Finding Great Wines During the Holidays

It’s no secret that the holidays are expensive and that’s why we all shop for “holiday deals”. Not surprisingly, at this time of the year, I am often asked: Are there any deals in fine wine, and if so, how do I find them? Thankfully, the answer is Yes! But like all good deals, you need to look beyond the obvious. 

1.  Avoid the Crowds: If you generally purchase wines that just received 96 points by the “hottest” wine critics, you will always pay full price and then some. If you want to find a deal, look for a wine that isn’t on the critics’ radar, but recommended by someone you trust.

2.  Explore the World: If you always buy wines in your comfort zone, you will never really experience what the wine world has to offer. Many of the most affordable and delicious wines come from producers and places you might not have considered. And I am not talking about Cabernet Gernischt from Ningxia, China; there are fantastic values to be found in places like the Loire Valley or Alsace in France. For example, a Crémant de Loire or Alsace (sparkling wines from these regions) are made in exactly the same manner as their better-known neighbor in Champagne, but at fraction of the price, and they are delicious!

3.  Consider Ingredients: Wine, like any crafted food item, is made from ingredients of varying costs. Grapes are obviously the primary ingredient, but oak barrels – particularly new oak barrels – can add considerable expense to a bottle of wine. Why is this? New oak barrels can cost between $400 and $1200 each, and if only used once, add tremendous expense to the wine inside the barrel. To find wines with “lower oak profiles” ask a knowledgable sales associate at a wine shop. They will understand, and you might even find that you enjoy the “purity of fruit” and “taste of terrior” not unduly influenced by the flavor of new oak.  

— Mark Cartland, Wine Director, Greens Restaurant

Lentil Salad with Goat Cheese and Mint

Little green lentils are the key ingredient that make this classic salad such a hit. Unlike the lager lentils we use for soups and Indian dishes, the small green variety holds its shape when cooked. Toss the warm lentils right away with the Lemon Vinaigrette, so they absorb all the flavors. Serve with Simple Artichoke Salad and Spicy Tomato Jam for a trio of made-ahead appetizers. It’s also delicious with crumbled feta or ricotta salata cheese

Serves 4 to 6

1 1/2 cups small green lentils, about 11 ounces

6 cups cold water

1 bay leaf

1/2 medium red onion, finely diced, about 1/2 cup

Champagne vinegar

Lemon Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced about 1/2 cup

1/2 fennel bulb, finely diced, about 1/2 cup

3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Salt and pepper

3 ounces creamy goat cheese, about 1/2 cup

Rinse the lentils and place them in a large saucepan with the water and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes.

While the lentils are cooking, bring a small pot of water to a boil. Drop in the onions for 20 seconds, drain and toss with 1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar.

Make the vinaigrette.

Drain and toss the warm lentils in a large bowl with the vegetables and vinaigrette. Set aside to marinate for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally as the salad cools. Add the mint and season with salt, pepper, and a splash of Champagne vinegar, if needed. Remove the bay leaf. Crumble the goat cheese over the salad and serve. 

Lemon Vinaigrette (makes about 1/2 cup)

1/2 tablespoon minced lemon zest

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Whisk everything but the oil together in a small bowl. Slowly pour the oil in, whisking constantly until emulsified.

Roasted Butternut Squash Rounds with Sage Leaves

This simple fall side dish is a delightful alternative to roasted potatoes.  The deep orange rounds of squash caramelize as they roast in the oven, releasing their natural sweetness. It’s a perfect savory holiday side dish, quick and easy to prepare.

Serves 4 to 6  

Two 3-pound butternut squash with long necks

1 tablespoon Garlic Oil (see below)

10 to 15 sage leaves, chopped, about 2 tablespoons

Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400º F.

Cut the squash at the base of the neck, reserving the bulbous part with the seeds for another dish.  Remove the stem and skin of the neck and cut into ¾-inch thick rounds.  You should have about 12 slices. 

Lay the squash slices on a baking sheet.  Brush both sides of the slices with garlic oil and sprinkle with the sage and a little salt and pepper. Roast for 15 minutes, then use a spatula to loosen the rounds. Cook another 5 minutes, until the squash is tender and the color vibrant.  Serve warm.

Tip:  Be sure to select butternut with slender, long necks –you’ll be using the necks- and save the bulbs with the seeds for a soup or ragout.

Garlic Oil

Mince a few garlic clove, and cover with extra-virgin olive oil.  You can use it right away or let it steep for 30 minutes to create more intense garlic flavor.  We add 1 tablespoon minced garlic to every ½ cup oil, but it’s up to you — use as little or as much garlic as you like.  Strain out the garlic and store the oil in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator.  

Recipe from Everyday Greens by Annie Somerville, Executive Chef, Greens Restaurant

Pairing Wine With Vegetables

Greens Prix Fixe

Each Saturday Greens offers a prix-fixe dinner with amazing wine pairings from our wine sommelier, Mike Hale. Mike has been a somm for over three decades. He’s owned and operated (with his wife Carole) two San Francisco  Chronicle Top 100 restaurants in the past 20 years and has been the wine director at Greens for the past eight years. He also makes wine at several acclaimed Sonoma wineries and has lived on an 80-acre ranch in Dry Creek Valley near Healdsburg for over 20 years. 

Mike explains that while wine pairing is more commonly thought of in terms of what to drink with different meat proteins… paring wine with vegetables isn’t too different. He looks at the spices, temperatures and minerality of the foods and works from there. Beyond that, he notes that most wine pairings are either trying to match the flavor profile of the food or conversely, to balance the food with wine…for example pairing a dry, clean wine with rich food.

While Mike leans toward the balancing method, he says one of his favorite ways of pairing wine and food merely by looking at areas where the food comes from and knowing that area probably develops the right wines for those foods. He offers the examples of the coast of Italy having fantastic seafood and great white wines. Or the Alsace region of France, known for its rich cuisines and the white wines there that stand up to that richness.

Some good examples of his careful thought processes can be seen on the current Saturday night Prixe Fixe menu. For the Wild Mushroom Ravioli with Chanterelle Mushrooms, sweet 100 cherry tomatoes, savoy spinach, spring onions, pine nuts, herb butter and grana padano Mike has chosen a 2010 Anthill Farms Campbell Ranch Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. He says the mushrooms immediately guided his choice. “Mushrooms are the duck of vegetables,” he notes. “They have a very earthy, “forest floor” flavor and therefore do well with a lighter-bodied red wine like a Pinot Noir. While the pine nuts and tomatoes give the dish a richness the pinot has enough body to stand up to that.

For the Heirloom Tomato and Avocado Salad with Green Gulch lettuce, shaved pecorino fiore sardo and grilled jalapeno vinaigrette Mike chose a 2014 Petrichor Rose from Sonoma County. “This dry rose is refreshing like a white wine which is ideal for the lettuce but has the body of a red to stand up to the jalapeno vinaigrette.”

Many more notes on pairing wine with vegetables can be found in the Greens Cookbooks, available here.


The Cooking and Flavoring Oils Used at Greens

We use oils for both cooking and flavoring our dishes. Because they’re the major carrier of flavor, it’s important to have high-quality oils. Here’s what’s in our pantry.

EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL: Today, finding a fine extra-virgin olive oil is no problem; one simply must decide which fantastic variety to buy. Extra virgin refers to the first pressing of oil extracted from olives by mechanical means, without the use of heat or chemicals. This oil is a seasoning element in its own right. Light is a grade called pure and comes from successive pressings: its color is lighter and the fat content is the same as extra-virgin.

CANOLA OIL: Spicy Asian curries, Mexican soups and stews are cooked with this inexpensive, all-purpose oil, an excellent vehicle for dishes with big, bold flavors.

PEANUT OIL: Because of its tolerance for high temperatures, peanut oil is perfect for frying. Also, it complements the flavors of Asian dishes.

TOASTED SESAME OIL: The dark, assertive flavor of this oil is a natural seasoning for noodle dishes, stir-fries, and Asian-inspired vegetable fillings. Highly perishable, it must be used sparingly.

NUT OILS: Expensive and fragile, walnut and hazelnut oils make fine vinaigrettes and are delicious accents for pastas tossed with toasted walnuts and hazelnuts.

INFUSED OILS: Intensely flavored, expensive, and delicious, these oils enhance salads, pasta, and risotto.

LEMON OIL: This light, clean, and fragrant extra-virgin olive oil is pressed with Eureka lemons which infuses the oil.

PORCINI AND WHITE TRUFFLE OILS: These are distinctive oils with an incredible wild essence. They intensify subtle flavors and make special simple dishes.

Cheeses We Use at Greens Restaurant

From Bellwether Farms in Petaluma

Crescenza: This buttery, soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese is slightly tart and yeasty. We spread it over grilled or toasted bread and feature it in a trio of crostini along with warm chanterelles and Picholine Olive Tapenade.

Fromage Blanc: This fresh, smooth cow’s milk cheese is wonderfully tangy like chèvre but without the goat flavor. We spread it on croutons and spoon it over a peperonata or Greek pizza and spread on grilled bread with a sprinkling of chives.

Pecorino Pepato: Made in the pecorino style with ray sheep’s milk, this lovely soft cheese is studded with hole peppercorns and aged for two to three months.

Ricotta: We feature two different ricottas here–one from sheep’s milk and the other from Jersey cow milk, prized for its rich flavor and golden color. Both are light and sweet but the cow’s milk ricotta is unforgettably buttery and creamy.

From Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station

Fromage Blanc: This tangy fresh cheese is made with Straus organic milk in the French style. It makes an incredibly delicious cheese cake and a fantastic open-faced sandwich with juicy heirloom tomatoes and whole leaves of opal basil.

Mt. Tam: Named for beautiful, rugged Mount Tamalpais–which we can see from our dining room windows just across the Bay–this mold-ripened, triple cream cheese can be paired iwth all kinds of flavors.

St. Pats: This mellow, soft whole milk cheese is wrapped in stinging nettle leaves giving it a little kick and hint of artichoke flavor.

Red Hawk: This triple cream cheese is washed in a brine solution as it ages. Its rind has a pale hit of orange color. If left to ripen it becomes slightly runny and all the more delicious.

From Laura Chenel’s Chèvre in Sebastopol

Chef’s Chèvre: This fresh, tangy chèvre is easy to spread so it’s great for sandwiches and crostini.

Chèvre: This exceptional cheese got us hooked on baked goat cheese but it’s also great crumbled over pasta or into a wilted spinach salad.

Cabecou: These little rounds of netty, aged chèvre are packed in extra-virgin olive oil. We serve it with warm almonds, olives and thick slices of spicy piquillo peppers.

From Redwood Hill Farm in Sebastopol

California Crottin: These little rounds of goat cheese with the soft rind are intensely flavored. They’re soft and creamy when they’re young and grow firmer as they age.

Bucharet: A little larger than the crottin, this dense, buttery rind-ripened cheese is inspired by the French Bucheron.

Camellia: This small Camembert-style goat cheese with a bloomy rind is named for a favorite, all white do, Camellia, a champion milk producer. Aged six to eight weeks, it grows softer ad riper as it matures.

From Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma

Vella Dry Jack: This exceptional cow’s milk cheese is made just like Monterey jack, then covered with oil, cocoa and black pepper and aged for almost three years. The result is a hard, yellow cheese with a sweet nutty flavor.

Mezzo Secco: A creamy, young version of Dry jack, Mezzo Secco meals half dry; it is aged for six months.

From the Giacomini family in Point Reyes Station:

Original Blue: This tangy, creamy blue cheese is full flavored with clear blue veins throughout. It is perfect crumbled over bitter greens with juicy, ripe pears and toasted pecans.

From the Matos family in Santa Rosa: through

Saint George Cheddar: This Luscious aged cheddar is similar to a sharp New York cheddar–balanced and full of rich flavor.

From Mytime Ranch in Eureka

Capricious: This sensational cheddar-like goat cheese is great for shaving over a salad of grilled figs and endive or crumbled into baked pasta or a rich tomato bisque.