  Still, I recommend the usual suspects – goat cheese (especially toasted on crostini), anything with mushrooms, and for those not opposed – pate!   Serve this wine around 60 – 65 degrees – so pop it in the fridge for a half hour before popping the cork!

Wine #2 – the Lang & Reed, 2008 Cabernet Franc, Lake County

Buy it Here at $22 (member prices start at $19.80)

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My Final Collectible Selection

for June, 2010 (Join Here)

Staete Landt, 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (Marlborough)

Buy it Here $21.50 (member prices start at $19.35)

A premium Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, and well worth the price.  Rich and herbaceous, with racy acidity and pronounced grapefruit and citrus aromas.

When the Dutch Sea Captain Abel Tasman discovered New Zealand in 1642, he named it “Staete Landt”, which roughly means “Land discovered in honor of the Dutch Republic”. Today the name lends itself very nicely to this winery, founded and run by Netherland natives (and spouses) Ruud Maasdam and Dorien Vermaas.

I met Dorien recently at a large tasting, where her wines were among my favorites. I’ve brought two of their wines into my portfolio – their Sauvignon Blanc and their Pinot Noir – both of which are classic examples of the New Zealand style and terroir.

This wine is so rich and herbaceous, I enjoy it on its own. But it varies from the typical Kiwi mold for Sauvignon Blanc – they pick separately each of this wine’s six different plots of fruit.  The fruit from the earlier picking lends the herb notes and crisp acidity (pH is a low 3.14 – grapefruit is 3.0 – 3.3!) while the later pickings bring fruit with rich tropical fruit notes.  A summer porch wine, this could easily be your appetizer course!

Food Pairings – the citrus notes suggest savory foods with cooked with citrus ingredients.  But it overpowers fruit served on its own as the wine is not sweet, and a dry wine with fruit will seem austere and quite unpleasant.  Good with acidic cheeses such as goat’s cheese, try this wine with a great with grilled cheese sandwiches (use soft bread, buttered on the outside, good melty cows milk cheese, and a bit of bacon or other crisp meat!)  Better yet, take inspiration from the menu at San Francisco’s latest gourmet ghetto restaurant, the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen.  Oysters also beckon, but they need lemon or lime juice and nothing more.  Grilled fish with citrus and capers, or chicken picatta are excellent choices, especially served with spinach wilted in a pan with lemon zest, garlic and a smidge of anchovy paste.

Wine #3 – Staete Landt, 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (Marlborough)

Buy it Here $21.50 (member prices start at $19.35)

Macadamia-Encrusted Tilapia in Orange-Cream Sauce


For those concerned about the quality of their food supply, a valuable information resource is available at Seafood Watch (see map, above).  You’ll be pleased to note this recipe is not only delicious, but that Tilapia is recognized as one of the most sustainable sources of protein in the ocean.  Pair this recipe with a floral white wine such as Viognier, Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Gewurztraminer  or even an unoaked Chardonnay.  Even a lighter off-dry Rosé works well here, though the wrong one will fight with the orange sauce.

Ingredients (Serves 6)
1 Small tilapia fillet per person (V-shaped)
¾ Cup flour
Salt and pepper to taste
¾ Cup buttermilk (or Half-n-Half)
2 Cups panko or toasted bread crumbs
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
2 Tbsp finely chopped dill
½ Cup+ finely chopped macadamia nuts
2+ Tbsp olive oil

Sauce Ingredients
2/3 Cup orange juice
1/3 Cup half-and-half
1 Tbsp cornstarch, dissolved in ~ 1 Tbsp cold water
1 Tbsp fresh chopped dill

Rinse fillets and set on rack to drain – pat dry. Get out two large plates and a medium mixing bowl and create an assembly line in the following order:

–       Station #1 – on the first plate, mix together the flour, salt and pepper,
–       Station #2 – Pour the buttermilk in the bowl and place in the center,
–       Station #3 – On the last plate, mix together the panko, butter, dill and nuts.

Dredge each fillet in station #1, dip it in station #2, then dredge again station #3.  Refrigerating your breaded fillets for 30+ minutes will set the coating.  Discard any remaining flour and milk, but reserve the panko mixture for pre-frying touch-ups.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat for ~3 minutes, add the olive oil and coat evenly (I like to add a Tbsp of butter to the oil.  It browns better but is less healthy!)  Pan-fry the fillets until golden brown on each side (about 4 minutes per side for every inch of thickness).  Remove to a warm oven until ready to plate.

The Sauce – In a saucepan, whisk together all the sauce ingredients and heat over medium heat until the sauce is thickened, about 5 minutes.

Serving Suggestion (see photo) – Serve on a bed of sautéed spinach (in a wide pan, warm some olive oil, dissolve 1-2 anchovies in the oil, mashing until liquefied, sauté spinach until just beginning to wilt, finish with lemon zest and toss).  Place fillets atop the bed of spinach.  Add sauce to plate beside fillets.  Enjoy!

Dave the Wine Merchant

Note: This recipe originally appeared as an insert with my October, 2009 shipment to members of my wine sampling program.  It was customized to showcase a floral white wine, such as those you’ll find here.