As the name suggests, the feature was not just about chili, but about what wines to serve with this all-American dish.
So to churn up a little inspiration, I decided to invite my sister-in-law, her husband (a true wine lover) and my two nieces for a big-chili night with wine tasting.
One of the things I love about my ten-year-old and seven-year-old nieces is how adventurous they are with food (they taste everything I put in front of them — well, at least once!). I’d prepared wine-tasting sheets for the adults listing four categories (color, nose, texture and flavor) and I thought, Why not get the girls engaged as well — at least in the first two steps.
Neither of them was remotely tempted to taste the wines, and glanced tentatively at the red liquid I’d poured into each little thimble in front of them. At first their descriptions were tentative — color: “red”; nose: “red wine,” or “the glass that I am drinking with”. But, encouraged by the adults’ growing enthusiasm and the occasional poetic burst, the girls started to feel inspired, too. Suddenly the wines were “cranberry juice” and even “dark blood” with aromas reminiscent of “cream cheese,” “plums” or “fruit.”
All in all we had great fun. The girls devoured their chili and asked to do this again, which we’ll certainly do — in our household, chili is not just Super Bowl fare, but a favorite year-round comfort food.
So what did I pair with my big chili? Zinfandel… And what a dream pairing it was!
Zinfandel, being the American grape par excellence — having earnestly taken to the sunny hills of California – would seem the ideal choice to accompany a bowl of chili. But that’s not the reason I chose it. I wanted a Zin because the grape’s inherent boldness and spicy-smoky notes made it such a natural fit.
Here are three Zinfandels that not only pair superbly with the pinto bean chili, but would stand up to any chili, no matter how spicy, rich or smoky it might be!
Vinum Cellar – Zin 91, Old Vine Zinfandel 2006 ($15)
This small artisanal winery with an Old World approach to winemaking has always been a favorite of mine. It doesn’t hurt that winemakers Richard Bruno and Chris Condos have loads a humor to go with their talent! “Quality, Value, Fun” are the three words that greet you on their home page, and they certainly live up to it — the quirky label alone of the Zin 91 will prompt a smile. But at $15 a bottle, this is not just a fun wine, it’s one that really delivers for the bucks. On the nose, it has typical Zin aromas: cherries, plums and dark fruits – altogether quite pleasing. In the mouth, the dark fruits are the first thing you’ll taste, but they’re quickly followed by spicy notes, a hint of licorice and an ever-so-slight bitter finish. It’s a chewy wine with good tannins and a smooth texture that make the spices in the chili come to life with each sip.
Joel Gott – Zinfandel, Lodi, Mohr-Fry Ranches 2007 ($25)
This small-production bottling of 60- to 85-year-old vines from the Mohr-Fry ranches is simply spectacular. One sniff of this wine and I was seduced! Deep aromas of dark berry, currant and mocha make you want to sink your nose deeper in your glass, until the urge to taste it takes over. A gorgeous mouthful: this is a beautiful, smooth and complex wine with dark, juicy fruit notes up front and clove, cedar and even a hint of roasted coffee in the finish. The marvelous thing here is that the wine picks up all the roasted spices and the smokiness of the chili, making them come alive with every bite.
Unti Vineyards – Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley 2006 ($33)
I certainly didn’t do this on purpose, but as I opened these three Zinfandels, I realized that all were from old vines. The Unti Vineyard Zin 06, though, is the only blend: 88% Zinfandel, 9% Petite Syrah and 3% Barbera. And what a marvelous blend it is – a refined wine that might even be a bit sophisticated for a bowl of chili, but an indulgence I surely wouldn’t forgo. Yes, I did decant it and I was glad to have done so, as it allowed the wine to unfold in the most beautiful way. The aromas swirling in the glass are seductive enough to make you close your eyes as you take it all in – it’s all about dark fruit, cherry and vanilla. In the mouth, though, the fruit intensifies while subtle notes of spice and anise are revealed. Once again, the wine pairs perfectly with the chili, but it’s one you’ll want to keep sipping long after the meal is over. Winemaker Mick Unti says he wishes he could make Zinfandel like this every year… and so, I’m quite sure, will you!
Although I’ve created many recipes for different kinds of chili, the one I love most is this pinto bean chili with pan-roasted spices. Dry-roasting cumin and coriander seeds in a hot pan gives these two spices a depth and nuttiness that permeates the dish. As I hand-grind the roasted spices in a mortar, the whole kitchen comes alive with their intense aroma. (Any recipe that starts this way, in my book, is a good dish!)
Pinto Bean Chili with Pan-Roasted Spices and Chipotle – Served with Quinoa
active time: 40 min
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 medium Vidalia onions – peeled and cut in 1/4” dices
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground chipotle to taste
- 2 garlic cloves – skinned and minced
- 1 – 4 1/2 oz (128gr) canned chopped green chilis
- 1 – 28 oz (794gr) canned peeled whole plum tomatoes – coarsely puréed in a food processor
- 1 1/4 cups tomato juice
- 6 cups cooked pinto beans
- reserved cooking liquid from the beans (only if needed)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt or to taste
- 2 tablespoons Tequila
- 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
- 1 1/2 recipes Quinoa
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 6 scallions – trimmed and cut crosswise in 1/8″ slices
- Step 1: Heat a small heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat. Add the cumin and coriander seeds and cook until they turn deep golden and are fragrant — about 2 minutes — shaking the pan constantly and taking care not to burn the spices. Transfer to a mortar and grind until coarsely ground.
- Step 2: Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and onions and sauté for 8 to 10 minutes, until the onions have softened and begun to caramelize, stirring from time to time. Add the roasted seeds, chili powder, chipotle, garlic and green chilis and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the puréed tomatoes and tomato juice, mix well and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered for 10 minutes. Add the beans and bring back to a boil. Reduce heat again, cover and simmer for 20 minutes until the chili has thickened, stirring from time to time to prevent it from sticking to the pan. (If chili gets too thick, thin with a little reserved cooking water from the beans.)
- Step 3: When the chili is ready, remove from heat. Add the salt, Tequila and cilantro and stir well (taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary).
- Step 4: Spoon the quinoa in large bowls. Top with the chili. Garnish with a little sour cream and scallions. Serve immediately.
- Cook’s note: To double the recipe, double all the ingredients and cooking times, except for the last stage. Once the beans are added to the chili/tomato base, add 5 minutes to the cooking time or cook the beans for 25 minutes.
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Disclaimer: As always, my point of view is my own. I do not accept samples, and have no commercial relationship with any product, food or wine company.