Kosher wine aficionados are probably familiar with the name Jeff Morgan. He started what has become the most successful kosher winery to open in California in the last decade: Covenant Wines. Covenant produces critically acclaimed, top-shelf wines from Napa Valley, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Russian River Chardonnay, and Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc.
However, many fans of Covenant Wines may not be aware that Jeff, in collaboration with his wife, Jodie, has written seven cookbooks.
Jeff Morgan has traveled a very circuitous route to becoming a kosher winemaker and food writer. He started his career as a professional saxophonist, and spent much of his early adulthood playing music in France. “When I was 34 I was working in Monte Carlo as the band leader at the Grand Casino, and I thought, ‘This music thing is not happening, I am making good money but not making art, and maybe I should do the other thing I love, which is wine.’”
Jeff moved back to the States and started working as a cellar worker at a Long Island winery. Two years later he left the winery to become a wine writer, first for a local newspaper, then as a freelancer for The New York Times; he eventually became an editor at the acclaimed magazine Wine Spectator. “In 1992 my first assignment at the Wine Spectator was to do the ‘the kosher wine story’ ... and that’s when I first started to learn how kosher wines were made.”
In 2000, Jeff left Wine Spectator, and with Jodie and their children moved to Napa Valley. Jeff started making a non-kosher rosé wine called SoloRosa, and was hired by specialty food purveyor Dean & Deluca to be its wine director. It was during this time that Jodie suggested to Jeff that he write a cookbook. So Jeff — with Jodie testing all of the recipes — wrote: “Dean & DeLuca, The Food and Wine Cookbook” (Chronicle Books 2002).
Jodie Morgan came to food writing from a very different background. Her first career was as social worker; she had a practice that focused on teenage girls and eating disorders. “In doing that, I learned a lot about nutrition, the powers of eating ... and the importance of family dining,” she says. These days, in addition to the food writing, Jodie runs the marketing and sales programs for Covenant Wines. In 2005-’06, Jodie was also the executive director for the American Institute of Wine and Food, serving as an ambassador of fine dining for that organization nationwide.
In 2002, at a meeting of the Napa Valley Jewish community, winemaker Leslie Rudd asked Jeff, “Why aren’t kosher wines better than they are?” Morgan says he decided then and there to make a great kosher wine from “the greatest wine region, Napa Valley,” because “Jews are thirsty for great wine.”
The Morgans, in partnership with Rudd, started producing their flagship wine, Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, the following year. According to Jeff, not only has Covenant been a successful wine, but working with Orthodox Jewish winemakers and vineyard workers has also helped his family develop a deeper sense of its own Judaism. “I never put on tefillin before Covenant,” says Jeff. “This wine has reconnected me and my family to our heritage.” Jeff and Jodie are currently writing their first kosher cookbook (scheduled to be published in 2015).
The Jewish Week recently sat down, via telephone, with the Morgans to get their thoughts on kosher food and wine, along with some tips and recipes for Passover:
JW: How did you become interested in kosher food?
Jodie: With the wine, we now have a lot of friends who keep kosher, and we always have entertained at home; and initially we’d have to serve tuna fish and frozen peas on paper plates. I got tired of not being able to host our friend in the same style that I cook for my other non-kosher guests. That inspired me to get a kosher kitchen. So I worked with the local Chabad rabbi, and I went out a bought everything… I felt like I was a young bride stocking up on a new kitchen. It’s made a huge difference in being able to invite people into our home.
What are your favorite Passover food traditions?
Jeff: I like the wine part.
Jodie: I like Jeff’s amazing matzah ball soup.
Jeff: While I embrace our traditions, I don’t like to do it the way everybody does it. I used to live in the south of France, and I love fish soup. One day I thought why don’t we use a fish stock instead of the chicken stock? Matzah ball fish soup is the way to go.
Turning to wine, you always give wine parings in your cookbooks. What do you think are the key elements in pairing wine to food?
Jeff: It’s really simple. It’s not about the color of the wine — red or white — it’s really about the style of the wine and the style of the food. Are you having a rich, full-bodied dish or are you having something lighter or fresher? In my experience, as a general rule, lighter, brighter, fresher wines go better with lighter foods; and richer, fuller wines — which tend to be on the red side — will go better with richer, full-bodied dishes. It’s a little more complicated than red meat goes with red wine, and white wine goes with fish, but there is something to that.
Yet if you’re having a rich dish, of say chicken, it should go equally well with either a rich white wine or a red wine. Poultry is the all-purpose pairer. But with something like a matzah ball soup — whether made with fish broth or chicken stock, I’d go with a lighter wine, a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc, for example. They’re both very different, and they’ll both go equally well, but each will make your dining experience a bit different.
What are your favorite kosher wines for the Four Cups?
Jeff: At Passover we drink a lot more than four cups, and we always have a huge selection of many of our favorite wines, which come from all over the world. In addition to our own wines, we are drink our associate winemaker’s [Jonathan Hajdu] wine, Brobdingnagian. His Petite Sirah would be a great choice.
We need to have white wine to go with the gefilte fish and the matzah ball fish soup. So in addition to Covenant Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, we might pick up a bottle of Domaine du Castel 2010 Chardonnay — it’s delicious. Goose Bay Sauvignon Blanc would also be very nice for the first couple of courses. When we get to the red meat how could I not drink a bottle of that fabulous Herzog Clone 6 Cabernet — that would be a great choice for a main course—and I would love to drink a bottle of Yatir Forrest, 2008 ... and a bottle of Yarden Rom.
We also like to drink our friends’ wines. Benyamin [Cantz of Four Gates Winery] has a Cabernet Franc that I absolutely love. I would also drink Shirah Wines, from our friends the Weiss brothers — they make a terrific Syrah.
Get the smallest cup certified by your rabbi, and use that for the four cups, so that you don’t get yourself drunk, and so you can enjoy many different kinds of wine with the meal. The seder is a meal that goes for hours and hours, and, at least in our home, it requires one or two bottles per person.
If you had one or two Passover cooking tips for Jewish Week readers, what would they be?
Jodie: It is so easy to get stressed out preparing for Passover if you don’t have that Passover kitchen. So I have two pieces of advice: One, plan and organize yourself so that you are not completely stressed; and two, relax and have a good time — it’s just cooking and eating, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s about friends and family and being together.
Jeff: My piece of advice is make sure you have enough good wine. ◆
Recipes From The Morgans
The Morgans were not willing to share their matzah ball fish soup recipe (which will be in their forthcoming cookbook), but they did share the following Passover-friendly recipes:
Braised Lamb Shanks
1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
4 tbsp. virgin olive oil
4 lamb shanks
1 large onion, diced
1 bulb fennel, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
3 cups dry red wine
1 quart chicken stock, canned or homemade
1 tsp. dried rosemary
4 fresh sage leaves
2 cups diced tomatoes, fresh or canned
1 head garlic
Soak the mushrooms in 1 cup warm water for 20 minutes. Reserve the liquid and strain through cheesecloth to remove grit. Dice the mushrooms and set them aside separately from their liquid. Set a Dutch oven or large ovenproof pot on stovetop over medium heat covering the bottom with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Lightly salt and pepper the lamb and brown on all sides in the oil. Remove the lamb from the pot and reserve, pouring out excess fat.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the pot and sauté onions, fennel, and carrots for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add the lamb shanks, mushrooms, and tomatoes and cook for 5 more minutes. Add the red wine and simmer, uncovered, for 5 more minutes, allowing the wine to reduce. Add the stock, mushroom liquid, rosemary, and sage, then cover and bake in the oven until the meat is very tender, 2 to 3 hours.
An hour before the meat is done, cut the garlic head in half horizontally (so that all the cloves are split in the middle) and wrap each half in aluminum foil. Set them in the oven on a rack to bake alongside the meat.
Use a slotted spoon to remove the lamb shanks from the braising liquid and set aside. Set the pot back on the stovetop and reduce the liquid over medium heat for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Remove the garlic from the oven, unwrap, and squeeze the soft garlic pulp into the braising liquid and vegetables. Stir throughout.
To serve, place the lamb shanks into shallow bowls. Spoon the braising liquid and vegetables over each shank.
Jeff suggests paring the lamb with a full-bodied red wine, such as their Covenant 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon or their RED C 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Flourless Chocolate Almond Torte with Fresh Strawberries
1/2 cup (4 oz./1 stick)
plus 1 tbsp. margarine (low salt)
1 cup almonds
8 oz. semisweet or bittersweet
chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1 cup granulated sugar
5 eggs, separated
1 tbsp. confectioners’ sugar
2 cups sliced strawberries
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform cake pan with the 1 tablespoon margarine. Line the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment paper. (You can find parchment paper cut to fit 9-inch pans at many well-stocked supermarkets, or trim a larger piece to fit.)
Using a food processor or blender, pulse the almonds until a coarse powder forms. It should retain some crunch. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, combine the chocolate and the remaining 1/2 cup margarine over low heat and heat, stirring frequently to prevent burning, until melted. Stir in the almond extract. Keep the mixture warm over very low heat until ready to use.
In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the egg yolks until blended. Add 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar in a slow, steady stream and beat for about 1 minute, or until the sugar is well incorporated and the mixture is thick and pale yellow. Set aside.
In a large bowl, using the electric mixer fitted with clean beaters, beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until they are foamy. Slowly add the remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar and continue to beat for about 1 minute, or soft, slightly stiff peaks form. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg yolk mixture into the egg whites. Add the ground almonds and stir to mix well. Pour in the melted chocolate and stir until the color is uniform throughout
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack to room temperature.
Unclip and lift away the pan sides, then gently turn the cake upside down onto a platter. Carefully remove the bottom of the baking pan, and peel off the parchment paper. Use a fine-mesh sieve to dust the top of the cake with the confectioners’ sugar.
To serve, cut the cake into wedges. Liberally top each serving with the strawberries.
Jeff recommends not pairing this torte with wine: “It’s a mistake to drink ... wine with a rich, complex dessert — especially chocolate, which I consider to be the number-one wine killer on the planet.” ◆