My Wine Recommendations for 6 Soups You’ll Love!

Carrot-Ginger soup from Good Stock
The Carrot-Ginger Soup from Good Stock calls for an off-dry or fruit-forward white wine.

In the wine world, there’s a common belief that wine makes pretty much everything taste better. With the exception of sugary breakfast cereals and one or two other dishes, I’ve found this old trope is generally true.

But soup? Does wine improve on something as light and ethereal as basic broth? I’d been meaning to answer this question with my soup-and-wine recommendations for ages. I just needed a little push to get going.

Then out of the blue Good Stock asked if I’d be interested in writing about their soups, and now here we are. Good Stock is a young company with a real human at its core, a Louisianan in New York – Ben LeBlanc. He describes them as a modern company doing things the old fashioned way, and by that, he means their fresh-frozen soups are the real deal. They’re made from ingredients any home cook would have in their pantry, with no lab-generated stabilizers, flavor-enhancers, brighteners, or color-savers.  Check out the ingredients on the back of their Carrot-Ginger Soup package (duplicated in the caption for those with eyesight challenges):

Good Stock ingredients
Carrot & Ginger Soup Ingredients: Water, Carrots, Onions. Less than 2% of Black Pepper, Garlic, Ginger, Kosher Salt, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Agave Syrup.

A quick topical detour here about Good Stocks – note in the image above how they have a completely realistic definition of serving size. On each of their soups, the entire 16 oz package is shown as a single serving, and the Nutrition Facts section reflects this.

In this sense, they are way better than, say, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, who seem to believe there is more than one serving in each of their pints (whaaa???) or than either company in Battle Creek, whose nutrition facts reflect a scant amount of cereal constitues a single serving. It’s more like a large bite, really!

For example, the Nutrition Facts in the image above shows a calorie count of 140 for the entire 16-oz package, not some unrealistic (and deceptive) fraction thereof. That said, for anyone watching their sodium intake, I’d scan the sodium content on each package, as they tend to be quite high, as is common with soups. One final thought – I loved that I could tear open these containers without the need for scissors – nice package design!

OK, back to pairing wine with soups. My pairing suggestions are written for each of the six types of soup listed below, not just those from Good Stock. Also, while each of Good Stock’s soups was delicious, each one was even better when enhanced by some additional ingredients from my kitchen – a bit of grated cheese, crouton, popcorn or fresh herbs (and of course, by wine).

Here are my suggested wine pairings for each of the six types of soup I tasted:

  • Carrot & Ginger Soup: (140 calories, 53% DV for Sodium) The sweetness of caramelized carrots is offset by a nice pop of ginger spice that makes wine pairing a bit more difficult.

WHITE WINES: Reach for an off-dry Riesling (Kabinett – Auslese), an un-oaked Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc and other old-world white wines that lean towards the richer side of the spectrum. A Petit Chablis was also a nice match!


 

Roasted Tomato Soup
  • Roasted Tomato Soup: (180 calories, 43% of DVfor Sodium) By roasting the tomatoes, Good Stock achieves a deeper, more caramelized richness to the bright flavor of tomatoes.

The soup is good on its own, but it enjoyed a significant boost in pleasure delivery when enhanced with a splash of grated Parmesan and some fresh basil. Crouton or a grilled cheese sammy would have been the crowning touch, had I not wanted to avoid the oven on a hot summer day.

The wine-pairing challenge here was the natural acidity of the tomatoes (wine pairing pro tip – pair acidic foods with acidic wines) argues for one element in your wine, while the sweet/caramelized elements from the roaster argue for another (wine pairing pro tip – pair sweet foods with sweet or fruity wines).

WHITE WINES: Reach for the crisp, aromatic whites of Austria and Germany as the answer here – Gewurztraminer, Riesling or Pinot Blanc will amplify the soup’s tomatoey deliciousness.


 

Roasted Onion Soup
  • Roasted Onion Soup: (190 Calories, 61% of DV for Sodium) To me, onion soup is predominated by sweetness from the caramelized onions. So it seems oxymoronic to add sugar to the stock, and perhaps that was why this soup was sweeter than I prefer. Or maybe it was the copious amount of salt, which amplifies one’s perception of sweetness. Either way, this soup was greatly enhanced by the addition of two ingredients from my kitchen that can’t be added to a frozen soup – a piece of toast placed on the surface then topped with grated Gruyere and popped under the broiler until bubbled and browned!

RED WINES: This wine stands up to a fruit-forward red wine such as Barbera, Beaujolais, Lambrusco and cool-climate Zins.

ROSES: It also works well with richer versions of the ever-versatile dry Rose, one of the most flexible of food-friendly wines.

WHITE WINES: The herbal notes, the vermouth and the browned cheese pull this dish towards full-bodied whites such as a rich Chardonnay, an aged Corvina (Gavi) and most whites from Southern Italy and Spain. Other standouts will be Viognier from a warmer climate and other Southern French varietals.

SPARKLING: Sparkling wines are known for their affinity to salty foods, and the intense saltiness of this dish makes them an attractive alternative here. I’d avoid the recently popular non-dosage versions in favor of richer/fuller versions – look for those with a heavier proportion of red grapes in the blend, such as those from Montagne de Reims.


 

Coconut Corn Chowder
  • Coconut Corn Chowder: (390 calories, 61% DV for sodium) In addition to the traditional corn chowder ingredients, this soup included a nice pop of mild heat from Poblano peppers and a hint of Jalapenos as well, nicely offset by the sweetness of the corn and coconut. It was one of my favorite soups for the season, as it uses summer ingredients and can be served cold. But I like it hot.

WHITE WINES: A lightly oaked Chardonnay works beautifully here, (Chablis, again!) as well as rich wines like Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and the white wines of Southern Italy and Spain.

What About Rose? All day! When made in the dry or slightly off-dry style, this versatile, food-friendly wine tends to be low in alcohol and flatters both the heat and sweetness of this dish.


 

Roasted Mushroom Soup
  • Roasted Mushroom Soup: (320 Calories, 50% DVfor Sodium) This soup proudly offers flavors dominated by the earthy notes of roast mushrooms. When I make this at home, I like the mushrooms roasted to a darkness that brings out the natural umami. And to me, a mushroom dish without Thyme is like Romeo without Juliet (and we alll know how THAT ended). The soup popped up a notch or two when I added some, and other candidates for enhancement include Cardamom, fresh nutmeg (trace amount), Cumin, Tarragon or Sage.

WHITE WINES: The earthy richness calls for wines offering similar flavor profiles, such as Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc, an Etna Bianco or Vermentino.

ROSE: Opt for a richer version of dry Rose – one with a darker color will better pair with the richness of the soup.

RED: I’d happily pair most reds with this rich soup, though I’d be very, very partial to Pinot Noir – mushrooms being one of its greatest combinations. Sangiovese also works well, as does a Langhe Nebbiolo!


 

Lentil Soup
  • Lentil Soup: (310 Calories, 59% DV for Sodium) This version of Lentil Soup was quite light and thin vs the mushy style made popular by split pea soup. This dish has bright flavors of lemon and herbs that make it a nice summer option. Wines that work well with this bright lentil soup include:

WHITE WINES: Lighter whites such as Sauvignon Blanc, Moschofilero and Albarino/Alvarinho will enhance the wine’s lemony citrus and herbaceousness. Other pairing candidates include Chenin Blanc, Chablis and the aromatic whites of Austria/Germany.

ROSES & SPARKLING: The acidity of these wines will bridge nicely to the citrus in the soup, and I’d opt for lighter-bodied versions of both of these styles of wine.

Dave at the Wine Shop

Cheers!

Dave

Love Hot Sauce? Let Lola’s Spice Things Up!

To add the ZIP one wants in a hot sauce, Lola’s relies on lime juice instead of vinegar, bringing great flavor in addition to acidity.

As a guy ‘of a certain age’, I grew up deprived – there was only one hot sauce (McIlhenny’s) I knew of. Then I went to college in San Diego and discovered Crystal. About a decade later, hot sauce started to explode, at least on the grocery store shelves that I saw. In came Tapatio, Cholula and many others until finally, Sriracha burst onto the scene in the early 2000’s, leading to a growth of 150% – faster than any other food category.

Sriracha became popular because it delivers a punch of heat, for sure, but also exotic flavors. There was more to it than just a melt-your-face-off experience – it actually tasted good.

At the same time, another segment of the market saw equally expolosive growth. This group of devotees was more interested in delivering heat than flavor. These heat seekers homed in on hot sauces based on their Scovil Scale – a once obscure measurement of heat that was suddenly on everyone’s lips. Or should I say, “on everyone’s burning lips”? Chicken wings began getting hotter, as did sauces of all sorts, and “how hot can you go?!” became the challenge between friends who enjoy enduring pain together, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of.

Lola’s Original Hot Sauce adds interest to a cheese omelette

Which brings me to another hot sauce with roots in Southeast Asia – Lola’s.

The Changing Face of Hot Sauce

In the Philippines, “Lola” refers affectionately to a Grandmother. Lola’s hot sauces were created by a Philippina who has been referred to as ‘Lola’ by all her friends and family since the birth of her grandchildren. Her home made hot sauce had been around for ages, shared with friends and family. Her sauce was treasured for its organic ingredients and reliance on lime juice instead of vinegar for the acidity a hot sauce needs to deliver. The lime juice is an expensive alternativeto but it brings flavor as well as acidity to the sauce.  

You wouldn’t be reading this now if Lola hadn’t shared her secret recipe with her son in 2015. He was so enthusiastic about the product he eventually quit his day job to promote Lola’s sauce. A restaurant ensued (Called Lola’s, naturally – 4.5 stars on Yelp), and sales have enjoyed an upward trend since day one (thanks to demand for home delivery during COVID).  Watch the short origin story here:

To see Lola’s short origin story, click on the image above

What Wine Goes Well With Lolas?

While most hot sauces overwhelm wine, Lola’s feature a heat that subsides quickly, allowing for a broader range of pairings than the traditional limitations allow. The trad guidance goes “Sweet with Heat”, so to counter a dish heaping with Scovil points one needs to reach for wines so sweet they’re practically dessert.

While Lola’s sauces afford the food lover a wider range of wine pairing satisfaction, they would be wise to stay away from high-alcohol wines and most red wines, as a general rule. The exception being soft, low-tannin reds with a fruit-forward profile that are best served slightly chilled. Add to those the traditional aromatic white wines (Riesling, Muscat/ Moscato, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris…) and you have a wide array of enjoyable pairings ahead!

Need help thinking of recipes that feature Lola’s Hot Sauces? Look no further than right here.

Dave at the Wine ShopCheers! 

Dave the Wine Merchant

Game Box Wines – An Idea for Our Times?

The new package from Game Box Wines features a sense of fun at every turn.

Remember when wine was fun and nothing more? For many of us, that was likely in our early days of discovery, before we bought wine according to score, prestige, investment value or what food it paired with. We just bought wine to try on the way out of the grocery store. And you know what? We enjoyed most of them.

I thought of those days, long ago for me, when I got an email about the introduction of a new box wine. Wait, wait, wait! Before you stop reading, give me another 10 seconds please – here’s why I think the new Game Box Wines are good for our industry, and the right product for our current times:

  • It’s the environment. Duh. – The #1 contributor to wine industry emmissions is the production and transportation of glass bottles. As much as I LOVE the tradition and romance and sound of a popping cork, the future belongs to alternative packaging such as boxed wines. The industry refers to them as “Bag-in-Box” (or BiB), as it’s actually the mylar bag and the one-way valve that weighs just ~5% of a bottle.
  • Wine Preservation. – As with all boxed wine, the package protects a wine from oxidation for weeks instead of days. And it does it wihtout any expensive technology, gas cannisters that need replacing, or valuable counter space. And speaking of storage space, the box requires far less than the 4 bottles it contains.
A small sample of Game Box Wines’ sense of fun, inspired by childhood cereal boxes. Click for more.
  • Fun. – When a wine doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s more approachable. And that is key to attracting new fans. And Game Box achieves this in spades, with a box design inspired by childhood memories of fun cereal boxes. To get a taste of the humor just click the image, above.
  • Quality! – We’re not talking about the Franzia crowd here. Or if we are, we’re talking about the slice of that vast market who are ready for an upgraded wine experience. On the Quality-Price grid, I put Game Box in the same quadrant as Black Box Wines, which has fairly well dominated the space for over 20 years now. The wine inside the package is reportedly sourced from “quality grapes from appellations adjacent to Napa Valley”, which I suspect to be Sonoma, Lake County (already a significant source of quality grapes used in Napa-designated wines, just below the 15% requirment), and perhaps including the lesser vineyards in Solano and Yolo counties.

Let’s keep an eye on Game Box Wines. Of course, there are many hurdles between today and their eventual success in this hyper-competitive, insanely regulated industry. But I have a feeling the minds behind this new product will weather the storm.

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Summer Recipe: Easy Bruschetta on the Grill

Up your summer Bruschetta game!

Grilling your bread instead of toasting in an oven adds a smoky element. And wiping the hot toasts with sliced garlic both cooks and softens its harsher flavors.

Prep/Cooking Time: About 20 minutes, start to finish! Serves 4-6 (or a main course for one!)

Ingredients

  • Sweet Baguette
  • 2 pints cherry tomatoes (mixed colors), roughly chopped
  • Big fistful of Basil leaves, rolled into a cigar shape and sliced into thin strips
  • Really good olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp Balsamic vinegar
  • 1 large clove unpeeled garlic, sliced lengthwise
  • One med-hot grill

Procedure

Once ingredients are assembled, light your grill.

While waiting for your grill to hot up, slice the baguette on the bias (Right), then prepare the tomatoes, basil and garlic (below).

In a bowl, combine and lighlty toss:

  • The chopped tomatoes
  • 3/4 of the basil
  • A very generous splash of olive oil
  • The Balsamic
  • Salt & pepper to taste.

Brush or spray each slice of baguette with a thin layer of olive oil and place on the hot grill. Monitor closely – those shown here are too crisp/overdone. The goal is to get a bit of flavor and an outer crispness with a chewy center. After flipping, immediately swipe the hot toast once or twice with the raw garlic. Each garlic slice will last for half a baguette, depending on how much garlic you like.

Once toasted and rubbed with garlic, place them on a serving plate and spoon the bowl contents onto the toasts. Top with remaining sliced Basil. Test one or two and adjust seasoning, make sure the wine works, open one or two more bottles and keep testing until the perfect pairing is found. Once all your testing is complete, serve both remaining bruschetta immediately. (kidding)

Wine Pairings

The acid in this dish (tomatoes, vinegar) will defeat most red wines, so I recommend sticking with crisp summer wines – light reds slightly chilled, dry Rosés and crisp whites – exactly like those you’ll find here

Cheers!

Book Review: Sobramesa, a Memoir of Food & Love…

Sobramesa: soap opera meets food journey.

Josephine Caminos Oria provides the reader with unfettered access to her every thought, doubt, insecurity and whim as she takes them through the period of her adult life right before, during and after her breakup with a boyfriend of ten years, her first love and on through her subsequent romance with the man she eventually marries (with a few stops in between).

This sort of soap opera has strong appeal among many. However, after the book was initially described to me, I looked forward to enjoying a book that focused on the Latin American tradition of Sobramesa – the important ritual of sitting around the table after a meal is finished, leaving the dishes and TV and electronic devices until after conversation, family decisions, gossip, stories, arguments and tall tales have all been shared. 

This idea was of particular importance to me, because I live in a divided household when it comes to this topic. My wife describes herself as “a shark who has to keep moving or it dies“, which means clean-up begins shortly as the last bite is swallowed. Whereas I… ‘Sobramesa me, baby!‘ I’m happy sitting at the table until the last glass of wine is empty, chatting about whatever comes up.

While Camino Oria salts her novella with her great family food traditions and includes a recipe with each chapter, her soap opera takes the starring role in every chapter. Should you be looking for a tale of juicy romance that features Argentinian food traditions as a supporting cast, your money will be well spent here.

Buy it through Goodreads

Is Olive Oil Really Good for You? Oleavanti Says “Yes!”

About a decade ago, I found myself working on a project with a wine grower who had a deep background in horticulture and arboriculture. When I told him we had an olive farm with about 185 trees, he asked “How old are they?

15-25 years“, I said.

Why would you want to do  that?” he asked “So your grandchildren will have a viable crop?!

He had a point. Almost 12 years later, Lila Farms is only productive as an Airbnb property, not as an olive farm. For now it is a farm of passion, not profit, a farm offering hard lessons about the vagaries of agriculture. It’s given us a venue for outdoor activities, sunburns on our necks, poison oak on our legs, stiffness in our backs, and constant battles with machinery and maintenance – all of which are struggles that come along with the daily joy of our own oil. 

Harvesting olives in the rain
Lila Farms, Boonville CA. Mother nature says “today you pick olives in the rain…”

It’s also given us an appreciation for olive farmers around the globe. While on vacation, we’ve been known to pull over to take photos of ancient olive trees while driving in Spain and Italy. The activity brands us instantly as tourists, but we have accumulated an impressive collection of images!

So when I was contacted by an olive grower from Lebanon, the original source of olives (pre-dating the Phoenicians in 2,500 BC),  you can imagine my interest was piqued. And for good reason, it turns out.

Oleavanti Lebanese Olive Oils

The Oleavanti company is dedicated to working with other Lebanese growers, co-ops and artisan producers, lending their staff’s expertise and resources to help create a better product and a broader international market for their olive oil. Their mission is to create an economic justification for avoiding the creep of urbanization that has uprooted 100+ year-old Lebanese olive trees in favor of buildings.

But Oleavanti is also a grower in their own right as well. They sell their oil (buy it here) from two groves – the Ehden Grove is a blend of Souri and Aayrouni Olives, and the Qadisha Grove, exclusively from the unique Souri olives (believed to be the genetic origin of all olives), grown in a grove located at higher elevation on Mt Lebanon. 

Both oils are more robust than those from the Greek and Italian olive trees we grow at Lila Farms. But they possess that pleasing tang at the back of the throat that lasts long after swallowing the oil – a sign the polyphenols are still intact and that the oil is healthy.

The Oleavanti Team

Led by patriarch, Nakhlé Saadé, whose family has tended olive trees in Lebanon for over five centuries, the Oleavanti team includes his two daughters – Carol (who brings her PhD in Food Science to the table) and Marie, the firms’ designer and art director. They are joine by their brother Boutros whose mechanical engineering background is critical during harvest, and whose education includes studying olive oil internationally. To this family company is an Italian-American, Tony Gualtieri, a co-founder and a mathmetician/statistician in a very specialized field that is most useful for Oleavanti – the analysis of sensory properties of food.

The Oleavanti  Standards

  • Free Acidity < 0.3
  • Peroxide <7.5
  • UV Absorption Index (K232) <1.85
  • Free of sensory defects

What’s all that mean? Free acidity increases as olives oxidize prior to pressing (Oleavanti presses within four hours of picking) or when olives are exposed to the pulp and pits for too long during pressing.

The Peroxide number is a predictor of rancidity and should be kept low. Fresh olive oil smells of grass and herbs, rancid oil smells foul and stale and, well, like you don’t want it in your mouth.

The UV Absorption Index measures purity and quality. A high value indicates the presence of refined oils, adulteration, and rancidity, none of which are present in good olive oil. 

But Is It Good For You?

In answer to the opening question at the top of this post, yes, good, fresh oil is a healthy alternative to fats from animals such as butter or lard. 

As Oleavanti states on their website, olive oil is at the core of the Mediterranean diet shown to increase immunity, provide anti-inflammatory benefits, lower blood pressure, reduce cardiovascular diseases, prevent Alzheimer’s, improve the ratio of good and bad cholesterol and protect the skin.

Unlike oils from seeds, vegetables, and fruits, olive oil is a balanced blend of monounsaturated fatty acids (oleic acid), polyunsaturated (ω-6) fatty acids (linoleic acid), polyunsaturated (ω-3) fatty acids (a-linolenic acid). The presence of other compounds like polyphenols and tocopherols (vitamin E) are unique to fresh extra-virgin olive oil and have invaluable health-promoting properties. 

Thanks

One of the things I’ve learned as a nascent insider in the world of olive oil production, is that there are damn few global standards, and worse, there is no authority over the existing standards. Much of what is sold as EVOO – Extra Virgin Olive Oil – is far from high quality and is frequently blended across vintages (perfectly legal unless there’s a vintage date on the bottle) and even from less expensive sources of oil such as safflower and other vegetables. It’s good to taste oils from producers dedicated to the craft.

And for that, I thank Oleavanti! 

Oleavanti Olive Oil
Packaged with small vials of Lebanese Za’atar, a blend of Thyme, Sumac and toasted Sesame Seeeds we found to be delicious when mixed with the oil and spread on Pita chips – recipe here https://www.oleavanti.com/zaatar-pita-chips/
Dave at the Wine Shop
Wine and Olive Oil – two great pleasures
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Mt Etna Wines Are Exploding (Literally)

Mt Etna Erupts, Spring of 2021. Nearby wineries jubilant???

In rather dramatic fashion, Mt Etna has been erupting again this week. Though volcanic eruptions are a humbling testament to the raw, unpredictable power of nature, wine lovers can be thankful their black, volcanic soils produce uniquely delicious wines like those from the Etna DOC. Assuming the vineyards survive the eruption, of course.

And it appears that neither vines nor structures are at risk this week, despite the awesome power of this eruption – the lava is flowing down into an empty valley, where it’s flowed for untold previous eruptions.

But about those volcanic soils… Even when the lava isn’t actively flowing, Mt Etna quietly belches clouds of black volcanic dust. It’s nearly constant. The vineyards of the Etna DOC are perched on steep vineyards between the 10,000 foot volcano to the West and the ocean to its East (where the Mediterranean and Ionean meet), so the vines are frequently covered in volcanic ash.

While its the region’s extreme, “adrenalin-rush winemaking” that adds interest to the wines of Etna, they’ve grown hot (sorry) on their own merits. They just happen to be uniquely delicious – the fact that every bottle comes with a story of wonder and delight is just a side bonus.

Here’s why I think these unique wines are worth a portion of your wine budget:

Volcanic Vineyards
It’s all about the flavors and aromas from these well-drained, nutrient-poor and mineral-rich, black volcanic soils (yes, yes, yes, and also the vineyards’ altitude (starting at 500 feet and rising up the mountainside to and impressive 4000 feet ), exposure, ocean influence, yadda yadda). But it’s the area’s unique soils that make the Etna wines worth sampling.

The Grape Caveat
Not to be sold short, however, Etna’s ancient grape varieties also play a key role in shaping these wines. They come from grapes believed to originate on the island, and that are known only to a handful of serious students of the vine. But serious can be boring!
 
Don’t be serious. Be curious!
Etna Rosso
Etna’s reds must be made from at least 80% of the ancient Nerello Mascalese, believed to have originated in Sicily. The grape is similar in style to the medium-bodied reg grapes – Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo. The second red grape in these blends is equally obscure Nerello Cappucio (which adds color and ripeness/alcohol). Finally, should the winemaker so desire, up to 10% of the blend can comme from a handful of other Sicilian varietals. 

Etna Bianco
The equally (more?) delicious white wines of the Etna DOC are crafted largely from a relatively unknown white grape – at least 60% of the blend must be from the Carricante grape. And while the Catarratto is Sicily’s most widely planted white grape, it too is virtually unknown to most of us, and is the second grape on the list of credits for the Etna Bianco wines, followed by a short list of others. 

But more important than all these details – the wines are simply delicious and worth a try!
Three Etna DOC wines worth a bit of your wine budget this month:
Discover a new favorite!To Your Health! The health benefits of moderate drinking.
Dave the Wine Merchant*
866-746-7293
 
*P.S. These wines have become popular lately. If my supply has been depleted before you can order, rest assured I’ll be bringing in more. Just reply to this email with your interest and I’ll contact you once they arrive. Vintages and vineyards may change, however.

Winter Recipe: Braised Beef Cheeks

Photo Credit: SteakSchool.com – click to see their great recipes!

This delicious winter dish used to be considered low-brow, and as a result, beef cheeks were inexpensive. But they became pricey about ten years ago after appearing on upscale winter menus at $35 per serving.  Even so, we found some in Whole Foods’ frozen meat section for $8.99/pound. Given there are no bones and little waste, that ain’t a bad price for pure protein (though the fresh version is preferable).

Sadly, the popularity of Beef Cheeks has made them more difficult to find – there are only two of them per cow, after all – so if your local grocer can’t keep up with demand, these alternative beef options work well:

  • Beef short ribs (boneless – ask your butcher to remove the bones if need be)
  • Pot Roast (Chuck) – may require slightly longer cooking time

BUT, if you have the time to search for the cheeks, you’ll find they assure a great meal. They are falling-apart delicate with a rich and delicious mouthfeel that begs for winter wines! Reach for big, fruit-driven, tannic reds such as Syrah, Zinfandel, the Bordeaux varietals or the reds of Portugal, Spain, Sicily, Calabria, and other warm, Southern climes.

Suggested pairings. Click the image to see all our Winter Wine recommendations.

Ingredients:

▢ 3 Tbsp olive oil
▢ 3 lbs beef cheeks, cut into (roughly) uniform size, if needed
▢ 1 Onion, diced
▢ 1 Celery stalk, diced
▢ 1 Carrot, diced
▢ 4 Garlic cloves, peeled and minced
▢ 6 Stems of fresh thyme, leaves left on stems (or 1.5 tsp dried thyme)
▢ 3 Bay leaves (or 1-2 smallish ones, if using the stronger California Bay)
▢ 1 Cup beef stock
▢ 2 Cups inexpensive (<$10) red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zin, etc.)
▢ 2 – 3 tsp salt
▢ Freshly ground black pepper

Cooking Instructions

  • Remove any large fatty membrane (Note: the silverskin is more easily removed after cooking). Cut beef cheeks into roughly identical sizes if needed, then pat dry and apply salt and pepper liberally to both sides. 
  • Pre-heat your oven to 325. 

 

 

The enamal-covered cast iron pot from Lodge is ideal for this dish, but any heavy-bottom pot wil do if it has a good lid that can prevent the liquids from evaporating.

  • On your stovetop, heat a heavy-bottomed pot over high heat for 2-3 minutes. When at full temperature, add 2Tbsp of the olive oil and immediately add the beef cheeks. Sear for ~3 minutes on the first side, then turn and sear for another 2 minutes. Aggressive, high-heat browning is key to the flavor development on the bottom of the pan – the fond.  You may find this step requires two separate batches to assure each piece of meat makes full contact with the pot – no over-crowding!
  • Once nicely browned on both sides, turn the heat down to Medium and remove the cheeks to a platter. Cover with a tent of foil. 
  • Drizzle a Tbsp of oil into the heated pot and immediately add the onion, carrot and celery, reserving the minced garlic for the next step. Stir lazily until the onion begins to become opaque – about 3-5 minutes.
  • Add the minced garlic and sauté for another 3-5 minutes. 
  • Pour in the 2 cups of wine, scraping the fond from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spatula so it integrates into the liquid. Simmer for a good minute.
  • Return the cheeks to the pot along with any juices they’ve released. Add the remaining ingredients – beef broth, bay leaves and thyme sprigs – then cover the pot with a lid and place in oven for 2.5 hours (or until the meat is very tender), turning once about half way through the total 5-hour cooking time.
  • Some 2.5 hours later, remove the pot from the oven and the beef cheeks from the pot – careful, they may be falling apart – and set them aside again under a tent of foil. BTW, you can turn the oven off now.
  • Now it’s time to reduce the juices – this is where the magic happens!  Discard the thyme sprigs and Bay leaves and use a stick blender to carefully puree the braising liquid (wear an apron, this can be messy) until it becomes lighter in color and a bit frothy and thickened.  Return your pot to the stovetop on med-high and bring to a simmer. Continue reducing for ~5 minutes until it becomes darker in color again and forms the consistency of a light gravy (see photo). 
Shows consistency upon completion (additional Thyme sprigs optional)
  • Remove from the heat, return the cheeks to the sauce along with any of the released juices, cover and keep warm until ready to serve.

Side Dish Suggestions

  • Mashed Potatoes – The classic pairing for this dish is a generous heap of mashed potatoes topped by the beef cheeks and plenty of sauce.
    • Alternative A: Polenta
    • Alternative B: Creamy mashed cauliflower (recipe here)
  • Sauteéd Winter Greens: with garlic and bacon
    • Alternative: Roasted Brussels Sprouts
  • Whole  Maple-and-Brown-Sugar Roasted Carrots – no recipe needed, just roast the whole (the smaller the better) well-scrubbed carrots, the greens trimmed to within an inch of the top, at 400 degrees for 20 – 30 min. Toss with olive oil before roasting and Maple syrup immediately after roasting. Add a pinch of cayanne or garlic powder or herbs, as you wish!

Pairing Wine and Chocolate – What Works Best?

Gourmet Chocolates for Wine Pairing

Wine and chocolate. It sounds like a match made in heaven, but quite honestly, the pairing rarely lives up to expectations. Why? The natural tannins in red wines fight with the chocolate, and the sweetness of the chocolate make the wine seem more tannic – a visious cycle.

The solution? Pair dark chocolate with sweet wines.

Though Americans turn up our nose at sweet wines, the truth is they can be heavenly when part of the dessert or cheese course. It has always struck me as odd that the country that consumes Coca Cola (at 10 cubes of sugar per can) won’t touch high-quality dessert wines. I’m not talking about table wines with high degrees of residual sugar – please leave those on the bottom shelf at the wine shop where they belong. For pairing with chocolate, turn to wines made as dessert wines.

But before we get to the wines, let’s talk for a moment about chocolate. Because Mmmmmm.

The Ideal Chocolate:

While most of the chocolates you see on the market, especially around Valentine’s Day, are often milk chocolate, white chocolate, or cream-filled, I recommend pure chocolate bars – the darker the better. Those with almonds also work well, especially with the wines I’ve recommended here, which are known for their nutty characteristic (called Rancio by wine collectors- our wine geek word of the day).

Fortunately for all of us, there has been an explosion of artisinal, single-source chocolate producers in the past decade. Look for Dandelion Chocolate (“bean to bar” chocolates), Dick Taylor and many, many others. Melissa Clark of the New York Times, published a good article last year listing 13 of her favorite gourmet chocolate producers which includes these two favorites of mine plus 11 others.  I also recommend her article on chocolate tasting techniques –  we’ve found the approach she describes to have significantly elevated our tasting experience.

The Ideal Wine:

And now for the wine – the crowning glory in the whole affair!  While some have found pleasure in pairing dark chocolate with highly extracted/high-alcohol table wines (the reds from Rombauer come to mind, as do those from Frank Family, Biale, many Lodi Zins…) I skip this intermediate step in favor of wines specifically designed to pair with dried or baked fruits, nuts and dark chocolates – fortified wines such as these:

 

Value Option: Passagem Tawny Port. $19.99/500ml btl. ($0.04/ml)

Tawny Port

Port is the term for a fortified wine from Portugal’s Douro region. Wines made in a similar style that are NOT from Portugal can’t use the term “Port” (such as the one from the fun and jovial winemaker, Andrew Quady, who calls his Port-style wine “Starboard”). But the real thing is sufficiently affordable to justify a trial purchase. Look for a basic Tawny without any age indication for a deliciously satisfying and affordable Port. Passagem Tawny Port $19.99/ 500ml bottle.

All ports are part of the family of fortified wines – wines whose fermentation was stopped by the addition of a grain alcohol, thus preserving the grape’s natural sugars before they could be fully fermented into alcohol while also raising the alcohol level in the finished wine.

Ports are generally 18%-20% ABV, and because they are so rich on the pallet and high in alcohol, they’re served in smaller pours than regular wine. Most producers of high-end stemware have a line designed specifically for Port, and if you have sufficient storage space, Port glasses make a nice addition to your stemware collection. Otherwise, use the smallest wine glass you have and pour less than half full – about 4 ounces. Ideal serving temperature is “Cellar temperature”, or about 60-65 degrees.


 

Comparing the color of the 10-year Tawyny (L) and the Tawny (R). Passagem’s 10-year Tawny, $33.99 / 500ml bottle ($0.068/ml)

10-Year Tawny

Aged in smaller oak barrels than is a Vintage Ruby port (aged in huge, often century-old wooden casks), Tawnies age more quickly due to the higher ratio of wood-to-juice. A ten-year tawny like this one (left, above) was aged in oak for ten years, while the regular Tawny (right, above) still shows its youthful color and brighter fruit flavors. But it’s color is not the only difference – the older wine exhibits greater nutty, spice and Sherry-like notes that go quite well with chocolates of all styles. Passagem, 10-Year Tawny, $33.99


 

A delightful but obscure dessert wine – Rivesaltes Ambre. $25.99/750ml bottle ($0.035/ml)

Rivesaltes Ambré

Rivesaltes is a town in the South of France and a demarcated wine-making area known for sweet wines – this is one of six types produced there (Rosé, Grenat, Ambré, Tuilé and Hors d’Age). The Ambré style sees at least two years of oxidative aging that yields a deep golden hue upon bottling, and which darkens further with bottle age. The flavor is distinctly nutty with citrus peel spice notes. ~16% alcohol. Read more about this fascinating place here at – Domaine Fontanel 2008 Rivesaltes Ambré, $25.99


  

2003 Banyuls Grand Cru, Cuvee Joseph Nadal. A true treat! $47.99/btl ($0.064/ml)

Banyuls

La Cave de l’Abbe Rous is a co-operative of small growers from the best sections of Banyuls, producing wines at the highest quality level for the appellation. Among the best dessert wines I’ve tasted, but also one of the most obscure (the vast majority being consumed within France), the wine is similar to an aged Tawny Port in both alcohol (~20%), aging (9 years in cask) and flavor profile (nutty with a ginger and spice top note). Read more about it here – 2003 Banyuls Grand Cru Joseph Nadal, $47.99 

Whatever wine you choose to pair with chocolate, I encourage you to experiment with something new – new chocolates, new wines, and maybe, even new friends to share them with. Physically distanced, of course, as long as our health requires it, or even virtually if necessary!


About the Author: Dave the Wine Merchant has been involved in wine for four decades. He now enjoys discovering and sharing global wines that stretch the imaginations of curious wine lovers and encourages them to “discover a new favorite!”