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Nov 24, 2009
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Wine With . . . Mint Pesto Lamb Chops

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

This is the season where we start thinking about decking the halls, planning holiday meals, and trying to remember where we stashed the gift wrap paraphernalia last year.  For us here in the mid-Atlantic region, it’s also the season to ready our small urban garden for winter.  We’ve already pulled the last of the tomato plants out of their pots on the roof deck, dead-headed some roses, and planted the pansies that will add cheer to the winter landscape.  As we were tidying up the herb garden, we decided to cut the leggy and rambunctious mint way back, which left us with an enormous bouquet of fresh, fragrant mint.  Reluctant to simply ditch all of it, we decided to make a pesto sauce based on mint rather than the traditional basil.  (Our basil plants were wiped out when temperatures took a sudden dive one night a few weeks ago).  We picked up some lamb chops at the market, and while they marinated in a bath of red wine, olive oil and garlic, we got to work on the pesto.  

Since we were diverging from convention anyway by using mint, we decided to take another step away from the traditional mix by substituting walnuts for pesto’s usual pine nuts.  Since we were seeking a smoother, mellower taste than the pungency of most pesto, we gave the walnuts a light toasting to reduce their natural slightly tannic bite.  The resulting minty, garlicky sauce was exactly what we’d hoped for, with bright, refreshing flavors (notably less herbaceous than basil-based pesto), and a smooth, nutty undercurrent.  This sauce supports the epicurean tradition of pairing lamb with mint, but is much tastier than the sweet mint jelly our grandparents favored with lamb.  And it certainly is more compatible with wine than that jelly could ever be. 

MINT PESTO

For variety (and depending on what your own garden might provide) you could throw a handful of basil, cilantro and/or parsley into the mix with the mint. 

1/3 cup walnut pieces

2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 packed cup (or more) coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves

Dash of cayenne

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup olive oil

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Spread the nuts out in a single layer on a pie plate or other small pan, and toast them (in a toaster oven or regular oven) until they are lightly browned.  Transfer them to a blender jar or food processor and add the garlic, mint, cayenne and salt.  Pulse until the nuts are well pulverized; then, with the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil.  Add the cheese and continue to pulse until mixture is well blended.  If it is too thick, drizzle in more olive oil.  Taste for seasoning.

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Here’s a case where expectations were fully realized.  When choosing wines to try with this delicious and quite elegant dish (try it at a dinner party), we figured that only red wines would have the heft to complement it, and expected that wines with a good amount of Cabernet in the blend would fare particularly well.  After all, a hint or echo of mint can be a quite common part of the flavor profile of many Cabernets.  Well, we were right.  Of the twelve wines we tried with our mint pesto lamb chops, three were Cabernet based.  Sadly, one of them (a red Bordeaux) turned out to be badly corked, but the remaining two rated highly among our favorites.  The other wines we’re recommending represent different varietals (Malbec, Petite Sirah, and Shiraz).  What distinguished them with this dish, however, was less the flavor coming from a particular grape than the presence of underlying earthy or herbal notes in all of them.  Much as with the Cabernet-based wines, the secondary characteristics proved just as important as the fruit-driven primary ones when the wines were paired with a dish that itself has multiple layers of flavor. 

  

Selection

Approx. Price

Comments

 

Santa Rita, Maipo Valley (Chile) Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserva” 2007

(Imported by Palm Bay International)

 

 

  $12

 

The least expensive wine we are recommending made for one of the best matches, due primarily to the minty, herbal undertones that enhanced its dark berry fruit.  Chilean Cabernets often display this sort of multi-layered flavor.  Their complexity is what can make them such a good buy,

 

 

 

Fairview, Swartland (South Africa) Shiraz “Jakkals Fontein” 2004

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)

 

 

  $36

 

An exceptionally compelling South African Shiraz, marked by both red and black fruit flavors as well as leathery notes and more than a whisper of dried herbs.  Its deep character emphasized the earthy, meaty qualities of the dish.

 

 

 

Hess Collection, Mount Veeder Napa Valley (California) “19 Block Cuvée” 2006

 

 

 $35

 

A blend of nearly 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, with smaller amounts of Malbec, Syrah, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc, this wine tasted bright and vivacious but, as often happens with reds from mountain vineyards in Napa, deep and satisfying as well.  As expected, it did display a slight hint of mint, especially in the bouquet.

 

 

 

Michel Torino, Cafayate Valley (Argentina) Malbec “Reserve” 2007

(Imported by Frederick Wildman)

 

 

  $17

 

Ripe and fleshy, this Malbec did not offer any minty notes, but it did finish with a sweet, herbal touch that resembled anise.  That’s what elevated it above wines whose sole appeal came from fruit.

 

 

 

Vina Robles, Paso Robles (California) Petite Sirah “Jardine” 2007

 

 

 

 $26

 

 

Not as tannic or rustic as many Petite Sirahs, this full-bodied wine tasted rich and complete.  It offers dark berry flavors. with echoes of savory spice and pepper adding nuanced complexity.