‘The Social Herbivore’: A Plant-Based Feast With Perfect Wine Pairings
This hearty saffron-scented Italian Wedding Soup is a meatless version of the traditional recipe. Photo: Kat Rizza
Jennifer Huether and Priya Rao are in the right spot at the right time.
Huether is a Master of Wine, one of only 10 in Canada. Rao is a master of entertaining, one of many in Canada, but she has a particular and unique knack for making plant-based dishes irresistible.
This is a duo of formidable talent. When you pair superior vegan cuisine with a Master of Wine’s pairing suggestions … well, you have a meatless dinner that’ll make you forget that it’s meatless.
The duo goes by the moniker Social Herbivore. They are on a mission to elevate plant-based cuisine in a way that is accessible for all. Their new cookbook is called The Social Herbivore: Perfect Pairings for Plant-Based Cuisine.
“We are passionate about matching great wines with vegan cuisine,” says Rao. “More and more, people want to feel good about the choices they make from an environmental, compassionate, health, and socially conscious standpoint. Our mission is to create a guilt- and FOMO-free zone and show that you can experience the joys of perfectly paired food and wine with plant-based dishes.”
Their book is purported to be the first of its kind in the world. It features 40 plant-based — and easy to execute — recipes, along with wine suggestions to match.
“It’s shocking how little information is available regarding pairing wine with plant-based food even today,” says Rao. “But when we started The Social Herbivore three years ago, there was literally no help out there for consumers.”
The timing is right, that’s for sure.
“People are more interested in both how things are made and what they are putting into their bodies,” says Rao.
“There has been a huge interest by both retail and restaurants to purchase wines that are natural, organic, sustainable and biodynamic. There is an awareness of agriculture and the impact of growing wine on the environment that was not around from a consumer perspective even ten years ago, especially with climate change. Also, with the rise of plant-based food, there has become a greater understanding that not all wine is vegan friendly so having the ‘V’ label on wines from around the world has also seen a massive increase in interest.”
So what’s next for vegan cuisine? When The Economist declared 2019 the Year of the Vegan, says Rao: “Things started happening fast and the plant-based dining options are spreading like wildfire from fast food to fine dining.”
One of the best outcomes, she says, is that it’s much easier to incorporate more plant-based meals into one’s diet.
“High-end plant-based restaurants are cropping up around the world, Michelin-star chefs are transitioning their establishments to vegan menus, wineries are proudly labelling their vegan-friendly wines with a ‘V’ for easier consumer recognition,” says Rao.
Can you share your favourite flavour boosters — and any other secret weapons?
I love black salt, which gives a very eggy flavouring to scrambled tofu. Nutritional yeast adds a cheesy flavour to cream sauces. Raw cashews blended with salt, pepper, lemon juice and nutritional yeast makes a very-convincing alternative to an alfredo sauce!
What items or ingredients do you keep stocked in your pantry/fridge?
I always keep a mix of pumpkin, sunflower and hemp seeds in a jar. I toss a tablespoon or two on salads and rice for an easy nutritional boost. Canned beans, lentils and tomatoes are always on my shelf and I always have red and white wine ice cubes in the freezer for those times I need a bit of wine in a recipe and don’t want to open an entire bottle!
What is your favourite snack, healthy and otherwise?
I love Boom Chicka Pop’s Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn, which is vegan-friendly and downright addictive!
This Q&A has been condensed
Saffron-Scented Italian Wedding Soup
I first made this soup on a cool spring evening. I had been waiting to get a new fridge and stove delivered and was trying to empty out my freezer. I decided to try a meatless version of Italian Wedding Soup. It. Was. Yummmm! I usually like big, bold flavours and lots of spices in my food, but the delicate, fragrant flavours of this hearty soup were exactly what that rainy Saturday called for.
2 tbsp olive oil + 1 tbsp for the meatballs
1 bag meatless meatballs of choice
2 large leeks, sliced (avoid the tough, dark green parts of the stalk)
2-3 cloves garlic, sliced
6 cups vegetable stock
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
1 can white kidney or navy beans, drained and rinsed
1 bunch spinach, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon packed saffron
Vegan Parmesan (optional)
1. Heat oil in a medium frying pan on medium heat. Sauté the meatballs until lightly browned on all sides, approximately 8-10 minutes. Set aside.
2. Heat the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil in a large pot. Add leeks and sauté on medium heat for about 3 minutes until they start to soften. Add garlic and cook for another minute being careful not to burn the garlic or it will get bitter.
3. Add vegetable stock and carrots and cook until carrots are tender, about 8 minutes. Add meatballs, beans, spinach and saffron. Cook another minute or two to let flavours combine. Add salt to taste (depending on how salty your broth is).
Serve with a baguette and vegan parmesan, if using.
Jen’s Perfect Pairings:
This soup is such a lovely bowl of goodness and savouriness, all while being very delicate.
My value pick is a surprising match. I’m opting to recommend a Torrontes from the Salta region in Argentina. These wines can be very floral and delicate, which is what makes this pairing surprising. This region’s high altitude (highest vineyards in the world) produces unique whites from the Torrontes grape that are graceful and finish super fresh. This wine works so well because it’s also delicate and aromatic just like this pretty soup.
My splurge pick is not necessarily a splurge but something perhaps new to you. I really like the white Fiano grape from Campania, Italy, with this soup. These wines are generally nutty and heavily textured with floral notes and hints of spice and tropical fruit. Look for the famed Fiano di Avellino DOCG wine when you’re shopping. These wines are delicate enough to work with the soup but weighty enough to add a different dimension.
Pro Tip: Matching hot liquid to cold liquid can be an interesting contrast. Play around with the temperatures of the wine to see different results.
Mushroom Wellington With Madeira Jus
This is a showstopper main course. It’s elegant, impressive and perfect for a holiday dinner party. I’m not gonna lie, it is time-consuming but on the flip side, it’s not at all difficult. I like to use a blend of mushrooms, the more variety the better. You can omit the faux beef altogether but if you do, be sure to increase the amount of mushrooms and include portobello mushrooms in your mixture to add that “meaty” texture.
4-6 garlic cloves, minced
3 medium shallots, finely chopped
1 ½ tbsp olive oil
¼ cup dry Madeira, Marsala or full-bodied red wine
4 cups mixed mushrooms, not-too-thinly sliced
1 ½ tsp herbes de Provence
1-1 ½ tsp salt
Black pepper to taste
1 cup faux beef strips, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 package vegan puff pastry, thawed according to package directions
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
1 cup dry Madeira, Marsala or full-bodied red wine
½ tsp herbes de Provence
3 cups vegan “beef” flavoured broth (available at health food stores)
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp arrowroot flour or cornstarch dissolved in ¼ cup water
Black pepper to taste
Make the Wellington
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Sauté shallots in oil over medium heat until translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add mushrooms and garlic, cooking until mushrooms soften, 3-5 minutes. Let the mushrooms sweat out and be sure to cook off all their liquid before adding the wine and ‘beef’ bits. Cook until wine is almost completely evaporated but don’t let the mixture get dry. Add Herbes de Provence and cook until mushrooms turn golden. Season to taste with salt & pepper.
3. Roll out puff pastry dough into a large rectangle. Fill in the centre with the mushroom mixture. Fold long ends over first, followed by the short ends and seal with a crimp. Place seam-side down on a baking sheet or dish and refrigerate for 15-20 minutes.
4. Bake the Wellington for 20-22 minutes or until it’s a nice golden-brown. Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes so it holds well together when cutting. Use a serrated knife as it will slice without squishing the pastry.
Make the Madeira Jus
1. While the Wellington is in the oven, heat oil over medium heat in a medium pot. Add shallots and sauté until translucent. Add wine and cook for 5-7 minutes until the liquid reduces slightly. Add “beef” broth, bay leaf, herbes de Provence and black pepper. Reduce heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Add the cornstarch/water blend, bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer until sauce has thickened slightly, about 3-5 minutes. Sauce is not meant to be thick like a gravy so be careful not to overcook.
2. Serve sauce in a gravy boat alongside the Wellington.
Jen’s Perfect Pairings:
We have found this wonderful, wintry dish to work with both red and white wines.
My favourite value wine is a Beaujolais made from the red Gamay grape coming from France. These reds have little tannin (the mouth puckering feeling you get with astringency) and loads of red fruit flavours with fresh herb notes. What is wonderful about them is they pair so well with food; their acidity is fresh for a red wine and they are not heavy at all. You don’t need to spend lots of money to get a Cru Beaujolais and it can be fun to check out the ten different villages and styles from them.
My splurge wine is a white from the Chardonnay grape in Sonoma County, California. If you can find a Russian River Valley Chardonnay (the small area that helped put California on the map for this grape), even better. These whites are decadent, opulent and round with notes of toast and ripe apples. They work so well with Mushroom Wellington because Chardonnay loves to be paired with mushrooms and the creamy, even slightly buttery notes help echo the pastry while it all melts in your mouth.
Pro Tip: You can serve Beaujolais chilled (great summer picnic wine) and it’s a great segue red wine for those who normally prefer white wines. For both the Beaujolais and Chardonnay, I would recommend using a larger, rounder style of wine glass such as a Burgundy glass in order to experience the full flavour potential.
Sticky Toffee Pudding
On an everyday basis I am more of a “savoury over sweet” person but when the sweet tooth calls, it calls hard. Most sticky toffee pudding recipes use an overkill of sugar. Mine uses at least a cup less of sugar overall, but the depth of flavours in the cake, the toffee syrup and the candied pecans are so rich that you won’t miss it. I know, I know, there are several steps to this dessert but it is not difficult, just a bit laborious and I guarantee that it will be worth the effort.
1 ½ cups pitted dates (about 14-16 dates, I prefer Medjool because they’re the softest and silkiest in texture)
1 cup canned coconut milk, well-stirred
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
½-¾ tsp cinnamon
½ cup tightly packed brown sugar
½ cup canola or safflower oil (plus extra for greasing the pan)
2 tsp apple cider or white vinegar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
¼ to ½ cup icing sugar
Pinch of sea salt
2 cups raw pecans, roughly chopped
2-4 tsp water
1 ½ cups canned coconut milk, well stirred
¾ cups brown sugar (preferably dark)
5 tbsp vegan margarine
¼ tsp salt
Make the Pudding
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Place dates and coconut milk in a small pot. Bring to a gentle boil then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, mash dates and stir well, or blend in an upright blender until smooth, so that there are no clumpy bits of dates.
3. In a medium bowl whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. In a separate, larger bowl whisk the date mixture with brown sugar, oil, vinegar and vanilla. Add the flour mixture to the date mixture and blend slowly until just combined. Don’t over-mix, you know how finicky baking is!
4. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan lightly with oil. Fill the pan and bake for 18-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out relatively clean. It may still be moist but the toothpick should not be dripping in batter.
5. While the cake is baking, prepare the candied pecans.
Make the Pecans
1. Toss the sugar and salt together. Add pecans and mix. Add water 1 teaspoon at a time, tossing until well coated, adding extra water if sugar isn’t sticking to pecans. Spread onto a baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes Alternatively, you can put the pecans into the oven for the last 10-12 minutes of the pudding’s bake time.
2. Remove pecans and pudding from the oven. Let cool while you prepare glaze.
Make the Glaze
1. In a medium pot combine all ingredients. Bring to a boil then reduce to medium-low heat and cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally until thickened.
2. Prick the pudding with a toothpick over the entire surface so the glaze can soak into it. Pour half of the glaze over the pudding top, letting it soak into the cake. Reserve the remainder to pour over individual servings, and top with candied pecans.
3. Serve and watch your guests swoon.
Jen’s Perfect Pairings:
This is one of my all-time favourite desserts, reminding me of Christmas. This pudding is rich and flavourful so it can handle fuller, richer and sweeter styles of dessert wine.
The possibilities are endless, but I do love to play off the toffee notes in this dessert, so my value wine is a PX Sherry (Pedro Ximenez is the grape) from Spain. The wine itself has toffee, candied figs, dates and nut flavours along with a creamy texture. This is a match made in dessert heaven and can be found at a reasonable price.
An alternative wine is my splurge suggestion of a lovely German or Canadian Icewine. Icewine is costly to make as the grapes must stay on the vine until winter, and then whatever grapes are still there to pick after all the cute animals have been snacking on them, are pressed frozen creating liquid gold. Icewines age extremely well because they have a high amount of acidity and sugar. They can also develop candied fruit and honey notes with some bottle age.
Pro Tip: I would serve the PX Sherry slightly chilled and the ice wine well chilled in a pretty little glass with about two fingers worth (or two ounces each).
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