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Vegetarian cooking and fine wine: Are they compatible? Yes!

Vino and the vegetarian 

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Vegetarian cooking and fine wine: Are they compatible? Can Moosewood and Mouton Rothschild find happiness together? In my early 20s, struggling as a freelance musician, I worked part time at a combination health food store and restaurant in New York City. Gary Null, with his array of vegetarian and better living books, owned the store at the corner of West 108th Street and Broadway. I learned rather thoroughly the joys of solid, satisfying vegetarian fare, and that just about any and all wine varieties can find their soulful match in the world of meatless meals. For some reason, many vegetarians are still convinced that red wines are anathema to their dietary preferences. With the advent of more savory foods, earthier dishes and richly spiced foods, this notion is quietly retreating. In the early days, tasteless soy, rice and veggie entrées seemed a perfect match for a clean, clear white. (And this formula can certainly still hold water—or white wine!) But braising soy with mushrooms, garlic, spicy peppers and wasabi flings open the door to reds. Whether you're a full-time or fly-by-night vegetarian, here then is convincing proof—and some nice experiments to try.

Mushroom-barley soup is a classic match-up for a young, fresh red. Try American Zinfandel or Italian Dolcetto d'Alba. Look for 2004 or '05 Zinfandel from Dry Creek or Lodi or try the 2005 Dolcettos from any reputable producer.

Lentil-based dishes, whether pureed or served whole in a soup or stew, are so richly textured and flavored that reds from the 2005 vintage of the Côtes du Rhône or 2005 Nero d'Avola from Sicily would each match divinely. The Bible says that Esau gave up his firstborn privileges to his younger brother for a bowl of lentil soup. A bad bargain? Perhaps, but even in Old Testament times, the glory of a bowl of lentil soup was something very special indeed.

All tomato-based pasta dishes are a perfect match with 2006 "regular" Chianti (no Riserva). A 2005 Barbera d'Asti from the Piedmont would be grand, as would 2004 Rioja Crianza or 2005 or '06 Argentinian Bonarda.

A vegetable stroganoff or ratatouille will be delicious with a soft, older red Burgundy or Bordeaux. In fact, just about any red with five years age upon it—from 2002 or older—would do this dish proud. Other options include Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Spanish Penedès reds such as Torres Coronas or inexpensive Washington State Merlot. These are usually softly textured upon release.

Eggplant-based entrées or casseroles call for a nothing-subtle style. Southern Rhônes or Grenache-based wines (also known as Garnacha or Cannonau) will be delectable. Try a 2004 California Petite Syrah if the dish is loaded with texture and flavor.

Fettucine with wild porcini mushrooms and Reggiano parmesan cheese can take your best Barolo, Barbaresco or Chateuneuf du Pape in style. Older California Syrah or Spanish Ribera Del Duero will fill in nicely as well. Can't you just taste this one now?

Mexican burritos or tacos with black beans, guacamole, salsa and black olives need a spice cutter. Edgy young French Chinon, Italian Valpolicella or German Spätburgunder will clear your palate. (Vegans can easily use soy cheeses and egg substitutes to make these recipes work; lacto-ovo vegetarians can add sour cream or strong cheddar to the mix.) Tofu stir-fry with Thai peanut sauce will also work well with these same wines.

Lighter, crisper foods call out for a white. Although not written in stone, here are a few dishes delectably complemented by whites.

Vichyssoise, chilled potato-onion soup, is a creamy delight that goes perfectly with Verdicchio, Macon-Villages or un-oaked Australian Chardonnay. Borscht will also love these wines as will tempura vegetables.

Gaspacho, another cold yet tantalizingly spicy soup, is great with fruitier, lighter reds such as Beaujolais, or Saumur from the Loire. But it is also a knockout with a white Graves, Anderson Valley Sauvignon Blanc or, for a change of pace, a nicely chilled Fino Sherry (my choice).

All antipasti and vegetable pates or terrines are a best bet with Lugana from Italy, Vinho Verde from Portugal or Albarino (Alvarinho) from Spain and Portugal.

Cheese fondues are a classic match with Swiss Fendant wine, but it's rather hard to find. Instead, try Alsatian Pinot Blanc or a dry California Chenin Blanc. (Chappellet is terrific.) Falafel, the tasty Israeli chickpea croquette, is a very hearty and satisfying dish. An Oregon or Washington State Pinot Gris or a French Rhône white (Marsanne and Roussanne) would be splendid. An old-fashioned oaked Rioja white would also be heavenly, but they are expensive and a somewhat acquired taste.

As for quiche, the prominent egg flavors are simply anathema to wine. I've never found a good match. Try Frascati or Alsatian Riesling for a unheavenly pairing.

Indonesian, Ethiopian and Indian cooking are often best with a German Kabinett, Northwest Riesling or Vouvray. Same for Cajun and Hunan dishes. For those who like their wine dry, I find that Italian Vernaccia is an inspired choice. Its strong dry flavor is not for sipping, but it cuts through garlic and spice and clears your palate between bites for a real thirst quencher. And don't forget: Champagne or good sparkling wine made by the Champagne or "methode traditionelle" process matches with just about anything if you're in the mood!

Experience, experiment and enjoy for yourselves these myriad combinations. Travel the world with your wines as well as foods; and make sure to "see red" often—on your dinner table.

Arturo can be reached at deal5@earthlink.net.

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