Any cook and wine lover can tell you that pairing wine and vegetables can be a bit of a challenge. But if you’re a vegetarian, or you have vegetarian friends or family members, you’ll eventually have to find some good combinations. In our case, we have both vegetarian friends and family members, so I’ve got a couple of tricks up my sleeve, one of which I’ll share with you in this post.
My favorite trick will likely be no big surprise: a rich, cheesy pasta laden with tomato sauce and paired with Sangiovese. Our daughters and one of their friends came in from college this weekend, and I always enjoy rolling out the welcome mat with some good home cooking. After all, one cannot live by ramen noodles alone.
So, my special noodle dish for them is baked ziti. Who doesn’t love macaroni and cheese, particularly if it’s also coated with a rich tomato sauce and set off with some garlic bread sticks? We were all in luck because last weekend at the Everything Texas Uncorked wine festival, I had picked up a bottle of Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards Twin T Vineyards Texas High Plains Sangiovese, 2011. The only unfortunate part of the equation was that I had just one bottle because it was incredibly delicious and paired with our food like singing cowboys and Texas sunsets.
For all you meat lovers out there—and we do have a few of those here in Texas—you can also make it with Italian sausage, and one of my favorites is from Ponder, Texas by way of Syracuse, New York. Syracuse’s Italian Sausage is locally made, minimally processed, and available at the deli counter at a couple of local supermarkets, including Tom Thumb and Albertson’s. I love the freshness and the spices in their sausage, which comes in both hot and mild varieties. For my purposes last night, I went with the mild because acidity in wine tunes up the heat in spicy dishes.
Back to our daughters for a minute: they grew up with a tiny pour of Riesling at Thanksgiving dinner, the odd spot of Chardonnay with cheese, and a bit of bubbly at New Year’s. So, they are no strangers to wine, and at a tender age, they had already developed rather sophisticated preferences, but even so, one of them admitted to me she still prefers white to red. Well, she should know better than to make an admission like that in my kitchen because, of course, she got the download on how wine is really meant to be consumed with food, wine is a food, and so on. Fortunately, she’s of an age now where she’s genuinely interested in my erudition on the subject, and she appreciated my Sangiovese food pairing lecture (or managed a good impression of appreciation). I did try to keep it short, however.
But talk is cheap, and the proof is in the pasta. Sure enough, Los Pinos Ranch Sangiovese was absolutely ideal for my baked ziti, a wine with rich flavors of cherry and fennel with light characteristics of slate and mineral. The rustic, tannic quality of the wine was perfect for a hearty pasta dish, and the pairing underscored everything I had said earlier about red wine and food.
I admit to being more of a busy cook than a four-star chef, but these days with people flying in 500 directions and stretched thin, who doesn’t appreciate a home-cooked meal, even if there were a few short cuts involved? Here’s my pasta recipe with modifications for a vegetarian version, if you’re inclined that way. Don’t neglect to find a nice Texas Sangiovese to pair with it.
Makes 8 Servings
Prep, 20 minutes; Cook, 30 minutes; Ready in about one hour
1 (16 ounce) package ziti pasta
1 pound mild Italian sausage, casings removed or ground, OR: 1 pound Portobello mushrooms, sliced
1 cup finely diced onion
1 clove of finely minced garlic
2 (24 ounce) jars good quality marinara sauce (I like Muir Glen)
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil, divided
12 ounces ricotta cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons Italian seasoning, divided
1 dash salt and pepper
1 pound Italian cheese blend, shredded
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (175 degrees C). Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente; drain. (Tip: I typically toss my cooked, drained pasta with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to keep it from getting tacky.)
- Place sausage (or mushrooms), onions, and garlic in a large, deep skillet. Cook over medium high heat until evenly brown (or for mushrooms, just enough to release their moisture–heat about a tablespoon of olive oil to coat). Drain, crumble and set aside. In a large saucepan, heat marinara with 1 teaspoon basil just until bubbly. In a medium bowl, mix together ricotta, 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning, salt and pepper.
- Spread bottom of a 9×13 inch baking dish with sauce. Layer 1/2 of the ziti, 1/2, the sausage, 1/2 of the ricotta, and 1/2 the Italian cheese blend. Spoon half of the sauce over top. Repeat layers. Sprinkle top with remaining 1/2 teaspoons basil and Italian seasoning.
- Bake in preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes until hot and bubbly.