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You are invited to a dinner party and have been asked to bring wine. This simple request can send a person into a wine-selection dither.

My personal choice is typically bubbles. It’s versatile as a food pairing wine or for a celebratory toast. Easy.

But wait: you’ve been asked to bring a red wine, and to make matters worse, you have no idea what’s on the menu.

I stress no more in these situations. It’s become easy: my choice is malbec or a blend that is malbec-driven.

About 10 years ago, malbec began to appear at the table, and since then has moved from from near obscurity to its current status as one of the most popular red wines on the American market. I’ve heard it referred to by local wine and foodie friends as an easy drinking “gathering pleaser.” With gobs of voluptuous fruit flavors, it’s easy to savor. Well-known wine expert Jancis Robinson once described malbec as “the more rustic cousin of merlot.”

Born in France, where it’s typically used as a blending grade in famous Bordeaux blends, the malbec, we know nowadays, stands nicely on its own.

At last count, we have just over 50 wineries in the Napa Valley producing a full-on malbec. No telling how long it will take me to taste through this list. I can tell you that some recent stand-outs for me have come from Silverado Vineyards and Robinson Family Vineyards. By far, my favorite local blend is Ilsley Vineyards Seis Primas; it’s malbec-powered and blended with cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

One of the things that is so exciting about these wines is the ease with which one can enjoy them with food.

Characterized by colors ranging from a deep purple hue to an inky red, this wine decorates your glass. The aroma is explosive with characteristics ranging from dark tart cherry to plum, spice to black licorice, violets to clove.

Cheerful and fruit forward on the palate, this wine lends itself to pairings galore. Charcuterie, including smokey cured beef, and cheeseboards that might include light goat cheeses and more aromatic selections like Epoisses, mellow blues and even Stilton, come together over a glass of malbec.

Argentinian malbecs tend to offer hints of cocoa powder, leather and sweet tobacco.

I love malbec with endless entree options, from all-American to favorite ethnic cuisines. Don’t be afraid to try a daring pairing: salmon rillettes to satay skewers, a strawberry or beet salad. Aubergine bake and arancini di riso are great options. Carnitas, sushi, teppanyaki, medium heat curries, duck confit, Moroccan lamb tagine, cassoulet and a variety of other bean dishes all complement malbec. The classic cheeseburger, pork roast with a plum compote, barbecue beef or pork with a smoky chili based rub, savory sausages or herbed oven-roasted chicken are just some of the “All American” go-to dishes you can play with.

If you’d like to pair malbec or malbec blends with pasta, here are some helpful hints:

Pestos intense flavor is nicely complemented by malbec, but heavier tomato-based sauces may overwhelm the wine a bit. An easy fix would be to add some of the wine to your sauce. Master of Wine Tim Hanni’s advice, if your food adversely affects your wine, is to add salt or lemon (or both) to the food to bring it back into balance with the wine.

But with a bottle of malbec in hand, when you arrive at your dinner party, you can just smile, relax and mangia bene.

The next time it’s your turn to host the dinner party, here are a couple of recipes I enjoy serving when pouring malbec or a malbec-forward blend.

Melanzane Casserole

Serves 4

1 large eggplant

1 large ripe tomato cut into 8 equal slices

4 ounces smoked Provolone cheese cut into 8 equal pieces

Flour

Fresh minced garlic to taste

4 leaves fresh basil—cut in half

3 oz. grated fresh Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt

Large bowl of cold water with several ice cubes

Peel and cut ends from eggplant. Slice lengthwise into 12 thin pieces. Line shallow pan with waxed paper or parchment. Place eggplant slices in single layer. Sprinkle each piece slightly with sea salt. Set aside for 20 minutes.

Rinse slices and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Dip each slice into flour and then quickly in and out of ice water bath. Immediately drop each piece carefully into hot olive oil in large skillet. Cook for 1 minute on each side. Remove slices and place on brown paper or smooth kitchen towel (not terry) to remove excess oil.

Line ungreased individual baking cups. You can use deep ramekins or even a “Texas” sized muffin tin. Line each cup with 3 strips of eggplant each. When lining, make sure the bottoms are completely covered and that the ends of the egg plant fold out over the edge of the baking form or dish. You can also use a small casserole dish to prepare as one single dish to be divided when serving.

Add thin slices of tomato, a pinch of garlic, 1/2 leaf of basil, Provolone and a pinch of Parmesan. Repeat with a second layer in the same order. Gently press down into baking form. Alternately fold over the “flaps” of the eggplant to cover the top and press down lightly.

If using individual baking cups, place them into small shallow pan before placing into oven. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. If you are preparing this casserole-style, bake for approximately 30 minutes.

Allow to cool slightly to set and invert onto individual warm serving dishes or platter. My preferred presentation, individual servings.

Enjoy as its own starter course or as a side dish.

Pasta con Pesto

Serves 6

8 ounces of uncooked mini penne pasta

1 1/4 cups fresh green beans (select smallest and thinnest for best flavor)

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

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1 cup slice black olives

2 1/2 cups purple or red potatoes (approximately 3 medium)

1 1/4 cups fresh pesto (recipe follows)

Prepare your fresh pesto and refrigerate until 30 minutes before serving.

Trim off ends of green beans and cut into halves or thirds.

Boil potatoes in lightly salted water until just for tender. You want to be able to cut them into cubes when cooled off. Set potatoes aside to cool. Peel off skins and cut potatoes into bit sized cubes. Keep in the refrigerator until 30 minutes prior to adding to your pasta dish.

Cook pasta al dente, according to package directions. While pasta is cooking, bring butter to a foam in a large fry pan. When foaming, add green beans and cook over medium head until just fork tender. Stir often.

Drain pasta, do not rinse, and return to a warm pot. Immediately add room-temperature cubed potatoes, olives and green beans. Add room-temperature pesto, toss well and warm for only 5 minutes before serving on warmed plates or platter.

The secret for success is the best olive oil. I highly recommend Grove 45 or Dickson Ranch Regina.

Pesto

3 small bunches fresh basil

1 clove minced garlic

Pinch sea salt

1 heaping Tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 heaping Tbsp. freshly grated Pecorino cheese

1 heaping Tbsp. pine nuts

6 ounces extra virgin olive oil

Wash and dry basil. Remove leaves from stem. Discard stems.

Combine all ingredients in food processor and whip until creamy. If the mixture is too thick, add a few drops of hot water and whip again. Can be stored several days or frozen.

Hint: Make a large batch, freeze in ice cube trays. Remove cubes when frozen and store in small zip lock bags in freezer. Use individual cubes as desired. Each cube is approximately 1/4 cup.

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Diane De Filipi lives in the Napa Valley and leads cooking tours to Italy and Burgundy, France. Visit letsgocookitalian.com or ila-chateau.com/cook-italian for more information.

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