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Matchmaker: Ratatouille and Rioja

Show off the bounty of fall with a balanced red from Spain

Nick Fauchald
Posted: October 20, 2004

Ratatouille is a fantastic way to take advantage of the bounty of seasonal vegetables. Traditionally considered a summer dish, I think ratatouille is best in the early fall, when its key components are ripe and easily obtainable. In fact, everything you need to make this Provençal ragoût can be found right now at your local farmer's market -- or in your own garden, if you're so lucky. This recipe is very flexible, so let what's fresh and available dictate which vegetables and herbs you include. Red snapper, coated with panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs) and pan-fried, adds a protein-rich crunch to the dish.

Wine Pairing

Ratatouille needs a wine that won't muddle the dish's medley of distinct flavors. I recommend a lighter-style red with modest tannins and enough acidity to allow the vegetables' individual characteristics to open up on your palate. Newcomers to pairing red wine with fish needn't be alarmed; snapper, especially in this preparation, is rich and firm enough to stand up to a lighter red wine.

While a fruity California Pinot Noir, a crisp Chianti Classico or a bright Beaujolais-Villages would match nicely, I prefer a young red from Spain's Rioja region. The wines of Rioja come largely from the Tempranillo grape, which makes a balanced red with modest tannins and fresh acidity. Wines labeled "crianza," which are aged for at least two years before release, are especially appropriate for this dish, since they show less influence from oak than reserva (aged three years) and gran reserva (aged five years) styles. They are also less expensive. The 2001 vintage was outstanding in Rioja, but 2000 would work well, too.

Recipe: Crispy Snapper with Fall Harvest Ratatouille
Serves 4

Cooking ratatouille is a simple one-pot process, but care should be taken to ensure the vegetables don't overcook. Since the density and water content of each vegetable varies, they will cook at different rates, which is why you need to cook the heavier vegetables first. Finish the ratatouille, then cook the snapper.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, medium (about 1/2-inch) dice
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 winter squash (such as butternut or acorn), peeled, seeded and cut into medium dice
1 medium eggplant, peeled (the skin's bitterness will overwhelm both the dish and the wine) and cut into medium dice
2 medium zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut into medium dice
2 bell peppers (red or yellow preferred; green is OK), cored and cut into medium dice
3 medium tomatoes, seeded and cut into medium dice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs, such as thyme, tarragon, savory or oregano
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

4 red snapper fillets, skin removed, about 6 ounces each
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs; regular breadcrumbs can be substituted)
1/3 cup vegetable oil

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until tender, about 2 minutes. Add eggplant and squash and sauté until slightly softened, about 4 minutes. Add bell peppers and zucchini and cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes and herbs and reduce heat to low. Season with a pinch of salt and a couple cranks of pepper.

Cover most of the pot with a lid or parchment paper, leaving enough room for moisture to escape. Let the vegetables simmer, gently stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Taste a couple of the vegetables: If they are still too crunchy, let them continue cooking until they reach desired tenderness. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Pat fillets dry and season both sides with salt and pepper. Dredge fillets in flour and pat off any excess. Dip into egg and allow excess to drip off. Coat with panko and pan-fry, about 3-4 minutes a side, until cooked throughout. Plate with ratatouille and serve immediately.

Wines

Wine Score Price
BODEGAS PALACIO Rioja Cosme Palacio y Hermanos 2001 90 $12
Expressive and alluring. This modern red shows a plush texture and ripe fruit flavors of blackberry and plum, with pretty oak accents and well-integrated tannins. It has depth, but remains graceful on the palate. Drink now through 2008. 10,000 cases made. --T.M.
 
BODEGAS BRETÓN Rioja Loriñon Crianza 2001 86 $13
This lively red makes a real impact, with vibrant plum, vanilla and spice flavors, though it remains graceful on the palate, finishing with spice and cedar notes. Drink now through 2008. 60,000 cases made. --T.M.
 
BODEGAS PALACIO Rioja Glorioso Crianza 2001 86 $11
Black cherry and plum flavors are fresh and focused in this ripe red. Ripe tannins frame the fruit and give it the structure to match with food. Drink now through 2007. --T.M.
 
HEREDAD UGARTE Rioja Crianza 2000 86 $11
Solid and well-integrated, with good typicity. Has cherry, tobacco and spice notes, moderate tannins and a spicy finish. Drink now through 2007. 30,000 cases made. --T.M.
 
BODEGAS MUERZA Rioja Vega Crianza 2000 85 $10
This small-scale red offers pretty cherry and berry fruit flavors with accents of spice and vanilla. It's firm but silky, balanced and clean. Drink now through 2006. 55,000 cases made. --T.M.
 

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