You know I’m tireless in trying to find more ways to talk about wine. And with Cinco de Mayo coming up, I figured it was a good time to dispel the myth that wine and Mexican food don’t go together.
I’m as guilty as anyone else. When I’m in a Mexican restaurant, I usually order beer or a Margarita. It’s partly because I don’t find much of a wine selection in a lot of restaurants. And I haven’t seen any wine from Mexico here in D.C. (although there is quite a lot of it made), but plenty of Mexican beers and, of course tequila. So if I’m channeling my inner slow-food geek and looking toward a “what grows together, goes together” sort of pairing, beer and tequila-based drinks seem like a natural combination.
But taking a look at the food itself, there are a few reasons why people stay away from wine in Mexican restaurants, other than Sangria:
1) With some notable exceptions, what we get to eat here in most of the U.S. is Tex-Mex food, not real Mexican food. Mexico is a big country, with a huge, diverse population and cuisine. And like the U.S., it’s a nation of immigrants, particularly from Europe and East Asia, and the regional cuisines of Mexico have a lot of those culinary influences combined with the native flavors.
But Tex-Mex food, while delicious, is a lot less varied. If you think about it, it’s like other cuisines that got adapted to ingredients in a new country. In the case of Tex-Mex food, it was the attempt of Mexican workers in the American southwest to recreate the foods of their country without access to all the ingredients they needed. The result? Pretty simple combinations of meats, cheese, and beans with some hot peppers for indeterminate heat. And beer is a good match – cold and crisp to cut through the richness of the food and tame the heat a bit.
2) Even when we get Mexican food that’s more authentic, much of it is pretty acidic. In addition to lime, which is used as an ingredient and also a condiment to brighten up flavors, ingredients like tomatoes, and especially tomatillos, can be pretty tart (even when you roast them to caramelize what little sugar the tomatillos have). If you’ve tried to pair wine with acidic foods, you know you have to go to something pretty crisp. While the average Mexican restaurant might have one or two wines that would work, like Sauvignon Blancs or Pinot Gris, or even Alsatian or German Rieslings, many don’t. It’s easier to stick to beer, which has the acidity to stand up to the food.
3) If you’re trying to use your Wine 101 training and match the intensity of a wine to the food you’re pairing it with, Mexican food throws you a curve: the chiles. Say you have some kind of flavorful braised meat, like beef or lamb, in a chile sauce. You might think that a big Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot would work. But the tannins in wines like those – especially California or Bordeaux wines – combine with the chiles to taste, well, not good. Both tannins and capcaisin, the chemical that gives chiles their heat, are phenolic compounds, so they have some basic chemical structure in common. When they interact, the capsaicin gets boosted at the expense of flavor chemicals and what you get is heat. Sometimes a lot of it. And without a lot of other flavor. Once you’ve been burned by this – literally – you don’t want to try it again.
But, as I mentioned, Mexican cooking has a lot of wonderful flavors and it does pair with wines. The key to pairing red wine with chiles is to go for less tannins and more fruit or earthy flavors rather than going heavy on the spiciness in the wine. And for white wines, avoiding oakiness and creaminess is key. Stick to crisper wines, even ones with a bit of residual sweetness work well. You don’t want the wine to taste sweet per se, but a little hint of sweetness in with the tang and the heat of the food is a nice balance. Even better if there’s some citrus fruit and a little floral note too, which enhances the spiciness of the food.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you’ve figured out where I’m going with this, right? Three words: Southern Rhône Wines. Grenache-based reds are low in tannins and have a great earthiness to them. The Syrah blended in has some fruit and a tiny bit of pepper, but still not a lot of tannins. Plus the reds even have a little acidity, which definitely helps with the salsa end of things. And the white wine blends, with Bourboulenc for acidity, White Grenache for citrus fruits, and Viognier for floral notes and perhaps a tiny bit of residual sweetness give you pretty much everything you need. The rosés also work with spicy foods because of their fresh fruit flavors, and have enough acidity to stand up to the tomatillos, too.
Besides, it’s fitting to drink French wine on Cinco de Mayo. The day commemorates a May 5, 1862 battle in which the Mexican army defeated their French occupiers in the state of Puebla. And to the victors go the pleasures of plundering the losers’ supplies (and this being the French army, those supplies were bound to include wine…) In the 1860s, France was the world’s biggest wine producer, and wine was France’s leading export after textiles – the building of the railroad system throughout France in the 1850s assured that wine could easily reach the ports and go out to the world. So I think we can safely assume that the Mexican army would have had plenty of French wine to drink to toast their victory. No reason we shouldn’t do the same!
These days, we’re lucky to have great authentic Mexican food in many parts of the U.S., both in restaurants and ingredients in our grocery stores. And chefs/cookbook authors like Rick Bayless and Zarela Martinez have made it possible for us to make Mexican food at home even if we have to substitute some things. There is a huge variety of ingredients in Mexican food, including ones like mushrooms you might not have thought of. Since mushrooms are a great pairing for Grenache, I decided to look in cookbooks and online and assemble a recipe featuring them. These Spinach, Mushroom, and Tofu Enchiladas are pretty easy to make, and feature two different chile flavors to give you enough spice without being overwhelming.
Traditional Mexican enchiladas are literally tortillas dipped in a chile sauce. They can be filled or topped with ingredients. If there’s cheese in or on the enchiladas, it’s used sparingly, like a small final grating of Parmesan cheese on Italian food. These are filled with a mixture of sautéed mushrooms, onion, and tofu, with spinach tossed in the pan at the end to wilt it. You can substitute diced chicken for the tofu if you like, but I wanted to make these vegetarian since I’ve been going pretty heavy on meat recipes in this blog lately. The sauce is made from diced tomatoes and contains one fresh jalapeño and one canned chipotle chile, and is pretty thin compared to most salsa in a jar. Chipotle is smoked jalapeño and is usually sold canned in adobo sauce, which is tomato/vinegar based. The smokiness of the chipotle also works with Grenache-based wines. The cheese on top is queso fresco, a salty fresh cheese that’s crumbly and mild-tasting and doesn’t really melt. I can find it in my local supermarket, but if you can’t, use any cheese you like on top.
The wine for the enchiladas is a classic medium-bodied Southern Rhône Red: Cave la Vinsobraise Grenat ($13). It goes well with barbecue, too – lots of earthiness, a little ripe fruit and spice, and very smooth going down. It makes the mushrooms taste more mushroom-y. You won’t want to miss it.
¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo a Todos!
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (regular button mushrooms are fine)
1 large onion, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced thinly
1 roasted poblano pepper, cut into small pieces (see note below)
¾ cup extra-firm tofu, cut in ¼-inch dice (about 3-4 ounces)
1 9 or 10-ounce bag of fresh baby spinach
2 14.5 ounce cans fire-roasted diced tomato, drained and liquid reserved
1 14.5 ounce can vegetable broth
3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 fresh jalapeño chile, stem cut off and the pepper cut into small chunks
1 canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup sour cream (full fat or low fat)
12 small corn tortillas
Vegetable oil spray
1 cup crumbled Queso Fresco
¼ cup finely chopped onion or scallions
For the sauce – combine the drained tomatoes, garlic, salt, jalapeño and chipotle in a blender and blend until smooth. Scrape the sides down a couple of times. Heat the olive oil in a 3-quart saucepan that’s at least as wide as the tortillas (since you need to dip the tortillas in the sauce), then add the blended mixture, using a spatula to get it all out of the blender. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes or so, until very thick (you may want to use a splatter screen – a non-stick pan is good here), stirring occasionally. Add the vegetable stock and about a quarter cup of the reserved tomato liquid. Bring to a boil again, and simmer for 20 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the sour cream. Cover the saucepan and set aside. (You can do this ahead, just gently reheat the sauce before using).
For the filling – heat the olive oil in a large non-stick skillet until it’s shimmering and almost smoking. Add the mushrooms and spread them out in as close to a single layer as possible. Let them sit for at least 30 seconds, closer to a minute, so they brown on the bottom side. Then use a spatula to flip them around and let them sit another minute. Stir in the onion and tofu, along with some salt, and sauté until the onion is soft. Add the spinach and stir it in to wilt. Cover the pan and set the filling aside.
For the tortillas – spray the bottom of a skillet with vegetable oil spray and heat the skillet. Put in a tortilla, then spray the top of it with the vegetable oil spray. Leave it for 30 seconds or so, then flip it over and let it heat for another few seconds. It should be pliable. Repeat with the other tortillas. Stack the tortillas on a plate as you heat them, then cover them with foil to keep them warm.
To assemble the enchiladas – using your hands, pick up one tortilla by the edge and dip it into the warm sauce. Put it down on a plate, and put a small portion of the filling on it (no more than a quarter cup). Roll up the enchilada, and put it on a dinner plate to serve. Put three enchilada on each dinner plate. Top with about a quarter cup of enchilada sauce, then a tablespoon of onions or scallions, and a quarter cup of crumbled Queso Fresco. Serve hot.
Note on roasted poblanos: It’s sometimes possible to find roasted poblano peppers in a jar. If not, you can roast a poblano pepper under the broiler or right on a gas burner. Get it good and charred all over, then put it in a bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. After it cools enough to handle, scrape off the charred skin, cut out the seed pod, then slice up the roasted pepper.