Enjoy Experiments with Holiday Food and Wine

October may seem early to think about holiday parties, but an evening featuring fall appetizers at Fresh Starts Chef Events brought out people ahead of the curve. Chefs Rocky Packard and Jacques Kirk led hands-on cooking while Ziggy the Wine Gal talked about wine pairing and offered some of her favorite bottles from the Benziger Family Winery.

Ziggy the Wine Gal - photo by Neely Wang

Ziggy the Wine Gal and Chef Rocky Packard at Fresh Starts Chef Events

Her wine pairing philosophy? Experiment. Continually educate and expand your palate to become aware of the flavors and textures of the ingredients in your food. Ziggy suggests visiting farmers’ markets where you can touch, smell and sometimes taste fresh produce. This will help you identify food characteristics – for example, the highly sweet Fuji apple versus the mildly sweet, juicy golden delicious. This knowledge directly translates to knowing what wine to pair with your foods.

Ziggy also emphasized that it’s not grandmother’s era anymore, so break out of the ‘white wine for fish, red for meat’ mentality. When this adage was born, consumers weren’t as educated nor were there as many wine varieties available. So don’t be afraid to try Pinot Noir with a chicken or pork dish or, as she did recently, a rib-eye steak with a strong-bodied Chardonnay.

Wines from Benziger Family Winery

Lineup of Ziggy’s favorites from Benziger Family Winery

Another change from grandma’s era is the introduction of diverse ethnic foods, especially from the Far East and Africa. These cuisines provide both a challenge – and opportunity – for wine pairing. At first, Ziggy says she didn’t think she could pair wines with spicy Thai or Indonesian dishes. But by learning the characteristics of the food flavors and experimenting, she found wines that go well with these dishes. Ethiopian restaurants, popular on the East Coast, are making their mark here. Through trial and error, Ziggy found that an aromatic white such as a Riesling or Gewürztraminer pairs well with this spicy food. Another win is pairing Zinfandel with East Indian food. The spice in both is a match made in heaven, Ziggy says.

Ziggy the Wine Gal - photo by Neely Wang

Ziggy encourages experimenting and tasting to find the best pairings

When asked what was the most unusual request she had heard, she rightly pointed out that it really depends on where you are. What may be unusual in one place may not be in another. While putting ice cubes in wine will make a sommelier cringe, that may just be the ‘right’ thing to do in warm places like New Orleans.

And that is one of Ziggy’s key points. Wine pairing is all about what works for you; not what is ‘supposed’ to work according to the experts. So have fun – and experiment!

East Indian Pakoras  - photo by Neely Wang

East Indian Pakoras paired with a Zinfandel — 2011 Benziger Estate, Joaquin’s Inferno, Sonoma Mountain

To put Ziggy’s philosophy to the test, try this recipe from Chef Rocky for East Indian Pakoras with Tamarind Chutney and experiment with some wine choices. Enjoy!  — Contributed by Gary Lam with photos by Neely Wang.

East Indian Pakoras with Tamarind Chutney — Makes 35 to 40 pieces

1 butternut squash, peeled and cut in ¼ inch slices
1 head of cauliflower, cut in flowerets

For the batter:
2 cups chickpea flour
½ cup rice flour
2 teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon red chile powder
1½ cups water


  • For the batter, combine the dry ingredients and gradually add the water until you have a smooth consistency. This batter is better when made the day before – if possible, let sit overnight in a covered bowl in the refrigerator.
  • Bring the batter to room temperature before using.
  • Dip the pieces of squash and cauliflower in the batter and shake off the excess.
  • Fry in canola oil on medium-high heat (350°F) until golden brown.
  • Place on paper towels before serving.
  • Serve with tamarind chutney and cilantro chutney for dipping.

For the tamarind chutney:

1 cup tamarind purée
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger root
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons freshly chopped cilantro

Combine all ingredients except for the cilantro. Mix and check the seasoning.
Place chutney into a small bowl for dipping and garnish with the chopped cilantro.


About Fresh Starts Chef Events

Fresh Starts Chef Events offers a parade of presentations by celebrity chefs, cookbook authors and artisan producers in The Key Room. Visit the online calendar at http://bit.ly/FSchefevents for upcoming events. Our list of presenters includes luminaries from the worlds of food, wine and restaurants who share stories, demonstrate techniques and offer tips on making the most of our local bounty. You can register online for upcoming classes or call us for more details at 415-382-3363 x243. Proceeds from our events support shelter and job-training programs at Homeward Bound of Marin; learn more at www.hbofm.org and www.thekeyroom.com.
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